Analysis: Will COVID-19 cause food shortages in the United States?

National Guard COVID-19The food supply chain in the United States has so far been able to endure the pressures caused by SARS-CoV-2. Grocery stores across the nation remain generally well-stocked, even if in some cases (like in Nevada and Arizona), the National Guard has been brought in to help with restocking. Shortages in certain types of foods, such as canned soup or pasta, are the result of unprecedented demand, rather than a breakdown in the food supply chain. Overall, therefore, there are no signs of systematic food shortages across the nation. However, disruptions —some of them severe— are likely to be experienced in the coming weeks.

COVID-19 IMPACT ON FARMS

Disruptions are likely to be felt first in the area of fresh produce, for two reasons. First, because large agricultural facilities are beginning to experience major shortages in personnel, as seasonal farmworkers —most of them from Central and South America— are unable to travel north due to the cessation of international travel in the Americas. Second, because —just like medical personnel across the country— agricultural workers are facing severe shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), which is essential for keeping them healthy in a pandemic. Until now, major Q QuoteCOVID-19 outbreaks have been occurring in densely populated urban centers. But as the disease continues to spread, it is only a matter of time before the virus reaches rural farming areas and enters farms, which are the beginning of the food supply chain. Many automated agricultural facilities, such as grain and soybean operations in the American Midwest, do not require large numbers of human laborers, and will thus suffer little disruption from the spread of the pandemic. However, this is not the case with fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes or grapes, which require human pickers to extract them. The progression of the disease in rural regions of Florida and California, which produce over 20% of total US agricultural value, will be a critical factor. As an illustration, is worth pointing out that two farms in California supply over 85% of all carrots in the US market. If COVID-19 affects the production and distribution capacity of global producers of fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Florida-based Fresh Del Monte Produce, the ramifications are likely to be felt across the world for more than a year.

AGRICULTURAL DISRUPTIONS IN WESTERN EUROPE

Western Europe, which is ahead of the US in the spread of the disease, is already experiencing unprecedented disruptions in agricultural production. The closing of international borders has prevented millions of seasonal farmworkers from Eastern Europe, whom agricultural facilities in Western Europe rely on to pick fruits and vegetables each year, from traveling west. Italy and Britain havQ Quotee begun issuing calls for unemployed workers to form “land armies” and volunteer to pick produce in farms. The French government has called “for hairdressers, waiters, florists and others temporarily unable to work” due to the pandemic “to head to the nation’s fields and start picking”. And in Germany, the authorities have launched a website that solicits volunteers to work in farms across the nation. However, as only 16,000 have volunteered so far, the German government is now working on a plan to allow undocumented immigrants to make up the remaining 284,000 farmworkers that are needed to salvage this year’s crop.

DISRUPTION IN THE GLOBAL FOOD EXPORT SYSTEM

It is unrealistic to expect that these glitches will not eventually make their way to the US. Moreover, just like Western Europe, the US relies heavily on imported foods. The global nature of the pandemic is also beginning to cause major disruptions in food exports, as air and ship cargo dwindles dramatically. Already, the shortage of refrigerated containers used to transport meat and other food supplies from China to North America has prompted a drop in imports of over 25%. Meanwhile, India, which is the world’s largest exporter of rice, has completely halted exports due to logistical problems and labor shortages caused by the pandemic. The world’s second and third largest exporters of rice, Thailand and Vietnam, are likely to soon follow suit. Kazakhstan, which is among the world’s largest exporters of wheat flour, has now banned all exports of that product. Brazil, the largest exporter of coffee, sugar and soybeans in the world, has warned that it is facing an unprecedented shortage of farmworkers, truck drivers, and even spare parts for farm equipment. And Russia, which is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, has said that it will soon be forced to severely restrict exports for the same reasons as Brazil. These developments prompted the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to warn last week that food shortages, coupled with growing trade barriers between nations, “will create extreme volatility” in global food supply. Read more of this post

Coronavirus: Comparing America’s bungling fiasco with Taiwan’s stunning success

Coronavirus Task ForceThe coronavirus (COVID-19) is quickly becoming the greatest security challenge of our time. The ease of transmission and high death rate of this disease, coupled with the asymmetric challenges it poses to our planet’s social, economic and political structures, threaten the very cohesion of our global system. This is especially true of Western societies, whose highly sophisticated organizational features make them especially susceptible to all forms of large-scale disruption. Few of those of us who are alive today in the West have ever faced a threat with the all-encompassing characteristics, disruptive capacity and persistent nature of COVID-19.

But no American would get this impression by watching the daily briefings of the so-called White House “Coronavirus Task Force”. The uncomfortable smiles and awkward acquiescence of its members, part of an unconvincing effort to assure Americans that “all is well”, coupled with their seemingly unending competition to offer lavish praises to each other, make for a truly uncomfortable viewing experience. Such astounding manifestations of mediocrity would be somewhat tolerable if they came alongside actionable information that Americans could use to protect themselves and the future of their country —preferably something beyond “washing your hands for at least 20 seconds”.

On February 26, Americans were told by their president that “within a couple of days [COVID-19 cases in the US would] be down close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done”. By that time, China was feverishly implementing the largest quarantine in human history. Ten days later, Italy began to quarantine 16 million people —a quarter of its population— in its northern regions. Meanwhile, Britain has begun re-hiring retired nurses to prepare for the coming unprecedented wave of medical emergencies, while France has banned all large meetings in its territory. But in America it’s business as usual: the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced on Sunday that all its tournament games nationwide will be held with fans despite growing concerns about the coronavirus. Not a single senior government official has stepped forward to address Americans’ growing anxiety about the potentially unprecedented degree of disruption that the US economy, including the nation’s supply chain, healthcare, transportation, education, entertainment, and services sectors are going to be experiencing in the coming months.

Additionally, Americans expect the so-called “Task Force” to provide non-politicized explanations of the ongoing failures of the US government’s treatment to the COVID-19 crisis, which continue to allow the virus to spread in our communities unabated. For instance, why did the US decline to use the World Health Organization’s diagnostic test for the disease, which had been made available to dozens of nations by the end of January? Or why does access to testing kits remain at alarmingly low levels, so much so that a frustrated New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently described the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s response to COVID-19 as “flat-footed”? So grave is this situation, that on March 8 The Washington Examiner —arguably America’s leading conservative publication— opined that COVID-19 “is exposing how deeply unsuited [Donald Trump] is to deal with a genuine crisis that he can’t bluff his way through”.

The American government’s tragically incompetent response to COVID-19 (at this point just slightly better than the Islamic Republic of Iran’s) hurts even more when one compares it with that of Taiwan —an island nation of 23 million, which the US often views as a client state. In January, when COVID-19 began making news headlines, experts predicted that Taiwan would end up with the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. This was primarily due to the country’s geographical proximity to mainland China —just 81 miles from the Chinese shore— as well as the extensive transportation network that links the two nations. Over 1.2 million Taiwanese either live permanently or work in China, while nearly 3 million Chinese citizens visit Taiwan every year. Even more ominously, the COVID-19 outbreak occurred right before the Lunar New Year, which is the busiest travel season for both Chinese and Taiwanese holidaymakers.

But Taiwan has managed to spectacularly defy all early predictions about a potential COVID-19 epidemic. As a group of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, Stanford University, RAND Corporation and the Koo Foundation in Taiwan, explain in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the reason dates back to 2003. That year’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak prompted the Taiwanese government to establish the National Health Command Center (NHCC). Since then, the NHCC has operated as a central command system that coordinates the activities of Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center, the Biological Pathogen Disaster Command Center, the Counter-Bioterrorism Command Center, and the Central Medical Emergency Operations Center. Intelligence collected and analyzed by these centers is quickly distributed to central, regional and local authorities in all parts of the country.

The authors explain that, on December 31, the day when the World Health Organization notified national authorities of the first accounts of a severe pneumonia with unknown causes in the Chinese city of Wuhan, NHCC personnel began to board planes arriving from Wuhan. They began testing all passengers and crew on those planes for flu-like symptoms before allowing them to deplane. By January 5, NHCC personnel were reaching out to anyone who had traveled to Wuhan in the past fortnight and testing them for flu-like symptoms. By that time, the NHCC had already set up a nationwide toll-free hotline, which has since become decentralized to serve individual regions.

On January 27, the NHCC worked in collaboration with Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) to integrate the database containing the recent travel history of passengers with their NHIA identification card data. They also integrated the same database with national tourism and immigration data. Within 24 hours, the NHCC was reaching out to all citizens of Taiwan, as well as tourists and immigrants, who had traveled to the Wuhan region during the previous month. Using this big-data analytics approach, Taiwanese authorities were able to generate real-time alerts that were sent to individual doctors for use during clinical visits, so that clinical symptoms could be matched with patients’ travel histories.

Those who had traveled to regions of China that were considered high-risk, were immediately quarantined at home for 14 days. Their movements were tracked through their mobile phones to ensure compliance with quarantine instructions. Meanwhile, all those who exhibited flu-like symptoms but had tested negative for influenza in weeks prior, were re-tested for COVID-19.

Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that, by March 9, Taiwan —located just 81 miles off the coast of China— had just 45 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with a single death. Importantly, this is not because the Taiwanese are not testing their citizens —unlike the US or, even more outrageously, Turkey, which continues to report zero cases of COVID-19. Taiwan has tested more people than all of the nations of the Americas combined. The low number of COVID-19 cases in Taiwan is due to one thing, and one thing alone: a preemptive approach to the security of the nation by an enlightened leadership and a forward-thinking government system. Which is precisely what the US lacks at this grave time for the nation’s future.

* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is associate professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University in the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 March 2020 | Permalink

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Analysis: Soleimani’s killing was tactically flawless, but was it strategically wise?

Qasem SoleimaniBy assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a Shia celebrity and the Middle East’s most influential military leader, US President Donald Trump has made the most fateful decision of his presidency to date. Tehran has no option but to respond. When it does, the way that Mr. Trump and his administration handle the situation will largely determine the future of the Middle East and the fate of his presidency. In the meantime,Quote it is becoming increasingly clear that victory, if and when it comes, will not be unblemished for whomever claims it.

Mr. Trump’s decision to assassinate General Soleimani was shocking because it was unexpected. It must be remembered that, not only has this president based his entire political program on his desire to end America’s decades-long military engagement in the Middle East, but he had also in recent months signaled his desire to negotiate with Tehran. In the summer he said he wanted to “make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want”, adding that no regime change was necessary. In December, following a surprise prisoner exchange between the US and Iran, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”. The news prompted one notable expert to speak of “a very positive step, because it’s the first time under the Trump Administration that Iran and the US have agreed on anything”. That was on December 8, just 25 days before Soleimani’s Quoteassassination. And yet, while publicly thanking Iran, Trump was likely formulating plans to kill its leading general.

Why did the president do it? To some extent, one should not dismiss his argument that he wanted to put an end to the slow tit-for-tat escalation of tensions in the Middle East, before it boiled over. He wanted to make Iran listen. Writing in The Washington Times just hours after Soleimani’s assassination, former CIA official Charles Faddis noted that Mr. Trump’s decision honored US President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Your adversary is more willing to listen to you if he is able to “see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it”, wrote Faddis. A few hours later, David Petraeus, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, described Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani as “a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 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: Who was behind the raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid?

North Korea SpainAn obscure North Korean dissident group was most likely behind a violent raid on North Korea’s embassy in Madrid on February 22, which some reports have pinned on Western spy agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency. The group, known as the Cheollima Civil Defense, is believed to be the first North Korean resistance organization to declare war on the government of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

THE ATTACK

The attack took place at 3:00 in the afternoon local time in Aravaca, a leafy residential district of northern Madrid, where the embassy of North Korea is located. Ten assailants, all Southeast Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff, as well as three North Korean architects who were visiting the facility at the time. But one staff member hid at the embassy. She eventually managed to escape from a second-floor window and reach an adjacent building that houses a nursing home. Nursing home staff called the police, who arrived at the scene but had no jurisdiction to enter the embassy grounds, since the premises are technically North Korean soil. When police officers rang the embassy’s doorbell, an Asian-looking man appeared at the door and Q Quote 1said in English that all was fine inside the embassy. But a few minutes later, two luxury cars belonging to the North Korean embassy sped away from the building with the ten assailants inside, including the man who had earlier appeared at the front door.

Once they entered the embassy, Spanish police found eight men and women tied up, with bags over their heads. Several had been severely beaten and at least two had to be hospitalized. The victims told police that the assailants were all Korean, spoke Korean fluently, and had kept them hostage for nearly four hours. But they refused to file formal police complaints. The two diplomatic cars were later found abandoned at a nearby street. No money was taken by the assailants, nor did they seem interested in valuables of any kind. But they reportedly took with them an unknown number of computer hard drives and cell phones belonging to the embassy staff. They also stole an unknown quantity of diplomatic documents, according to reports.

POSSIBLE FOREIGN CULPRITS

Within a few hours, Spanish police had reportedly ruled out the possibility that the assailants were common thieves, arguing that the attack had been meticulously planned and executed. Also, common thieves would have looked for valuables and would not have stayed inside the embassy for four hours. Within a week, several Spanish newspapers, including the highly respected Madrid daily El País and the Barcelona-based El Periodico, pinned the raid on Western intelligence services. They cited unnamed police sources who claimed that at least two of the assailants had been identified and found to have links with the CIA. The reports also cited claims by embassy employees that the attackers interrogated them extensively about Soh Yun-sok, North Korea’s former ambassador to Madrid. Soh became Pyongyang’s chief nuclear negotiator after he was expelled by the Spanish government in 2017 in protest against North Korea’s nuclear missile tests. Read more of this post

Analysis: Strasbourg attack raises serious security concerns in Europe

StrasbourgThe terrorist attack in the French city of Strasbourg on December 11 raises important security concerns for Europe’s ability to defend itself against a rapidly evolving Islamist insurgency. The attack lasted 10 minutes, from 7:50 to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening, and targeted shoppers in Christkindelsmärik, a large Christmas market held annually in Strasbourg. The lone shooter, who has since been identified as Chérif Chekatt, a French citizen, was reportedly heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) repeatedly as he opened fire on the unsuspecting shoppers. He also tried to stab some of them using a knife. Chekatt eventually exchanged fire with French soldiers and officers of the National Police before fleeing the scene of the attack in a taxi cab. Three people were declared dead at the scene, while 12 others were urgently transported to nearby hospitals. Six of them remain in critical condition. Chekatt remained at large until Thursday evening, when he was shot dead by police in Strasbourg.

It is important to stress that the choice of Strasbourg as the site of the terrorist strike was not accidental, nor was the attack spontaneous. A city and of nearly 500,000 inhabitants in its greater district, Strasbourg is one of the European Union’s de facto capitals. It hosts several European institutions, including the building of the European Parliament. Its geographical location on the French-German border epitomizes the crossroads of Franco-German cultural traditions. Its distinct character symbolizes the coexistence of Europe’s two leading powers, which forms the cornerstone of the European Union project. The majority of Strasbourg’s residents are bilingual and communicate in Alsacien, a peculiar mixture of French and German. The city also exemplifies a distinctive brand of 21st-century Christian unity through the balanced coexistence of Catholic and Protestant religious cultures. The Christkindelsmärik —the venue that was attacked on Tuesday— is Europe’s largest Christmas market and symbolizes precisely that coexistence. Providing that Tuesday’s attack was sanctioned and/or planned by the Islamic State or one of its affiliate organizations, its strong symbolism is apparent.

As Washington Examiner commentator Tom Rogan noted on Wednesday, it appears that the perpetrator of the attack was able to acquire a semi-automatic weapon, as well as grenades. Unlike the United States, accessing these types of weapons in Western Europe is exceedingly difficult. This is so especially in France, a country that has remained in a perpetual state of heightened security since the Paris attacks of November 2015. It is even more perplexing that Chekatt was able to acquire this type of weaponry, given that his name featured on the terrorism watch lists of France’s security and intelligence services. Additionally, says Rogan, one of the operational trademarks of the Islamic State centers on adhering to a sharp division between its arms procurement networks and the individuals who carry out terrorist attacks. This means that a wider Islamist network in France, Switzerland or Germany, was able to armed and possibly trained Chekatt in Europe, since the attacker is not believed to have visited the Middle East or North Africa.

Rogan also points out that Chekatt —a French-born 29-year-old petty criminal— was radicalized while serving time in prison. This raises important questions about Salafist-Jihadi radicalization networks inside Western European prison systems. The security implications of this realization inevitably widens the security considerations of Europe’s counterterrorism agencies. The latter have so far focused primarily on the danger posed by the return of European Islamic State volunteers from the Middle East. The problem, however, appears to be more complicated.

Ultimately, the Strasbourg attack demonstrates that, despite several years of concerted efforts, the ability of European counterterrorism agencies to prevent strikes by Islamist groups on European soil is limited. Meanwhile, European streets are busy during the Christmas season, with indoor and outdoor markets and festivals, concerts, as well as a host of religious observances taking place in thousands of different locations across the continent. Should Tuesday’s attack in Strasbourg mark the beginning of a sustained terrorism campaign by the Islamic State, December could prove to be a deadly month in Europe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2018 | Permalink

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

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?

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