Analysis: Russia did meddle in US election, but its goal was not to elect Trump

Trump 2016No person familiar with the theory and practice of intelligence will be shocked by allegations that Russia interfered in the recent American presidential election. On the contrary, the claim will strike experienced observers as a textbook case of covert operation —an intelligence activity designed to influence foreign political, military or economic developments. Far from being physically violent, most covert operations involve actions like secretly funding political parties, planting misinformation or propaganda in foreign media outlets and —in more extreme cases— bribing or extorting key political actors. During the Cold War, hardly a national election took place without attracting the covert attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its Soviet equivalent, the KGB. This practice continues today, as nearly every intelligence agency engages in covert operations of some form or other.

It would thus be extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election. To not have done so would mean that the Russian intelligence apparatus failed to abide by its mission statement. Such an eventuality would be unthinkable, especially given the size and importance of the target. It should therefore be presumed that Russian spy agencies, in particular the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, engaged in systematic efforts to meddleq-quote in last month’s US election. Indeed, the opposite would be strange.

The view that Russian spy agencies interfered in the US presidential election does not, for the moment, rely on publicly available evidence. The latter remains absent, though it is worth noting that, according to The Washington Post, US intelligence agencies concluded “with high confidence” that Russia meddled in the campaign over many months. It is always wise to treat claims in the media by unnamed “US officials” with some skepticism. But if The Post’s allegation is factual, then the words “with high confidence” are significant. The business of intelligence analysis is one of accuracy and precision. The term “high confidence” is rarely employed, and when it is, it typically denotes an almost indisputable degree of confidence in an analytical conclusion.

That the president-elect chose to automatically dismiss The Post’s allegations by describing them as “ridiculous” and denouncing the CIA in its entirety as “the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction” is worrying. It indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the intelligence profession and its role in executive decision-making. Ideally, the president-elect should have remained silent until he had an opportunity to confer with the CIA and examine the evidence behind the report. Instead, during a Sunday morning interview on Fox News, Trump said simply: “I don’t believe it”. But this has nothing to do with belief. It has to do with facts and data, which he ought to examine before summarily dismissing an entire agency.

What is more, the evidence behind these allegations must be presented to the American people, who were the ultimate targets of the alleged operation. This was not about the two presidential q-quotecandidates. This was about the reputation of the American electoral process. In fact, the primary goal of Russia’s involvement in the US election —which, again, must be presumed— was not to empower a particular candidate, but to weaken the reputation of American political institutions as a whole. Those who claim that the Kremlin tried to promote Trump because the Republican candidate appears to be more favorably disposed toward Russia are wrong. They misunderstand the complex nature of Russian-American relations and underestimate Russian strategy. Moscow understands that its bilateral relationship with Washington rests on a set of longstanding geopolitical variables and does not depend on ephemeral personal relations between individual leaders. Furthermore, the Kremlin views Trump as an inherently unpredictable actor that is not to be trusted. The Russian plan, therefore, was not to help elect Trump. Rather, it was to sow mistrust between American –and by extension Western– civil society and its political institutions. Given the challenges currently being faced by European and American democracy, that is not a far-fetched goal.

The current state of American politics, which is characterized by ugly sectarianism the likes of which have not been witnessed since the Vietnam War, favors Russia’s strategic goals. Many Americans are currently convinced that the president-elect and some of his most senior aides are influenced by Moscow. Instead of actively trying to alleviate these concerns, Trump has now gone on an all-out offensive against the US Intelligence Community while essentially defending Russia. Americans who care about the current state and future of the Republic must be seriously concerned with this picture, regardless of their political affiliation. It may be that the history textbooks of the future will record the Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election as one of the most successful covert operations of modern times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 December 2016 | Permalink

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Analysis: Turkey’s entry in Syrian war further-complicates a chaotic conflict

Syrian troopsEver since 2011, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, Turkey has refrained from directly intervening in the conflict, other than to provide material support to opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The hope in Ankara was that Islamist and pro-Assad forces would exhaust each other. There is no evidence that Turkey was at any point seriously alarmed about the rise of Sunni militancy in Syria. Instead, the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no secret of its primary concern, which was the rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria.

However, a possible demise of the Islamic State may strengthen Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq and could leave the al-Assad regime in place in Damascus. That would be the worst possible outcome for Turkey, which has always viewed the Syrian president a direct threat to its national security, surpassed only by Kurdish separatism. In a desperate effort to avoid such an outcome, Turkey is now increasingly intervening in the war. Its current goal is to have a strong say in how the region will look like once the Islamic State has been defeated.

With the exception of some pro-Turkish rebels, such as the Syrian Turkmen Brigades, who openly welcome Ankara’s intervention, no rebel factions in Syria are especially elated by Turkey’s entry in the war. Most recognize that the sole reason for Turkey’s intervention is the protection of its own national interest, which centers on preventing a rise of an independent Kurdish state —either official or de facto— in northern Syria.

Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian war will further complicate the conflict and is likely to prolong it. The more international actors are involved in the war, the more convoluted it gets and the longer it will take for it to end. Currently we have the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel forces, the Islamic State, Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Kurds, and several European powers involved in the war. The last thing this conflict needs is yet another foreign intervention, no matter where it comes from.

Moreover, Ankara’s overall role in the Syrian conflict has been inconsistent, as the country has at times sharply distanced itself from both Russian-led and American-led efforts in the region. President Erdogan’s policy on Syria —as on most other matters— has been spasmodic and haphazard, and has been primarily shaped by domestic concerns, as Turkey’s political strongman tries to solidify its rule inside the country. Consequently neither Moscow nor Washington have much faith in the reliance of the Turkish military contribution to the conflict.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States could further-complicate the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Turkey’s role in it. If a rapid rapprochement takes place between Washington and Moscow in 2017, Turkey will feel increasingly uneasy about its regional role. The Kurds, who have been working closely with Russia in Syria and with America in Iraq, will expect to be rewarded and compensated once the dust settles in the region. There have been voices in Moscow and Washington calling for the establishment of a de facto independent Kurdish state in northern Syria. If that happens, it will signal a massive setback for Turkey’s foreign policy and negatively affect its relations with Russia and possibly the United States.

Over a million people have now died in the Syrian civil war. Millions more have been displaced internally and abroad. Things could get immeasurably worse if Russian-led and American-led forces launch all-out attacks in Aleppo and Mosul respectively. There is no reason to believe at this point that the Islamic State and other rebel groups will abandon these cities, where over a million people remain trapped between the warring sides. We could be seeing the largest slaughter of civilians since World War II. At that point, there will be little that Ankara or anyone else can do to restore stability in that desperately troubled region.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 November 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Is Putin planning to restore the Soviet-era KGB?

SVR hqLast week, following the results of Russia’s parliamentary election, Russian media run a story suggesting that the Kremlin is planning to implement far-reaching changes to the country’s intelligence apparatus. According to the Moscow-based daily Kommersant, the administration of President Vladimir Putin is considering merging Russia’s two major intelligence and counterterrorism agencies into one. Specifically, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, will merge with the FSB, the Federal Security Service, according to Kommersant. The merger will create a new amalgamated intelligence agency that will be named “Ministry of State Security”, or MGB, in Russian. The last time this title was used was from 1946 to 1953, during the last years of the reign of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was one of several agencies that were eventually combined to form the Soviet KGB in 1954.

If the Kommersant article is accurate, Russia’s two main intelligence agencies will merge after an institutional separation that has lasted a quarter of a century. They were separated shortly after the official end of the Soviet Union, in 1991, when it was recognized that the KGB was not under the complete control of the state. That became plainly obvious in August of that year, when the spy agency’s Director, Vladimir Kryuchkov, helped lead a military coup aimed at deposing Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The two new agencies were given separate mandates: the SVR inherited the mission of the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorates and focused on collecting intelligence abroad; the FSB, on the other hand, assumed the KGB’s counterintelligence and counterterrorist missions. A host of smaller agencies, including the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), the Federal Protective Service (FSO) and others, took on tasks such as communications interception, border control, political protection, etc.

Could these agencies merge again after 25 years of separation? Possibly, but it will take time. An entire generation of Russian intelligence officers has matured under separate institutional roofs in the post-Soviet era. Distinct bureaucratic systems and structures have developed and much duplication has ensued during that time. If a merger was to occur, entire directorates and units would have to be restructured or even eliminated. Leadership roles would have to be purged or redefined with considerable delicacy, so as to avoid inflaming bureaucratic turf battles. Russian bureaucracies are not known for their organizational skills, and it would be interesting to see how they deal with the inevitable confusion of a possible merger. It could be argued that, if Putin’s goal is to augment the power of the intelligence services —which is doubtful, given their long history of challenging the power of the Kremlin— he would be better off leaving them as they are today.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2016 | Permalink

Analysis of the Islamic State’s ‘wedding attack’ in Gaziantep, Turkey

Gaziantep, TurkeySaturday’s suicide bombing, which killed over 50 and injured dozens at a wedding in Gaziantep, Turkey, was without doubt the work of the Islamic State. It was yet another attempt by the militant Sunni group to discourage the Kurds from confronting it in battle, by pointing to the deadly consequences. It was also fueled by the desire for vengeance against a population that has consistently resisted the Islamic State’s ideology. Additionally, if confirmed, the use of a child as a suicide bomber by the Islamic State may form a pattern of operational activity that can lead to broader conclusions about the current state of the organization.

It has become increasingly clear in the past two years that the armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish peshmerga units based in Turkey, are some of the most formidable opponents of militant Jihadists on the ground. By bombing soft targets inside Turkey, the Islamic State is sending a message to the Kurds that armed opposition on the ground will carry a heavy cost at home. Contrary to initial impressions, there was nothing special about the particular wedding ceremony that was targeted on Saturday. Any wedding would have been suitable for the Islamic State’s purpose. In fact, the randomness of the attack increases its shock value by demonstrating to the local population that any activity can be attacked, even if it does not involve notables. Additionally, the specific choice of a wedding magnifies the brutality of the attack, by targeting a young couple on what is typically the happiest day of their lives. The high concentration of children among the casualties may indicate that the bomber was given specific operational instructions to attack younger participants. The clear warning here is that the disruption will leave nothing untouched –including something as ‘off-limits’ as a couple on their wedding day, or groups of children– if the Kurds continue to fight the Islamic State.

Moreover, the Islamic State is trying to widen the already deep division between the Turkish state and the Kurds, by exposing the inability of the government in Ankara to protect its Kurdish population from attacks. The Kurds already resent Turkey’s ‘soft policy’ on the Islamic State. They and the rest of the world can see that Ankara has typically viewed the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus as far more threatening than the continuing rise of Islamist fundamentalism. Since the failed July 15 coup, the Turkish state has begun to revise its soft stance on the Islamic State, but this comes too late to pacify the country’s infuriated Kurdish population. This latest attack will only intensify the deep anger felt by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

Initial reports indicate the possible use of a child or a teenager to carry out the Gaziantep bombing. These may or may not be accurate. They could easily be an attempt by the Kurds to further-incense international public opinion against the Islamic State. If the reports are accurate, they do not necessarily represent some sort of break from the traditional tactics of the Islamic State. According to the group’s war-fighting doctrine, there is no differentiation between men and children when it comes to what it sees as the defense of Sunni religious doctrine. Every Muslim, regardless of race, gender, or age, is required to engage in holy war. Indeed, the Islamic State has deployed children before, in warfare, executions and suicide bombings against both hard and soft targets. However, even though the use of a child to carry out the Gaziantep bombing is not in itself unique, or particularly important, it matters if it forms part of a broader pattern. If it is verified that ISIS is increasingly using children in suicide bombings, or in warfare, it may signify two things: first, that the organization is finding it difficult to recruit able-bodied men for missions. Second, that adult ISIS recruits are becoming scarcer, so the organization is trying to preserve them for decisive battles.

It may be, of course, that a child or younger teenager was selected in order to avoid security profiling by the Kurds. Still, the use of children in warfare or suicide missions can result in a large degree of unpredictability. Children may be relatively easy targets for recruiters, for the obvious reason that they are young and impressionable. Their reality can therefore be effectively altered by fantastical tales of the supernatural, which the Islamic State is very skilled at. However, children are not necessarily very dependable in war, or terrorism. They can be easily frightened, can change their mind at the last minute, and they do not stay calm under pressure. There are several recent examples of children or teenagers who were recruited for suicide operations but surrendered after changing their mind.

Ultimately, shocking massacres such as Saturday’s attack in Gaziantep cannot be prevented. They can only be limited through careful police and intelligence work. In the case of Turkey, however, this will be difficult. The country’s police, intelligence and military structures have been significantly weakened following the failed July 15 coup. Thousands of government officials, police officers, intelligence and military personnel have been fired, demoted or imprisoned. The state, which is becoming increasingly synonymous with the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party, is too preoccupied with preserving its own stability to concentrate on combating the terrorist spillover from Syria.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: It seems everyone predicted the coup in Turkey except its spy agency

Turkey coupAfter the failure of the recent military coup d’état in Turkey, much attention has been given to the country’s armed forces, the police, even the judiciary. In contrast, little to no information has surfaced about Turkey’s intelligence establishment, which is led by MİT, the National Intelligence Organization. Did it anticipate the plot, and how did it fare as the crisis unfolded in the early hours of July 16?

Two days after the failed coup, American Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a senior member of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, claimed that “no one […] saw this coup coming”. Speaking on WNYM, a conservative talk-radio station in his home state of New York, Rep. King said that, as far as he was aware, “there was no diplomatic talk; there was no intelligence talk of this coup”. Speaking a day earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the White House had “no idea” that a coup was imminent in Turkey, and that developments in the country had “surprised everybody”.

As is often the case, King and Kerry were both wrong. Even as early as October of 2015, Norman Bailey, of the University of Haifa in Israel and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, was stating with certainty that Turkey’s “army will step in and take over” if it senses that the country is descending into chaos. On March 12 of this year, Russian observers warned that Turkey’s military was “gradually building up its political influence, thus laying grounds for a military coup”. Later in the same month, Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, asked: “could there be a coup in Turkey?”, and answered that “no one should be surprised […] if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdogan and place his inner circle behind bars”. And on March 30, the esteemed journal Foreign Affairs hosted an article by Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in which she explained that Turkey was about to face its “next military coup”. During an interview on July 2 of this year, the present author spoke about the “very volatile situation within [Turkey]” and added: “I can’t think of any countries in the region that are more unsettled and unpredictable right now than Turkey”.

If analysts relying on open sources were able to issue concrete warnings about Turkey’s political instability at least a year in advance of the coup, it should be taken for granted that intelligence observers were equally alarmed over the same period. We know, for instance, that American intelligence analysts were “concerned for months” prior to the coup “about simmering tensions between President […] Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish military brass”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Mullah Mansour’s killing will shape future of Afghan War

Mullah MansourThe American operation that killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, on May 21, was unprecedented in more ways than one. It marked the first known effort by the United States to neutralize the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. It was also the first US drone strike in Pakistani Baluchistan, a region that is far removed from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where American operations have traditionally focused. Mullah Mansour’s killing also marked the most high-profile American incursion into Pakistani territory since the May 1, 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden. Q QuoteIronically, just hours before killing Mansour, Washington was calling the Taliban to join the negotiation table for peace talks with the Afghan government. So what exactly was America’s intention in killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban?

PROSPECTS FOR A MODERATE SUCCESSOR

There is no question that Mansour represented the most intransigent and militant segment of Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns. He consistently dismissed efforts by Washington and Kabul to strike a deal with his forces as a ploy designed to weaken the Taliban’s role in Afghan politics. So the primary outcome that the US is seeking from his death is the possibility that a more moderate figure will emerge from within the ranks of the Taliban. That, however, is far from guaranteed. Even if it does happen, it will probably come after a period of leadership struggle between different factions and tribes within the Taliban, much like the heated infighting that broke out after the announcement of the death of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. There are even some who believe that the death of two successive Taliban leaders in such a short period may split the group into three or more factions.

To avoid such a prospect, the Afghan Taliban have already begun internal consultations in order to quickly enthrone a new emir. Major candidates include the late Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakoub, and his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. The list of contenders also features the late Mullah Mansour’s deputies, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, which recently consolidated its forces with those of the Afghan Taliban. Many observers believe that Haqqani is Mansour’s most likely successor, as well as the most militant of all contenders for the group’s leadership.

THE END OF PEACE NEGOTIATIONS?

If the Afghan Taliban are led by Haqqani, a man described by the White House as a terrorist mastermind, the chances of seeing Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns join peace negotiations with Kabul are slim to none. The country’s President, Ashraf Ghani, said last week that he hoped that the death of Mansour would weaken the Taliban hardliners and open the path to negotiations with his government. It is difficult to see, however, how the Taliban could sit at the table with the Afghan government and its American allies, namely the same people who just Q Quotekilled the group’s leader.

They only way that could possibly happen is if Pakistan, which is the Afghan Taliban’s state patron, compels them to do so. But such a prospect is unlikely. In the hours after Mansour’s assassination, the US Secretary of State John Kerry described it as an “action that sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners”. Indeed, Mansour’s killing was a source of jubilation in Kabul. But there were no celebrations in Islamabad, which was notified about the US drone strike on its soil after its completion. The Pakistani position has always been that military action against the Afghan Taliban will only push them further underground. Instead, Pakistan argues that the Taliban should be brought to the table to sign a comprehensive peace treaty that will ensure ethnic rights for Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. But the prospect of that happening after Mansour’s assassination are slim, even if a more moderate figure succeeds him at the helm.

THE FUTURE OF THE AFGHAN WAR

What are, then, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan? A notable rise in violence should be expected, as various Taliban factions lash out against the government in Kabul with the aim of augmenting their standing against internal competitors. The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any other point following the 2001 US invasion. If their alliance with the Haqqani Network survives, they will continue to be a formidable force in the country and the surrounding region, and will become increasingly difficult to defeat militarily. The group will continue to operate with considerable force even if Mansour’s position is not filled soon, as local Taliban forces have shown that they are capable of taking unilateral initiative in times like this. In the meantime, observers in Kabul and Islamabad, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s leadership in Quetta, will be wondering whether the assassination of Mansour marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach by Washington in the ongoing Afghan war. The answer to that question remains elusive, but will likely shape the future of the 40-year-old Afghan war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 May 2016 | Permalink

EgyptAir Flight MS804: Was it a terrorist attack?

EgyptAir MS804In the early hours of Thursday, May 19, EgyptAir, Egypt’s national airline carrier, announced via Twitter that flight MS804 had vanished from the radar. The regularly scheduled flight had departed Paris, France, on time at 11:09 p.m. and had been scheduled to arrive in Egyptian capital Cairo at 3:05 local time. The airplane, an Airbus A320-232, was carrying 59 passengers and 10 crew. According to reports, the airplane disappeared over the eastern Mediterranean, southeast of the island of Crete.

Was this a terrorist attack? It will be several hours before this question can be conclusively answered. However, there are some early indicators that can help shed some light on the incident.

1. What has happened to the plane? The plane has almost certainly crashed into the sea. It has now been five hours since it disappeared from the radar. The eastern Mediterranean is not like the vast Indian Ocean, where Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 literally disappeared in March 2014, never to be found. In the case of EgyptAir MS804, if the plane had landed at a regional airport, the sighting would have been reported immediately —even if it was in rebel-held Syrian regions, or Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq.

2. If the plane has indeed crashed, what brought it down? The possibility of a mechanical failure cannot be excluded. However, the plane is relatively new; it was built in France in 2003 and is less than 13 years old, which may mean that a serious mechanical failure is relatively unlikely. Additionally, weather conditions over the eastern Mediterranean were reportedly “clear and calm” at the time when the plane vanished from the radar. Last but not least, it must be stressed that there was reportedly no distress call made by the pilots or crew before the flight disappeared from radar screens. Which brings us to the next question, namely:

3. Was this a terrorist attack? American and European intelligence agencies, including France’s own DGSE, have warned repeatedly in previous weeks that the Islamic State was “planning new attacks […] and that France [was] clearly targeted”. The Islamic State is currently one of very few terrorist organizations that have the technical expertise and momentum to compromise security measures at a European airport. Moreover, the Islamic State has declared war on France, has attacked the country numerous times, and has stated repeatedly that it intends to continue and even intensify itsQ Quote efforts. The group has remained silent since early this morning, when EgyptAir announced the disappearance of flight MS804. However, it typically waits for several hours, and sometimes days, before assuming responsibility for high-profile attacks.

4. If it was a terrorist attack, how was the plane brought down? It is important to note that the plane is believed to have been flying at 37,000 feet when it vanished from radar screens. This means that, assuming that a non-state actor caused the aircraft’s disappearance, the attack must have been perpetrated from inside the plane. At least three of the 10-member crew are believed to be armed security guards. If that is the case, a team of hijackers would have to have been sizeable enough and sufficiently armed to overpower three armed security guards. What is more likely is that a bomb may have been planted on the plane, either in Paris or Cairo (the plane was returning to Cairo, having left from there for Paris earlier on Wednesday). The last time that the Islamic State assumed responsibility for downing an airliner, it did so by planting a bomb aboard the plane with the help of a ground worker in Egypt who had secretly joined the militant group.

5. If it was a terrorist attack, what does it mean? Should the Islamic State assume responsibility for this attack, it will make it increasingly difficult for France —and possibly other Western European nations— to resist putting boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, if a bomb was planted on the plane at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, it will mean that the Islamic State, or possibly another militant group, has found a way to beat what are perhaps the most stringent airline travel security measures in all of Europe. It could be that the group behind this possible terrorist attack has found a unique and thus far unforeseen way to defeat the latest technological measures used to secure airline travel. Such a possibility could spell even more massive changes for the world’s airline industry, which is already reeling from all sorts of financial and administrative pressures in the post 9/11 era.