Dozens of Western ‘freelance fighters’ embedded with anti-ISIS forces in Syria

Kurdish YPG SyriaDozens of Western European and American citizens are participating in the ongoing takeover of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria, despite being prohibited from doing so by their own governments, according to recent news reports. Much has been written about foreign fighters who enter Iraq and Syria in order to join the ranks of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that previously went by the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But relatively little attention has been paid to the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to the region to join the war against ISIS.

In late 2015, independent researcher Nathan Patin published “The Other Foreign Fighters”, a rare examination of Americans who had joined the various armed groups fighting ISIS in the region. Patin found that at least 200 Americans had attempted to travel to the region in order to join the fight against ISIS as ‘freelance fighters’. Roughly half of those had managed to embed themselves with armed —primarily Kurdish— groups, and saw action on the ground. In 2016, three British and Irish anti-ISIS volunteers were jailed by Iraqi authorities while attempting to return to Europe after having fought for the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The three were initially suspected of being foreign ISIS volunteers, but were released from prison in April of 2016, after the YPG verified their bona fides.

A recent report by The Los Angeles Times claims that there are still “several dozen” Western volunteers embedded with anti-ISIS militias in Syria. They are doing so in the face of warnings by European and American government agencies that freelance participation in the Syrian civil war is a potentially punishable offense. The Times cited “local estimates” and spoke to Daman Frat, a YPG commander stationed in the eastern outskirts of Raqqa, who said that “several foreign volunteers” were embedded in YPG units. Most, though certainly not all of them, said Frat, had prior military experience. According to the paper, at least three Western volunteers, one British and two American citizens, have died in recent days, as YPG forces are closing in on the de facto ISIS capital. The US Departments of State and Defense, which are tacitly in support of the YPG and other Kurdish groups operating in Syria, did not comment on The Los Angeles Times report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2017 | Permalink

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US plans to beef up Cyber Command, separate cyberwar operations from NSA

PentagonThe White House will soon announce its decision to strengthen the United States Cyber Command and separate cyber war operations from intelligence functions, according to insider reports. For many decades, the National Security Agency has been in charge of protecting America’s cyber network and combating online threats. But in 2009, the Administration of US President Barack Obama established a brand new Cyber Command, proposing that the online environment represented a new theater of war. Since that time, the US Department of Defense has been campaigning in favor of strengthening the new Cyber Command and completely removing it from the patronage of the NSA –despite the fact that the latter is also a Pentagon agency.

According to media reports, US President Donald Trump has decided to follow the Pentagon’s suggestion. After several months of delay, his administration is now preparing to announce a major reinforcement of the US Cyber Command, and a formal separation between its functions and those of the NSA. According to the American news network PBS, which broke the news on Monday, the idea behind the move is to give the Cyber Command more operational autonomy and to allow it to establish its own mission statement, which will be distinct from that of the NSA. The latter is an intelligence organization, which means that it primarily seeks to exploit adversary networks for purposes of collecting information. Broadly speaking, therefore, the NSA finds operational adversary cyber networks far more useful than destroyed networks. That tends to clash with the goals of the US Cyber Command, whose tactical goals often center on launching destructive attacks on enemy networks. It is believed that the impending change will allow it to do so without the interference of the NSA.

According to PBS, which cited anonymous sources in its report, the details of the separation “are still being worked out”. Furthermore, some observers caution that the Cyber Command will continue to rely on NSA technology and expertise for years to come, until it is able to carry its own weight. There is even less discussion about the view of the NSA on the matter, which some claim is notably negative. However, the move appears to have been decided, and the Cyber Command’s budget will be increased by nearly 20% to $647 million in the coming year, reflecting its elevated role in US defense.

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

US spies confirm Qatar’s claims that its media were hacked by Emirates to spark crisis

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-ThaniAmerican officials appear to confirm Qatar’s allegations that its news media were hacked by its Gulf adversaries, who then used the fake news posted by hackers to launch a massive campaign against it. Tensions between Qatar and other Muslim countries have risen since late May, when the country’s state-controlled news agency appeared to publish an incendiary interview with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. In the interview, which appeared on May 24, the sheikh appeared to praise Saudi regional rival Iran as a “great Islamic power” and to express support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas. On the following day, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain immediately banned all Qatari media —primarily Al Jazeera— from broadcasting in their territories and broke diplomatic relations with Doha. Later on, they declared a large-scale commercial embargo against the small oil kingdom. They have since threatened war unless Qatar changes its alleged support for Iran and for a number of militant groups in the region.

The Qatari government has dismissed the embargo as unjust and has claimed that Sheikh al-Thani’s controversial interview was fake, and was placed on the country’s state-owned news agency and social media as a result of a computer hack. It has also claimed to have evidence of a number of iPhones that were used from locations in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch the hacks on its networks. Qatari officials have also said that an investigation into the incident is underway, but their claims have been criticized as outlandish by Qatar’s regional rivals.

Now, however, a report by The Washington Post claims that American officials have uncovered evidence that Qatar’s allegations of a computer hack are true. The paper cited “US intelligence and other officials” who spoke “on the condition of anonymity”. The officials said that US intelligence agencies recently became aware of a meeting of senior UAE state administrators that took place on May 23 in Abu Dhabi. At the meeting, the officials discussed a plan to hack Qatari news websites and social media, in order to post incendiary messages that could be used to spark a row between Qatar, the Saudi government and its allies. The alleged computer hacks is reported to have taken place on the following day. According to The Post, the only thing that US intelligence is unsure about is “whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done” by a third party.

The Post said that several US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, refused to comment on its report. The paper received a response from the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, which said that the Emirates had “no role whatsoever in the alleged hacking described in the article”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2017 | Permalink

Senior Iraqi intelligence official rejects Russian claims that ISIS leader is dead

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiA senior Iraqi intelligence official has rejected assurances given by Russia that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder and leader of the Islamic State, is dead, insisting instead that the Iraqi-born cleric is alive in Syria. In mid- June, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said that, according to its sources, al-Baghdadi had been killed. Subsequently, many Russian officials and political figures appeared to confirm Moscow’s report. On January 23, Russian media quoted Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Committee of National Defense of the Federation Council (the Russian Duma’s upper house) as saying that the likelihood that al-Baghdadi was dead was “close to 100 percent”. Last week, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it too was in a position to confirm that al-Baghdad had been killed, adding that the Islamic State had admitted as much in a statement issued to its senior commanders.

But Western governments, including the United States, have been reluctant to accept the Russian reports as accurate, saying that they prefer to wait for concrete proof of the Islamic State leader’s demise. On Sunday, the Iraqi government appeared to side with the skeptics. In an interview with the Baghdad-based daily Al-Sabah, senior Iraqi intelligence official Abu Ali al-Basri claimed al-Baghdadi was very much alive. Al-Basri, who supervises the Falcon Intelligence Cell, a US-trained counterterrorist unit operating under the Ministry of the Interior, said that the reports recently circulated about the rumored death of al-Baghdadi were “simply untrue”. He added that the founder of the Islamic State was “still living in Syria”, possibly at an Islamic State military facility on the outskirts of the organization’s de facto capital city of Raqqa.

Born in Iraq in 1971, al-Baghdadi has never been seen in public after his historic speech in June 2014, in which he proclaimed the creation of a so-called Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Speaking from the Grand Mosque in the old city of the Iraqi city of Mosul, which his forces had just conquered, al-Baghdadi issued a public call for supporters of the Islamic State around the world to join its ranks. But he never reappeared in public in the ensuing years, giving rise to occasional speculation that he may have been seriously wounded or even killed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2017 | Permalink

Headstone for unmarked grave of Nazi spy who died undetected in wartime Britain

Jan Willem Ter BraakThe unmarked grave of a Dutch-born Nazi spy, who killed himself after spending several months working undercover in wartime Britain, will be marked with a headstone, 76 years after his death by suicide. Born in 1914 in The Hague, Holland, Englebertus Fukken joined the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch affiliate of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party led by Adolf Hitler, in 1933. In 1940, shortly after the German invasion of Holland, Fukken, who had been trained as a journalist, was recruited by the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s military intelligence. Abwehr’s leadership decided to include Fukken in the ranks of undercover agents sent to Britain in preparation for Operation SEA LION, Germany’s plan to invade Britain.

Between October 31 and November 2, 1940, the 26-year-old Fukken was secretly parachuted over the Buckinghamshire village of Haversham in central England. British authorities found his discarded parachute a few days later, but by that time Fukken had made his way on foot to the city of Cambridge. Fukken’s precise mission remains unknown. Speculation that he was sent to Britain to assassinate the country’s wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, is dismissed as fantastical by most historians. What is known is that Fukken carried with him false Dutch papers identifying him as Jan Willem Ter Braak, and a suitcase that contained a radio transmitter supplied to him by the Abwehr.

In Cambridge, Fukken took lodgings with a local family, posing as a member of the Free Dutch Forces, anti-Nazi Dutch officials who had fled to London after the German invasion of Holland and formed a government in exile. Fukken spent the next four months living undercover in Cambridge, and did not register with the authorities, as required. He traveled on most days to locations in England bombed by the Luftwaffe, inspecting the damage and reporting back to his Abwehr handlers in Hamburg by radio or by mail, using secret writing techniques. But his failure to register with the authorities meant that he had no access to ration cards, which were required to purchase food in wartime Britain. He then attracted the attention of the local authorities, after presenting them with a forged ration card that was detected during inspection by a police officer. Fearing arrest, he quickly moved lodgings, but was unable to solve the problem of access to food. Repeated attempts to get the Abwehr to exfiltrate him failed, and his calls for money and usable ration cards were not facilitated, as the Nazi leadership in Berlin had begun to shelve Operation SEA LION. Read more of this post

French spy who helped bomb Rainbow Warrior tracked down 32 years later

Christine CabonA French spy who infiltrated the environmentalist group Greenpeace and in 1985 helped bomb the organization’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, has spoken to the media for the first time. The British-based activist organization had purchased the trawler from the British government in 1977 and used it to carry out maritime research and other operations. In July 1985, the Rainbow Warrior, captained by the American environmental activist Peter Wilcox, was docked at the port of Auckland, New Zealand. It was being prepared to lead a flotilla of vessels to the French Polynesian atoll of Mororoa, in order to try to stop a planned nuclear test by the French military.

But on the night of July 10, 1985, two large explosions nearly split the ship in two, causing it to sink in less than five minutes. One of the Rainbow Warrior’s passengers, the Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira, drowned after he boarded the sinking ship in order to retrieve his cameras and lenses. Greenpeace blamed the government of France for the attack on the ship, but Paris denied any involvement. It later emerged, however, that the blasts had been caused by two plastic-wrapped explosive devices that had been placed on the exterior of the Rainbow Warrior’s engine room and on its propeller blades. The explosive mechanisms had been placed there by two divers working for the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE), France’s external intelligence service. Read more of this post

Ex-CIA contractor says Pakistan’s leaders helped him escape murder charges

Raymond Allen DavisA former contractor for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was released from a Pakistani prison in 2011 despite being implicated in a double murder there, says he was freed with the help of senior Pakistani officials. Raymond Allen Davis was a CIA contractor posted in the US consulate in Pakistan’s Punjabi capital, Lahore, which is also the country’s second-largest city. It has been suggested that, for a while, Davis was the CIA’s acting station chief in Lahore, thus technically the most senior American intelligence officer in Punjab.

On January 27, 2011, while driving in downtown Lahore, Davis opened fire against two men riding on a motorcycle, killing them instantly. Soon after the incident, Davis appears to have contacted the US consulate in Lahore, which rapidly dispatched a consular vehicle to remove him from the scene of the shooting. However, the vehicle was unable to reach Davis, who was surrounded by an angry crowd. Unable to pick up Davis, the car then returned to the consulate after running down and killing a motorcyclist who was unconnected with the earlier incident. Eventually Davis was arrested and charged with double murder and illegal possession of a firearm. The Pakistani government dismissed Washington’s assertion that Davis was an accredited diplomat, and was thus not subject to Pakistan’s legal system because of his diplomatic immunity. With public opinion in Pakistan heavily against Davis, the case sparked a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Islamabad. Unexpectedly, however, Davis was released in March of the same year, after the families of the two men he killed appeared in court and said they forgave him and wanted him to be pardoned. It later emerged that the families of the murdered men had been given a total of $2.4 million as compensation for their deaths.

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