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: 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

Islamic State issues drone bomb warning following London airport chaos

Islamic State dronesOn the heels of chaotic scenes at Britain’s Gatwick Airport, which remained closed for three days due to reported sightings of drones, the Islamic State has released images on social media showing drones carrying packages to large Western cities. The images, which appear to be PhotoShopped, have reignited concerns that the group may be close to launching attacks on civilian targets around the world using drones. Known formally as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have become increasingly accessible to private consumers in recent years. They range from miniature toy models that can be controlled via smartphone applications to highly sophisticated models that can carry significant loads to high altitudes.

In recent years, it has been reported that several militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Pakistan, have made use of drone technology for surveillance and combat purposes. But observers believe that the Islamic State may have the most advanced drone arsenal of any non-state group in the world. The militant Sunni-Muslim organization launched an experimental armed drone campaign in Iraq in 2016. A year earlier, Islamic State fighters had been seen making use of commercially purchased drones for surveillance purposes in the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. In 2016, the Islamic State built several workshops to modify commercially purchased drones, and eventually to build its own models. In January 2017, the group announced the establishment of a new unit called “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen”, which operated a sizeable fleet of modified combat drones. The following month, the Islamic State claimed to have killed with the use of drones nearly 40 Iraqi soldiers in a single week. The militant group said it did so by using drones to drop three-pound mortar shells on Iraqi troop positions.

Counterterrorism specialists are concerned about what they see as the Islamic State’s “growing ambition” to use drones in the battlefield. But they doubt that the use of drones can by itself affect the outcome of battles. A much larger concern is the possibility that the Islamic State could transfer its drone knowledge outside the battlefield. It has long been confirmed that Islamic State militants have systematically discussed the possibility of deploying drones in civilian areas to drop explosives or even weaponized chemical substances. In October of this year, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray told the United States Congress that the threat of the use of drones by a group like the Islamic State against American tarets was “steadily escalating”. Wray said that the FBI assessed drones “will be used to facilitate an attack in the United States against a vulnerable target, such as a mass gathering”. He added that his assessment was based on several factors, such as the retail availability of the devices, the “lack of verified identification requirement to procure” drones, their ease of use, as well as the experience in the use of drones that militant groups have been amassing abroad.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 December 2018 | Permalink

French security services investigate Russian role in yellow vests movement

yellow vests movementIntelligence and security services in France are investigating whether Russian involvement on social media and other platforms is playing a role in amplifying the so-called ‘yellow vests’ movement. Known in French as le mouvement des gilets jaunes, the campaign began online in May of this year as a popular protest against rising fuel prices and the high cost of living in France. In mid-November, the movement made its first public appearance with large demonstrations that have continued every weekend since then. Yellow vest protestors claim that tax increases are disproportionally affecting working- and middle-class people and that everyday life is becoming economically unsustainable in France. Some of the demonstrations have turned violent, and so far at least eight people have died as a result. The ensuing crisis has become the most significant threat to the government of Emmanuel Macron, as the protests are increasingly evolving into an anti-Macron rallies.

So far, the yellow vests campaign has been largely bipartisan, bringing together protestors from the entirety of the French political spectrum. Additionally, there are no identified leaders or coordinators of the movement. However, some suspect that Russian government operatives may be further-inflaming an already incensed protest movement. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal said that French security agencies were investigating potential involvement by the Kremlin in the yellow vests campaign. The paper quoted an unnamed French government cybersecurity official as saying that “there has been some suspect activity [and] we are in the process of looking at its impact”. The official was referring to the online activity of some leading social-media accounts involved with the yellow vests, which appear to also be “promoting Russian-backed coverage” of French politics. The Journal also cites Ryan Fox, a cybersecurity expert for the Texas-based firm New Knowledge, who claims that “several hundred accounts on Twitter and Facebook” that are involved in the yellow vests movement “are very likely controlled by Moscow”.

However, there is disagreement among cybersecurity experts about the extent of the Kremlin’s involvement in the yellow vests. Paris has previously accused Moscow of trying to influence the direction of French politics. In February of 2017, France’s Directorate-General for External Security warned that Russia had launched a secret operation to try to influence the outcome of that year’s French presidential election in favor of the far right. However, if such an effort existed, it failed to stop the rise to power of Emmanuel Macron. Since assuming the country’s presidency, Macron has been a leading international critic of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. The Kremlin, therefore, has strong reasons to want to see a premature end to Macron’s presidency.

This does not necessarily mean that Moscow has been able to anticipate —let alone influence— the yellow vests movement, whose energy has surprised even the most experienced French political observers. The Journal notes that many leading Western cybersecurity bodies, including the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, have “not seen significant evidence of state-sponsored interference” in the yellow vests movement, whether by Russia or any other government. Facebook also said that its monitors have not uncovered any evidence of an organized campaign by Moscow to coax the yellow vests protests. The paper also cited Dimitri Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, who categorically denied allegations that Russia was in any way involved in directing yellow vests activists.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 December 2018 | Permalink

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

MI6 spy chief outlines ‘fourth generation espionage’ in rare public speech

Alex YoungerThe director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service —known as MI6— has outlined the parameters of a new, “fourth generation of espionage”, which he said is needed to combat the “threats of the hybrid age”. Alex Younger, 55, is a career intelligence officer who joined MI6 in 1991, after serving in the British Army. He served as chief of global operations —considered the number two position at MI6— before being appointed director of the spy agency in October 2014. He previously served in the Middle East, Europe, and Afghanistan, where he represented MI6 as its most senior officer in the country following the US-led military invasion of 2001. Until this week, Younger had given a single public address since becoming director of MI6. But on Monday he spoke again, this time at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, from where he graduated with a degree in economics.

After cautioning his audience that MI6’s methods, operations and people —some of whom “have paid the ultimate price”— must remain secret, Younger said that technological progress has “profoundly changed [MI6’s] operating environment”. Technological change, as well as the degree of interconnectedness, he said, has made the world “dramatically more complicated”. He went on to add that the resulting ambiguity is referred to by MI6 as a constant stream of “hybrid threats”, namely challenges posed by nation-states operating “in the gray spaces of the hybrid era”. They do so in order to probe the West’s “institutions and defenses in ways that fall short of traditional warfare”, said Younger. The British spy chief added that MI6, as “one of the few truly global intelligence agencies” is well positioned to respond to hybrid threats, mostly by augmenting its human intelligence role —using human spies to collect information.

Human intelligence, which is MI6’s core task, “will never change fundamentally”, said Younger, adding that “in fact it will become even more important in a more complex world”. However, it will need to evolve to meet the challenges of the hybrid age. Younger said that MI6 was pioneering a “fourth generation of espionage”, which is the product of the fusion of traditional human skills with “accelerated [technological] innovation”. This new generation of espionage said Younger, relies not on individual work but on operations that are carried out by dynamic teams within and across state agencies. Additionally, the ultimate task of these operations is not simply to know the actions of one’s adversaries, but “to change their behavior”, said the British spy chief. Furthermore, in order to successfully develop fourth generation espionage capabilities, MI6 will have to “ensure that technology is on our side, not that of our opponents”, noted Younger. The spy chief gave an example by referring to the case of the near-fatal poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the Russian former double spy who was allegedly attacked by two Russian military intelligence officers in Salisbury, England, last March. It was “bulk data combined with modern analytics” that exposed the culprits of the operation, he said. But the same methods, which make the modern world more transparent, can posed “a serious challenge if used against us”, warned the MI6 chief.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2018 | Permalink

Head of CIA’s Korean mission center to resign, say sources

Andrew KimA senior North Korea expert in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who has been instrumental in the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, has tendered his resignation, according to sources. The official was identified last may by US media as Andrew Kim, a former South Korean citizen who moved to the US with his parents when he was 13 years old. According to sources, Kim joined the CIA after graduating from college and rose through the Agency’s ranks to serve its stations in Moscow, Beijing and Bangkok. His most recent overseas post was reportedly in Seoul, where he served as the CIA’s station chief —the most senior American intelligence official in the country.

Following his return to the US from Seoul, Kim reportedly retired, but returned last year to head the CIA’s new Korea Mission Center (KMC). The purpose of the specialized unit is to analyze Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, which the administration of US President Donald Trump considers as matters of priority for the White House. It was as head of the KMC that Kim reportedly met Mike Pompeo once he became Director of the CIA in January 2017. The two men worked closely together and it is believed that Kim’s role was instrumental in organizing the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that led to last summer’s historic high-level meeting between President Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. According to American and South Korean media, Kim accompanied the then-CIA director on his secret trip to North Korea. He also accompanied Pompeo on his trips to North Korea once the Kansas Republican became Secretary of State.

The Yonhap News Agency said on Tuesday that Kim initially intended to leave his CIA post in the summer, but was persuaded by Secretary Pompeo to continue. However, he has now tendered his resignation, which will take effect on December 20. Citing “multiple sources”, including “a senior official at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service”, the Seoul-based news agency said that Kim plans to take up an academic post at Stanford University, adding that he intends to continue serving as an adviser to the secretary of state. Prior media reports have stated that “Kim is widely viewed as a hawk on North Korea”, so there are suspicions that his departure from the CIA stems from his disagreement with the policy of negotiation signaled by President Trump. However, the CIA has not commented on the Yonhap report. The South Korean agency said that the CIA is already reviewing candidates to succeed Kim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2018 | Permalink

New book names ex-KGB defector who outed FBI agent Robert Hanssen as Russian spy

Robert HanssenA new book reveals for the first time the name of a former intelligence officer of the Soviet KGB who helped American authorities arrest Robert Hanssen, an American spy for the Soviet Union and Russia. The son of a Chicago police officer, Hanssen joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1976 and was eventually transferred to the Bureau’s Soviet analytical unit, where he held senior counterintelligence posts. It wasn’t until 2000, however, that the FBI realized Hanssen had spied for Moscow since 1979. Following Hanssen’s arrest in 2001, it emerged that he had betrayed the names of 50 FBI and CIA assets or informants, many of whom perished in the hands of the Russian intelligence services.

In 2002, the US Department of Justice opined that Hanssen had caused “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in US history”. He is currently serving 15 consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. But despite numerous articles, reports and books on the Hanssen spy case, the story of the FBI investigation that led to his arrest remains at best fragmentary. A major question concerns the identity of the mysterious person that helped FBI counterintelligence investigators zero in on Hanssen after years of fruitless efforts to confirm suspicions of the existence of a Russian mole. It is known that the FBI paid the sum of $7 million to a former KGB officer, who delivered the contents of Hanssen’s Russian intelligence file. But the identity of that informant has not been revealed.

That may have changed as of last month, however, thanks to The Seven Million Dollar Spy, a book written by the late David Wise, a journalist and best-selling intelligence author who died on October 8, aged 88. Wise’s book, published posthumously on October 23 in audio book format, received little media attention. But Newsweek intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein said last week that the book might bring us a step closer to uncovering the identity of the individual who led to Hanssen’s capture. Stein explains that the mysterious informant had previously developed a business relationship with Jack Platt, a retired CIA case officer who after the end of the Cold War co-founded an international security consultancy with ex-KGB operative Gennady Vasilenko. The two men staffed their company with several American and Russian former spies. Among them was Anatoly Stepanov, a former case officer in the KGB. Stein reports that, according to Wise’s posthumous book, Stepanov is in fact the pseudonym of former KGB officer Aleksandr Shcherbakov. It was he who delivered Hanssen’s file to the FBI, thus facilitating his eventual capture. It is believed that Shcherbakov defected to the United States in 2010 where he continues to live today under an assumed identity.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2018 | Permalink

CIA suffered ‘catastrophic’ compromise of its spy communication system

CIAThe United States Central Intelligence Agency suffered a “catastrophic” compromise of the system it uses to communicate with spies, which caused the death of “dozens of people around the world” according to sources. This is alleged in a major report published on Friday by Yahoo News, which cites “conversations with eleven former US intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter”. The report by the online news service describes the compromise of an Internet-based covert platform used by the CIA to facilitate the clandestine communication between CIA officers and their sources —known as agents or spies— around the world.

According to Yahoo News, the online communication system had been developed in the years after 9/11 by the US Intelligence Community for use in warzones in the Middle East and Central Asia. It was eventually adopted for extensive use by the CIA, which saw it as a practical method for exchanging sensitive information between CIA case officers and their assets in so-called ‘denied areas’. The term refers to regions of the world where face-to-face communication between CIA case officers and their assets is difficult and dangerous due to the presence of ultra-hostile intelligence services or non-state adversaries like the Taliban or al-Qaeda. However, it appears that the system was flawed: it was too elementary to withstand sustained scrutiny by Internet-savvy counterintelligence experts working for state actors like Iran, China or Russia.

In September of 2009, Washington made a series of impressively detailed revelations about the advanced status of Iran’s nuclear program. These angered Tehran, which redoubled its efforts to stop the US and others from acquiring intelligence information about the status of its nuclear program. Some sources told Yahoo News that one of the CIA assets inside Iran’s nuclear program was convinced by the Iranians to become a double spy. He proceeded to give Tehran crucial information about the CIA’s online communication system. Based on these initial clues, the Iranians allegedly used Google-based techniques “that one official described as rudimentary” to identify an entire network of CIA-maintained websites that were used to communicate with assets in Iran and elsewhere. The Iranians then kept tabs on these websites and located their users in order to gradually unravel an entire network of CIA agents inside their country. Around that time, Iranian media announced that the Islamic Republic’s counterintelligence agencies had broken up an extensive CIA spy ring consisting of more than 30 informants.

The Yahoo News report says that the CIA was able to successfully exfiltrate some of its assets from Iran before the authorities were able to apprehend them. The agency also had to recall a number of undercover officers, after they were identified by the Iranians. The effects of the compromise, however, persisted on a global scale, according to former US intelligence officials. In 2011 and 2012, another network of CIA spies was busted in China, leading to the arrest and execution of as many as three dozen assets working for the US. Many, says Yahoo News, believe that the Iranians coached the Chinese on how to use the CIA’s online communication system to identify clandestine methods and sources used by the agency.

Along with other specialist websites, IntelNews monitored these developments as they took place separately in Iran and China. However, the Yahoo News report is the first to piece together these seemingly disparate developments and suggest that they were likely triggered by the same root cause. What is more, the report suggests that the CIA had been warned about the potential shortcomings of its online communication system before 2009, when the first penetrations began to occur. In response to the compromise, the CIA has reportedly modified, and at times completely abandoned, its online communication system. However, the implications of the system’s compromise continue to “unwind worldwide” and the CIA is “still dealing with the fallout”, according to sources. The effects on the agency’s operational work are likely to persist for years, said Yahoo News.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 November 2018 | Permalink

Suicide bomber who attacked Russian spy agency identified as ‘anarchist-communist’

Mikhail ZhlobitskyA teenager who killed himself with an improvised explosive device in the lobby of a regional office of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency appears to have identified himself as an “anarchist-communist” on social media. At 8:52 am local time on Wednesday, the 17-year-old entered the regional office of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the city of Archangelsk, located 800 miles north of Moscow. On CCTV footage released by the Russian security services, he is seen reaching into his backpack and taking out an object, which soon exploded, killing him and wounding three others.

The bomber was later identified in the Russian media as Mikhail Zhlobitsky, a student at a local technical college. Within hours, reports pointed to posts made on social media platforms by Zhlobitsky, who used several online aliases, including that of “Sergey Nechayev”, one of Russia’s leading 19th-century anarchists, who died in prison for advocating terrorism as a means of revolution. Shortly before the attack, someone using the alias “Valeryan Panov” commented on the social messaging application Telegram that he was about to bomb the FSB in Archangelsk. In the comment, which was posted on an anarchist forum, the user said that he had decided to act “because the FSB falsifies cases and tortures people”. The user added that he would probably die in the attack because he had to manually detonate the improvised explosive device he was carrying with him. He concluded his message with the words: “I wish you a glorious future of anarchist communism!”.

The activities of militant Russian anarchists and anarcho-communists date back to the mid-19th century; anarchist militants are responsible for numerous assassinations of senior Russian officials, including Emperor Alexander II, who was killed by a Russian anarchist in 1881. But the movement was ruthlessly suppressed by the Soviet state and today the FSB and other Russian security services are actively monitoring the remnants of the Russian anarchist movement. These include the Confederation of Revolutionary Anarcho-Syndicalists, the group Autonomous Action, and the Siberian Confederation of Labor. Large sections of these groups have now moved underground, as the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has named anarchists as primary enemies of order and security in the Russian Federation. Earlier this month, another Russian teenager, Vladislav Roslyakov, killed himself after shooting 19 students and teachers at a technical college in Kerch, a Black Sea port city in Russian-annexed Crimea. No political motive for the attack has been reported.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

Swiss police saw Russian oligarch Abramovich as threat to security, files reveal

Roman AbramovichPolice in Switzerland cautioned that allowing the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to live there would threaten public security and damage the country’s reputation, according to files released this week. The Soviet-born Abramovich took advantage of Russia’s privatization laws in the early 1990s to gain considerable financial and political influence there. His friendship with Russia’s first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, was instrumental in his business career, and eventually placed him in close proximity to Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin. Unlike many other oligarchs, Abramovich is believed to have remained close to Putin, despite living mostly in the United Kingdom in the past decade. The Russian oligarch has been staying in a mansion valued at close to $120 million in London’s exclusive suburb of Kensington. His lawyers have been renewing his British residence visa every six months.

However, the attempted assassination of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal earlier this year prompted the British government to intensify its scrutiny of Britain’s sizeable Russian expatriate community. London introduced tighter regulations that require Russian citizens applying to live in the UK to declare the source of their income in a far greater detail than previously. Soon after the new regulations were put in place, Abramovich’s lawyers withdrew his application to renew his British residency visa. Then, in May of this year, the Russian oligarch acquired Israeli citizenship. He has made it clear, however, that he does not intend to live in Israel. Instead, his legal team focused on an application for Swiss residency, which Abramovich first filed in the summer of 2016. In the application papers, Abramovich wrote that he intended to reside full time in Verbier, an Alpine village in the canton of Valais that is a popular holiday destination for celebrities and royalty.

A year later, following resistance and increasingly persistent questioning from the Swiss government, Abramovich’s legal team withdrew his residency application. Last February, when the Swiss press attempted to investigate the reasons behind the Swiss government’s reluctance, Abramovich’s lawyers secured an injunction forbidding the publication of information regarding his application to live in Switzerland. But the injunction was overturned late last week, and on Tuesday the Swiss media conglomerate Tamedia published some of the relevant documents. They include a letter from the Swiss Federal Police that strongly cautions against allowing the Russian-Israeli oligarch to resettle in Switzerland. The letter remarks that Abramovich has been repeatedly implicated in “suspicion of money laundering” and that the billionaire is “presumed [to have] contacts with criminal organizations”. Additionally, the letter states that Abramovich’s “assets are at least in part of illegal origin”. The letter concludes by strongly cautioning against allowing the oligarch to move to Switzerland, and argues that doing so would pose a “threat to public security” and be detrimental to the country’s international reputation.

The letter has raised eyebrows since its publication, because Switzerland is known for being highly welcoming of foreign billionaires while displaying minimal curiosity about the sources of their fortunes. Moreover, there are no known court rulings against Abramovich for money laundering or connections to organized crime. It is therefore presumed that the Swiss police report is based mostly on confidential informants and other informal sources. On Wednesday, Abramovich’s Swiss lawyer, Daniel Glasl, issued a statement saying that the Russian-Israeli magnate has never been charged with involvement in money laundering. He also reminded readers that his client has a blank criminal record.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2018 | Permalink