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