Italian spy chief paid secret visit to Syria: news reports

Alberto ManentiThe head of Italian intelligence paid a secret visit to Syria earlier this month, a week after his Syrian counterpart visited Rome, according to reports from the Middle East. The Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, which first reported the alleged behind-the-scenes exchange, said the visits focused on counter-terrorism cooperation between Syria and the European Union. The paper said that the initial contact was made in late June by Major General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, who paid a secret visit to Rome. General Zeitoun’s visit was allegedly in response to an official invitation issued by the Italian government. The general is believed to have stayed in a secluded private villa, which was provided by the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency, known as AISE. He subsequently met with several Italian intelligence officials, including AISE Director, General Alberto Manenti.

A week later, Manenti secretly traveled to Syrian capital Damascus, where he stayed for several days. According to Gulf News, General Manenti met with his Syrian counterpart and other senior intelligence officials, as well as with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The main purpose of the secret meetings was to explore the potential for enhanced collaboration between Syria and the European Union on counter-terrorism issues. It appears that the Syrian government is willing to share intelligence on citizens of the EU who have traveled to Syria and have joined the ranks of the Islamic State, as well as other al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country. Damascus is even willing to give EU intelligence personnel access to captured Islamist fighters that are being held in Syrian government facilities.

In return, however, the Syrians are asking that the EU enters negotiations on possibly normalizing diplomatic relations with Damascus. Contacts between the EU and Syria were severely disrupted at the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and remain officially non-existent to this day. According to Gulf News, the Syrians told General Manenti that full intelligence cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism will ensue as soon as the EU normalizes diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus. The Italian intelligence official is believed to have told the Syrians that Rome will press the EU to move toward re-establishing relations with Damascus, in return for concrete steps taken in Syria toward “political transition” in the war-torn country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2016 | Permalink

Recent gains against ISIS are not enough, may actually backfire, say experts

First Post HWestern experts and intelligence officials are warning that the recent military gains made against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not enough to damage it, and may in fact make the group stronger in the long run. Undoubtedly, the impressive momentum of ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, has been curtailed, and the image of invincibility that it once projected is no longer there. Observers estimate that the Sunni militant group has lost nearly a fifth of its territory in Syria, while it is no longer in control of about half of the land it used to occupy in Iraq. As a result of these territorial defeats, ISIS has lost a third of its oil production, which is believed to account for half of its overall revenue. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama said that, as ISIS continues to concede territory, it is “losing the money that is its livelihood”.

But US intelligence officials do not seem to agree. Speaking on June 16 before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, cautioned against triumphalism. He told senators that the efforts of the international military coalition against ISIS “have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach”, adding that ISIS would “have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly”. According to Reuters, a number of US intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts support Brennan’s views. The news agency said on Wednesday that many experts are warning that the military campaign on the ground was “far from eradicating [ISIS] and could even backfire”.

The fact that local troops fighting ISIS are almost completely composed of Shiite Arabs from Iraq and Iran, or are Kurdish Peshmerga, could add legitimacy to ISIS as the protector of the Sunni Arab minority in the region. There are also reports of human rights violations against Sunnis by the advancing Shiite forces, including an unconfirmed allegation that 49 Sunni men of fighting age were executed after surrendering to the anti-ISIS coalition in Falluja. Additionally, if ISIS loses much more territory, it will be tempted to simply abandon conventional fighting tactics and turn into a guerrilla group. Reuters quotes RAND Corporation analyst Seth Jones, who argues: “It looks like the areas that the Islamic State has lost, they are generally abandoning, and that would mean preparing to fight another way”. That could mean that ISIS fighters intend to blend in with the urban population and launch a campaign of sabotage, assassination and disruption of government services.

As ISIS has lost ground in Iraq and Syria, the flow of foreign fighters intending to join the organization has dropped significantly. But that is not necessarily a good thing, says Reuters. These fighters, who in the past were instructed to join ISIS in the Middle East, may now be told to launch lone-wolf terrorist attacks abroad. The Reuters report cites one terrorism expert, Hassan Hassan, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, who argues that the international appeal of the Islamic State is not connected to the group’s military performance in the Middle East. In other words, its popularity among its Western followers will persist even if all of the group’s territorial strongholds are lost to its adversaries.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 June 2016 | Permalink

Islamic State has regular contact with Syrian government, files show

ISIS - JFThe two main warring parties in the Syrian Civil War, the government of Syria and the Islamic State, frequently contact one another in pursuit of commercial and military deals, according to internal Islamic State documents. British-based news agency Sky News said on Monday that it had acquired “secret Islamic State files”, which included handwritten orders to operatives sent directly from officials at the organization’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. The group said it received the documents from a regional branch of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a largely secular armed opposition group that was formed in 2011 by defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces. The FSA unit in Raqqa left the Syrian city once it was occupied by the Islamic State, and is currently based in Turkey. One of the group’s core preoccupations is assisting Islamic State defectors in their efforts to escape from Raqqa and reach Turkey. It was through these defectors, according to Sky News, that the secret Islamic State documents were acquired.

Among the revelations, said the British news agency, is that the militant Islamist group has been actively training foreign recruits to attack targets in the West “for much longer than security services had suspected”. The plan of the Islamic State seems to be to set up “sleeper cells” in what the group calls “specialized areas” across Europe, in order to carry out armed attacks. Another alleged revelation from the documents is that the Islamic State has operated “in direct coordination with the Syrian Armed Forces and even the Russian Airforce, which has been operating in Syria since September 2015. One of the documents appears to show that Syrian government forces allowed Islamic State troops to evacuate Palmyra along with their weapons, before Syrian and Russian troops entered the city. Yet another document describes a trade exchange between the Islamic State and the government of Syria, under which the Islamist militants gave Damascus oil in exchange for fertilizer.

When Sky News reporters asked Islamic State defectors in Turkey whether these exchanges between the Islamic State and the Syrian government were genuine, they replied “of course”, and added that such trade agreements between the two parties had “been going on for years”. Sky News has not yet released copies of the leased documents.

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

British, Irish citizens who fought the Islamic State are released from prison

Joe AckermanTwo British and one Irish citizen, who fought with Kurdish units against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but were imprisoned in Iraqi Kurdistan while they were trying to return to Europe, have been freed. The three men are Joshua Molloy, from County Laois in the Republic of Ireland, Jac Holmes from Bournemouth, England, and Joe Ackerman (pictured), from the West Yorkshire city of Halifax in England’s northern region. All three joined Kurdish militias and saw action in Syria and Iraq in recent months.

Holmes, a former information technology manager, had no military experience when, in early 2015, aged 22, he entered Syria, aiming to join Kurdish forces. He soon enlisted in the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish group that serves as the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Syria. The Englishman from Bournemouth participated in several battles, but returned to the United Kingdom in June 2015, in order to recover from a bullet wound to the shoulder, which he suffered while in the battlefield. As soon as he was cured, he returned to Syria and rejoined the YPG. His compatriot, Joe Ackerman, is a former member of the British armed forces who traveled to Kurdistan last year and joined the YPG after entering Syria illegally. He too was eventually injured when his patrol was struck by a roadside bomb. The third man, Irishman Joshua Molloy, is also a former soldier, having served in the British Royal Irish Regiment, an infantry regiment of the British Army.

Many Western governments, including the British and Irish governments, maintain that their citizens who fight in the Syrian civil war may be prosecuted under counterterrorism legislation, even if they have fought against the Islamic State. But that has not stopped hundreds of Westerners from traveling to Syria and Iraq to join mostly Kurdish, Assyrian and other forces. Last December, intelNews reported on a study that identified over 108 American citizens who had enlisted in the various militias and armed groups fighting against the Islamic State. Nearly half of them had joined the YPG in Syria, while others had enlisted in the peshmerga forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq, as well as in an assortment of Christian militias, including the Nineveh Plains Protection Units and the Dwekh Nawsha.

According to reports, Holmes, Ackerman and Molloy were on their way back to Europe and trying to cross from Syria into northern Iraq, when they were captured by Iraqi Kurdish government forces. They were jailed for over a week in the Kurdish city of Irbil while their captors tried to verify that they were not Islamic State volunteers. They were released on Sunday. In a statement issued last weekend, the British Foreign Office said it was helping its two citizens return to England as soon as possible.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2016 | Permalink

Defector reveals thousands of Islamic State internal documents

ISIS - JFTens of thousands of classified documents belonging to the Islamic State have been released by a disillusioned former member of the organization, who says that the group has been taken over by secularists. According to British-based agency Sky News, the documents were provided on a memory stick stolen from the Islamic State by a Syrian former member of the organization, who goes by the name “Abu Hamed”. Hamed allegedly stole the documents from the Islamic State’s “internal security police”, which Sky News also refers to as “the group’s Security Service”. He took it with him when he defected from the organization, which he says he joined as a convert from the non-Islamist Free Syrian Army. He told Sky News’ Stuart Ramsay that he left the group after concluding that it had been “taken over” by former Iraqi soldiers belonging to Ba’ath, the secularist party that was at the heart of the regime led by the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. As a result, “Islamic rules […] have totally collapsed” inside the Islamic State, said Hamed.

The documents that Hamed gave Sky News are said to number in the “tens of thousands” and reportedly identify nationals from over 50 countries who are members of the Islamic State. Many of the documents contain the 23-question form that all prospective members of the Islamic State have to complete before being admitted into the organization. The questionnaires contain the prospective members’ names and aliases, contact information and family background, among other identifying data. Ramsay said he met Hamed “in a secret location in Turkey”, where the former Free Syrian Army soldier is now living after defecting from the Islamic State. According to the Sky News reporter, Hamed said he abandoned the Islamist organization because its current leadership consists almost exclusively of Ba’athists, who are not known for their religious views or lifestyle.

Ramsay reports that many of the names of Islamic State members that are contained in the documents are already “well-known” to Western and Middle Eastern intelligence agencies. But the collection of members’ names contains several individuals from the Middle East, Northern Africa, Europe, as well as North America, who were allegedly not included in intelligence agencies’ lists. One file surrendered by Hamed is headlined “Martyrs”, and allegedly features the names of members of a brigade that consists “entirely of fighters who wanted to carry out suicide attacks and were trained to do so”. Hamed is also reported to have told Sky News that the Islamic State is gradually abandoning its self-described state capital of Raqqa in Syria and relocating to Iraq. Sky News said it had informed Western government agencies about the documents.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 March 2016 | Permalink

Are Russian engineers working at an ISIS-controlled gas facility?

Tuweinan SyriaSyrian and American media are reporting that Russian engineers, employed by a Moscow-based contractor with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are working at a Syrian gas plant under the control of the Islamic State. The facility in question is the so-called Tuweinan gas plant, which is located in central Syria, approximately 60 miles (40 kilometers) southwest of the city of Raqqa. The Islamic State declared Raqqa its capital shortly after occupying it, in June 2013, and the city has since served as the militant group’s administrative headquarters. The nearby Tuweinan gas plant is believed to be the largest of its kind in Syria. In 2013, it was occupied by an alliance of factions operating under the banner of the Al-Nusra Front, the primary al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. But in early 2014, Islamic State forces took control of the plant following a military offensive against Al-Nusra.

The plant was built by Russian construction company Stroytransgaz, which was awarded the contract in 2007 by the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. It is important to note that Stroytransgaz is owned by Gennady Timchenko, a Russian oligarch who is believed to have close ties to President Putin. Following Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on the construction company, accusing it of having “direct links” with the inner circle of the Russian government. Since that time, a subcontractor of Stroytransgaz, known as Hesco, which is owned by George Haswani, a Russian national of Syrian descent, has been employed by the parent company to help in the completion of the Tuweinan plant. Haswani, who holds dual Russian and Syrian nationality, was recently singled out by the US Tresury for allegedly “brokering the transfer of oil” between the Assad regime in Damascus and the Islamic State.

In October 2014, the anti-Islamic State website Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that a group of Russian engineers employed by Stroytransgaz subcontractor Hesco had been given permission by the Islamic State to continue working at the plant. On Tuesday, US-based review Foreign Policy said it had spoken to “Turkish officials and Syrian rebels”, who claimed that the Russian engineers were still at the Tuweinan plant. The sources told Foreign Policy that the Russian engineers had been tasked with completing the construction of the facility, as promised in 2007, but this time with the permission of the Islamic State. The latter needs the plant to remain operational. Both Stroytransgaz and Hesco have denied the allegations. The Russian government has not commented on the case.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 February 2016 | Permalink

Spy charges for journalists who claimed Turkey arms Syrian Islamists

Can Dündar Erdem GülTwo leading Turkish journalists, who claimed in a series of articles that Ankara has been arming militant Islamists in Syria, are facing espionage charges for “airing Turkish state secrets”. The two, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, work for Cumhuriyet, (The Republic), Turkey’s oldest newspaper, which typically voices staunchly secularist views representing the center-left of the political spectrum. Last year Dündar, who is the paper’s editor, and Gül, who serves as the paper’s bureau chief in Ankara, published a series of articles claiming that the Turkish government was secretly supporting Salafi Jihadist groups in Syria.

In the articles, Dündar and Gül alleged that a convoy of trucks had been intercepted on its way from Turkey to Syria. According to the two reporters, the trucks were transporting large quantities of weapons and ammunition to Syrian rebels as part of a secret operation conducted by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Turkey’s main spy agency. But the MİT had not shared details of the operation with Turkish police, which promptly stopped the vehicles, searched them and found them to be “loaded with weapons” and ammunition, according to Cumhuriyet. The paper also published video footage showing the alleged MİT trucks.

When the story was published, it caused major ripples in Turkish political life and prompted the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to issue official denials directed against the paper’s accusations. Government spokespeople claimed that the captured trucks contained humanitarian assistance, and not weapons. Later, however, Turkish officials admitted that the trucks were indeed carrying weapons, but that they were destined for Turkmen guerrillas operating in Syrian territory. President Erdoğan, however, was furious with Cumhuriyet and warned the paper’s investigative reporters that they would “pay a heavy price” for revealing state secrets.

The two reporters were arrested in November of last year and have since been held in detention. On Wednesday, state prosecutors charged Dündar and Gül with espionage, attempting to topple the Turkish government by force, and supporting terrorism. Interestingly, the main plaintiffs in the case are President Erdogan and Hakan Fidan, the director of MİT. If found guilty, the two Cumhuriyet journalists will face up to life in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 28 January 2016 | Permalink

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