New information points to previously unknown ISIS intelligence agency

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State has set up a secretive intelligence agency whose task is to set up sleeper cells abroad and has already sent “hundreds of operatives” to Europe and Asia, according to information emerging from interrogations of suspects. According to The New York Times, the information about the intelligence agency comes from “thousands of pages” of intelligence files from American, French, Belgian, Austrian and German agencies. The documents include information from interviews with captured members or defectors from the Islamic State, which is otherwise known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Citing unnamed American military and intelligence officials, The Times says the ISIS intelligence agency goes by the name Emni. It appears to be a multilevel organization that includes domestic and external operational components. It is headed by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the most infamous Syrian official in the Islamic State, who has also served as the group’s information director and head of its special forces units. Emni’s external unit is tasked with conducting terrorist operations abroad. These are the responsibility of several lieutenants, who are permitted to recruit the most capable members of ISIS from around the world. These recruits are typically placed in units according to nationality and language skills. They are then trained and deployed in small cells that remain in touch with Emni’s headquarters but operate in relative independence from the agency.

According to ISIS defectors, Emni began deploying cells abroad in 2014, focusing primarily on Europe and Asia, including the Middle East. Allegedly, Emni cells have been or are currently operational in Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Belgium, Lebanon, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia. Close to 30 operatives have managed to carry out 10 attacks around the world, while another 30 have been arrested while preparing them. The Times notes that, if the information about Emni’s tasks is correct, then the recent attackers who launched operations in Europe could have far closer ties to the Islamic State than initially presumed. Interestingly, it appears that Emni is following a different tactic in the United States, where the widespread availability of weapons does not require them to deploy operatives who have received training in Iraq or Syria. Instead, they use the Internet to radicalize potential recruits. Once radicalized, “if they have no prior record, they can buy guns, so we don’t need to have no contact man who has to provide guns for them”, according to a German former member of ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Will ISIS claim responsibility for Istanbul airport attack? (updated)

Istanbul Airport TurkeyTurkish security and counterterrorism officials are blaming the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria for Tuesday’s bloody attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, which left at least 41 people dead and nearly 300 injured. But will ISIS claim responsibility for the attack? And if not, why not? ISIS is indeed the most likely culprit of Tuesday night’s terrorist attack. The modus operandi of the three attackers, which some unconfirmed reports suggest Turkey has now confirmed were foreign nationals, matches that of previous ISIS attacks on high-profile international targets. More importantly, the style of the attack does not fit the profile of the secessionist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as PKK, which almost always targets uniformed personnel in Turkey.

There is no shortage of motives for ISIS to target Turkey. The militant group wants to destabilize Turkey, which it sees as a prime market for spreading its ideas, especially among the country’s disenfranchised religious working class. The attack at Istanbul’s airport happened in the holy month of Ramadan, the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar, during which ISIS said would launch a wave of violence around the world. Last but not least, foreign and domestic intelligence agencies had warned the Turkish government in recent weeks of an impending large-scale attack by ISIS, saying that the group was anxious to re-galvanize its supporters after suffering heavy military defeats in Iraq and Syria. Since the start of 2015, experts have connected ISIS to at least seven different attacks on Turkish soil, most of them in large urban centers like Ankara and Istanbul. However, the only attacks the militant group has claimed responsibility for were against Syrian anti-ISIS activists based in southern Turkey. In contrast, ISIS has shied away from officially linking itself with deadly attacks against high-profile targets in Turkey. This latest attack may fall in line with that pattern.

But why would ISIS not claim responsibility for such a media-savvy strike? There is no question that the Sunni Islamist group wants to destabilize Turkey’s economy, a goal that it sees as key to its success. That explains Tuesday night’s attack on one of the country’s busiest transport hubs during the peak of the tourist season. At the same time, however, ISIS is aware that Turkey’s main concern in the Middle East is not Sunni Islamism, but the rise of the PKK and other secessionist Kurdish groups. The latter are some of ISIS’ most formidable military adversaries, and the Islamist group would rather not distract Turkey from its escalating war against the Kurds. What’s more, because Ankara has been paying most of its attention to Kurdish separatists, ISIS has been able to build an extensive network of operatives inside Turkey, and it does not want to see it demolished by Turkish security forces. ISIS is therefore engaged in a delicate balancing act: on the one hand it wants to destabilize Turkey so as to export its sectarian war to one of the world’s most populous Sunni Muslim nations. On the other hand, however, it does not want to alter Turkey’s security priorities, which are mostly focused on Kurdish militias.

What will it mean if ISIS breaks with the typical pattern and does claim responsibility for Tuesday’s attack in Istanbul? That would be equivalent to an official declaration of war by the Islamic State against the Turkish Republic, a call for arms issued to all pro-ISIS networks in Turkey for the opening of a northern front in this widening regional conflict. It could also spell trouble for Turkey’s beleaguered security forces, which will be forced to divide their attention between two foes, the PKK in the east and in urban centers, and ISIS in the south and in popular tourist resorts throughout the country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 June 2016 | Permalink

Iran says it foiled ‘massive terrorist attack’ by Sunni militants

TehranIranian intelligence officials said on Monday that they foiled “one of the largest terrorist attacks ever planned” against the country, allegedly plotted by Sunni militants aiming to inflict mass casualties during the month of Ramadan. A statement by the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence said that the attacks had been planned to take place simultaneously in the capital Tehran and several other Iranian cities. Iranian state-owned news agencies reported that an unspecified number of suspects had been arrested and were under interrogation by the authorities.

The statement by the Intelligence Ministry provided few details, but said that the suspects were arrested in several raids conducted across Iran. It added that “a great deal of explosives and ammunition” were confiscated in the raids. The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), which has close links with the Iranian government, said that the raids were personally coordinated by Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Shamkhani is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, which is effectively the country’s national security council. Another government-controlled news agency, Fars, said that the terrorist plot aimed to attack civilian targets during the holy month of Ramadan, which is the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar. Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, reported on Monday that the attacks had been planned for last Thursday, a day in the Iranian religious calendar when festivities are held to commemorate the death of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed.

None of the media reports identified those who were allegedly connected with the planned attacks. However, the reports repeatedly used the term ‘takfir’, a derogatory epithet used to describe Muslims who display militancy against those whom they consider to be ‘unbelievers’. The term is frequently employed by state-owned Iranian media to refer to the followers of the Islamic State, which Iran has been battling for over a year in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. However, IRNA referred to the alleged plotters as “Wahhabi takfiris”, possibly implying a link with Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state-promoted religious dogma. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have sunk to unprecedented lows in recent years. Last month, Iran said it would not allow religious pilgrims to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage, because the Saudi authorities had not responded to Tehran’s requests to provide security for Iranian pilgrims.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 June 2016 | Permalink

Terrorism most likely cause of EgyptAir disaster, despite no ‘smoking gun’

EgyptAirEgypt’s aviation minister has joined the head of Russia’s domestic security service, unnamed US intelligence sources, as well as a host of aviation security experts, in seeing terrorism as the most likely cause behind the EgyptAir MS804 air disaster. That is despite the absence of a clear ‘smoking gun’ and silence from the Islamic State, which leads many to still caution that the possibility of an accident should not be ruled out. The regularly scheduled flight departed Paris, France, late on Wednesday, heading for Cairo, Egypt. But it disappeared from radar screens just minutes after entering Egyptian airspace and is now believed to have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.

On Thursday, Egypt’s Minster of Aviation, Sherif Fathi, told reporters that, when carefully weighing what is known about the plane’s disappearance, “the possibility of having a different action or a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure”. He was soon joined by Alexander Bortnikov, Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, who said that Wednesday’s air disaster was “in all likelihood” caused by an act of terrorism. Asked by reporters if the FSB had evidence pointing to a terrorist attack on the plane, Bortnikov refused to comment.

Also on Thursday, the American network CBS cited an unnamed “US intelligence source” familiar with US investigations into EgyptAir MS804, who said that “all indicators” were that “a catastrophic event took down the airplane”. The network added that American investigators were leaning toward the possibility of an explosion onboard the aircraft because of its chaotic flight path in the moments before its disappearance from radar screens. Additionally, US government sources noted that the aircraft descended “like a rock”, at extremely high speed, which also pointed to a sudden, catastrophic event. In contrast, aircraft engine failure typically results in a much lower rate of descent. Citing “two US government officials” CNN network reported that Washington was operating on the assumption that the EgyptAir flight had been “taken down by a bomb”, despite the absence of a “smoking gun”. Conflicting reports indicated that US reconnaissance satellites did not register evidence of an explosion or flash in the eastern Mediterranean around the time that the jetliner disappeared. However, it was also noted that US satellites monitoring the region were “not calibrated to detect explosions”.

In France, the former director of the country’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis for Aviation Security (BAE), Jean-Paul Troadec, said that the possibility of an accident was unlikely. “It’s a modern plane, the incident happened in mid-flight in extremely stable conditions. The quality of the maintenance and the quality of the plane are not in question in this incident”, he told Europe 1 Radio, adding that EgyptAir was authorized to operate out of European airports, so “it is not on any blacklist”. Another expert that weighed in on Thursday was CNN’s aviation correspondent Richard Quest. He told the network that, in today’s aviation environment, “planes just do not fall out of the sky for no reason, particularly at 37,000 feet”, adding that the EgyptAir jetliner disappeared while in cruising mode, which is typically the safest segment of any airborne journey.

Meanwhile, intelligence and security services in the Middle East, Europe and the US have been searching for evidence of a claim of responsibility issued by a group such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. There are also searches taking place to determine whether cellular or online ‘chatter’ from sources associated with terrorist groups has changed in volume or intensity, but so far no obvious signs of a change have been spotted, according to reports. The last time the Islamic State downed an airplane was when it targeted Metrojet Flight 9268, owned by Russian holiday tour operator Kogalymavia, over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The militant group quickly assumed responsibility for the attack, then 20 days later revealed photographs of the bomb that caused the fatal blast.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2016 | Permalink

EgyptAir Flight MS804: Was it a terrorist attack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment: Europe’s answer to Brussels bombs may be more damaging than ISIS

Brussels airportIn the past year, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for at least nine terrorist attacks on foreign capitals. The growing list, which features Jakarta, Tunis, Paris, Beirut, Ankara, and Kuwait City, now includes the Belgian capital, Brussels. At least 34 people died in the attacks that rocked Brussels’ Zaventum airport and Maelbeek metro station on March 22, while another 300 were injured, 60 of them critically. This week’s bombings officially constitute the bloodiest terrorist attacks in Belgium’s history, prompting the country’s government to declare three days of national mourning.

Why did the Islamic State attack one of Europe’s smallest countries, with a population of just over 11 million? Some have suggested that Brussels was targeted by the terrorist group because it was an easy target. Observers noted that Belgium’s security and intelligence services are underfunded and demoralized —a “weak link in Europe”, in the words of one expert. There is no question that Belgium’s security apparatus is in need of serious overhaul; but the need is equally great in Amsterdam, in Athens, in Madrid, in Dublin, and elsewhere in Europe. In fact, the Islamic State could have struck any of these European capitals with the same ease that it attacked Brussels —and might still do so.

In reality, the Islamic State’s decision to attack Brussels was carefully calculated and consistent with the group’s overall strategy. The primary reason that the Islamists attacked Brussels is that Belgium is one of 30 countries that actively participate in the Combined Joint Task Force, the international group behind Operation Inherent Resolve. Led by the United States military, the operation has been targeting Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria since October 2014. The Islamic State wished to send a message to Europeans that their military intervention in the Middle East will be costly at home. Secondly, Brussels was struck because it is the headquarters of the European Union, which last month declared the Islamic State’s campaign against religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq as an act of genocide. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Belgium was targeted because a significant percentage of its population —as much as 7 percent by some estimates— is Muslim.

What is more, the degree of integration of Belgian Muslims in mainstream life is markedly limited and partly explains why so many of them —400 by some estimates, the highest per-capita number in Europe—have emigrated to Syria and Iraq in order to join the Islamic State. It is worth remembering that the Islamic State emerged as the de facto guarantor or Sunni Muslims by essentially provoking Iraq’s Shiites to attack and marginalize the country’s Sunni Arab minority. Following a series of Shiite attacks against Sunni communities in Iraq, which were part of a broader post-2003 sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, the Islamic State emerged as the protector of Sunni Arabs and has since fought against Syrian Alawites, Hezbollah, Iranian forces, Iraqi Shiites, and others. Its popular support in Iraq and Syria stems from the fear held by Sunni Arabs that, if the Islamic State is defeated, their communities will be exterminated by vengeful and unforgiving Shiites.

Having gained from sectarianism in the Middle East, the Islamic State is now implementing the same tactic in Europe. It is thus targeting countries like France and Belgium, which have significant Muslim populations, in order to provoke aggressive reactions against domestic Muslim communities. In other words, it expects that attacks like those in Belgium will favor extremist ideologies throughout the European continent, and in turn further-marginalize European Muslims. The rise of Islamophobia, the strengthening of extremist political parties, and the disintegration of European values such as acceptance and tolerance, are likely to create a new generation of disaffected European Muslim youth, many of whom will be prime candidates for Islamic State membership.

European societies must not allow the Islamic State to change the political identity of an entire continent through violence. Along with meticulous police and intelligence work, the bombs in Brussels must be answered with concerted attempts to deepen the social integration of European Muslims, and more broadly to promote cohesion between ethnic and religious groups in Europe. Anything short of that will provide the Islamic State with the same strategic advantage it has enjoyed in the Middle East for nearly a decade.

* Joseph Fitsanakis is Assistant Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University in the United States.

News you may have missed #893: Intelligence and the attacks in Belgium

BrusselsBelgian Intelligence Services ‘Overwhelmed and Outnumbered’. Tuesday’s deadly attacks on Brussels airport and a metro station, which left at least 30 people dead, demonstrate that the Belgian security forces are overwhelmed and outnumbered by the threat posed by radical Islamists, experts say. Belgium’s security services are not so much incompetent, say experts, as understaffed—that leaves them outnumbered by the high number of suspected radical Islamists, some home-grown and some who have traveled to Syria and back.

Belgian intelligence service seen as weak link in Europe. Following the Paris attacks last November, it became apparent that the real intelligence failure had not been French but Belgian. Before those attacks one of the Belgian intelligence services, Surete de L’Etat, had only 600 personnel to keep tabs on 900 “persons of interest”, many of them potential jihadis who have travelled to Syria and Iraq. Apart from the lack of capacity, the Belgian intel services also lack the capability to deal with an internal ISIS threat.

Belgium feared tragedy was coming but couldn’t stop it. Belgium feared tragedy was coming but couldn’t stop it. Belgium has been trying to fight a growing threat with a relatively small security apparatus. Although Brussels is the diplomatic capital of the world, Belgian state security has only about 600 employees (the exact figure is classified information). Its military counterpart, meanwhile, the Adiv, has a similar number. That makes just over a thousand intelligence officers to secure a country that hosts not just Nato and the EU institutions but countless other organisations.

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