Members of far-right group arrested in Kansas face WMD terrorism charges

Federal arrestsFederal authorities in the United States have charged three men with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction with the intention of blowing up an apartment complex in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Kansas. The men, Patrick Eugene Stein, Curtis Allen and Gavin Wright, who called themselves ‘the Crusaders’, allegedly wanted to spark a religious war between Christians and Muslims in the United States. They were arrested last week in simultaneous raids conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after they obtained guns and chemicals for making bombs. According to the US Department of Justice, the terrorism suspects planned to build a device similar to the ammonium nitrate-based bomb used by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Recordings of telephone conversations between members of the ‘Crusaders’ reveal their desire to use the attack to entice militia groups across America to take up arms against the government. They also expressed a desire to “wake people up” and turn Americans against Islam and Muslims. It appears that the three men began planning their attack in early 2016. By early summer, they had selected as their primary target an apartment complex housing many Muslim immigrants from Somalia, located in Garden City, Kansas. According to court documents, the group planned to detonate explosives hidden inside cars parked across from the two main entrances to the apartment building. Knowing that one of the apartments is used as a makeshift mosque by the residents of the complex, the ‘Crusaders’ allegedly planned to detonate the bombs during the traditional Muslim prayer time on a Friday. The goal, according to the indictment, was to kill as many people as possible.

But the FBI had been monitoring the group after receiving a tip-off by a man who said he had attended the ‘Crusaders’ planning meetings and was concerned about their violent intentions. The FBI promptly put together a sting operation, in which FBI agents posing as far-right militants offered to sell the group guns. Soon afterwards, the girlfriend of Curtis Allen, one of the ‘Crusaders’, contacted the authorities saying her boyfriend had physically abused her. She then showed police officers a room in her house where Allen had reportedly stored weapons and chemicals for manufacturing explosives. Realizing that the militant group was close to launching a strike, the FBI decided to move in and arrest its members last week. All of them are currently being held without bail and face life in prison if convicted.

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

Comment: Far-right militancy just as dangerous as Islamist extremism

Dylann RoofMany in the United States associate terrorism with contemporary versions of militant Islam. The data, however, tells a different story: since 2002, domestic extremists who hold far-right ideologies have struck more often and have killed more people than Islamic-inspired radicals. This blog has argued in the past that American counterterrorism policy creates a security vacuum by over-concentrating on Islamic-inspired radicals and largely ignoring domestic terrorist groups. In an insightful article published earlier this year in Newsweek magazine, Kurt Eichenwald, a 20-year veteran of investigative reporting and author of The Informant, argues that far-right radicalism is a bigger threat to American security than Islamic militancy, including the Islamic State.

Eichenwald cites a report by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which was based on surveys from 382 law enforcement groups across the US. The report, published in June of last year, argues that American “law enforcement agencies […] consider anti-government violent extremists, not radicalized Muslims, to be the most severe threat of political violence” they face. He also points to increasing incidents of surveillance of Muslim schools, religious and community centers in nearly a dozen states by members of far-right militia groups for what informants describe as “operational purposes”.

American counterterrorism specialists understand that the term “far-right militancy” encompasses thousands of groups of various sizes and capabilities, which are both wildly diverse and constantly evolving, says Eichenwald. Most experts separate the members of these groups into three distinct categories, namely violent racists, anti-federalist (or anti-government) radicals, and religious fundamentalists. These factions, which include dozens of sub-factions, do not usually work together and even have adversarial relations with each other. Violent racists operate as members of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan in mostly rural and semi-urban settings. In urban environments, neo-Nazi and skinhead groups are more prevalent than the KKK. Anti-government radicals join armed militias that espouse various ideologies representing the so-called “sovereign citizens” worldview —namely the belief that federal, state or local laws are tyrannical and do not apply to them. The final category, religious fundamentalists, are members of various Christian identity groups that prioritize the Bible over the US Constitution and support the violent imposition of Christian religious codes on social life.

The list of these groups is growing, says Eichenwald, largely in reaction to economic pressures caused by the deep recession of 2007. The ascendency of Barack Obama to the US presidency has also radicalized the racist-oriented far right, he says, which overlaps to some extent with the militia movement. In 2008 there were 42 organized militia groups operating in the US. Today there are 276, he says, referring to information provided by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. There is no doubt that Islamic fundamentalism poses clear dangers to US security. But, as Eichenwald argues, this country has been extremely lucky to have avoided a repeat of the 1995 attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, which was carried out by a white supremacist guided by militant anti-government ideas. A repeat of such a massacre in recent years has not been due to lack of trying, says Eichenwald, and ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 October 2016 | Permalink

Flow of foreign fighters to ISIS drops to near zero, intel assessments show

ISIS meetingThe transfer of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups has been all but eliminated in countries across the world, according to intelligence assessments. In previous years, it has been estimated that nearly as many as 2,000 foreign recruits, both men and women, crossed into Syria each month, mainly from Turkey, with the intention of joining armed Sunni groups. By the end of 2015, it was believed that over 30,000 foreign nationals from close to 90 countries had entered Syria and Iraq to fight for one of the Sunni-inspired opposition groups taking part in the Syrian civil war. Most of these foreign recruits joined the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

But current intelligence assessments produced by analysts in the US Intelligence Community suggest that the total inflow of foreign recruits has trickled down to a total of just 50 since the beginning of 2016. Many European countries, notably Belgium and Britain, have not seen any of their nationals leaving for Syria or Iraq this year, while fewer than 10 Americans have done so since January. According to The Washington Post, which last week published a report on the subject, this unprecedented trend is largely attributable to the shrinking territory —and presumably operational strength— of the Islamic State. Some experts note that, like al-Qaeda before it, the Islamic State is now seen as “failing entity” by Sunnis, prompting many aspiring jihadists to not wish to be associated with the group. It has also becoming more difficult for individuals to enter Syria, as Western governments and Turkey have grown progressively vigilant of young men and women seeking to travel to regional warzones. The Islamic State has also lost its control over regions that are adjacent to Turkey’s borders, which discourages Turkish and Syrian smugglers from attempting to transfer people across the notoriously porous border.

But even though the decline is sustainable, and marks “an important milestone” in multinational endeavors to combat the growth of the Islamic State, The Washington Post notes that it also raises critical questions about the future of Western security. Specifically, the paper wonders whether the terrorism threat from the Islamic State is easing, or if it is “morphing into a more dangerous new phase”, in which potential recruits are instructed to attack Western targets and former recruits disperse into conflict-prone areas across the world to spread the jihad there.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 September 2016 | Permalink

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