Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

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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

Wave of bomb threats prompts hundreds of evacuations in four countries

Toronto subway evacuationAn unprecedented “flood of bomb threats” prompted hundreds of evacuations and closures of private buildings, transport hubs and offices in four countries on Thursday, causing confusion and in some cases panic. The threats —which numbered in the hundreds— were issued throughout the day Thursday against businesses, schools, hospitals and media companies in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is the first time in history that such a large wave of bomb threats was issued against so many targets internationally.

Police agencies in the United States and Canada said that most of the threats were emailed, but some were phoned in by unknown individuals. They warned that devices containing explosive compounds such as tetryl or trinitrotoluene would be detonated unless funds were deposited into an international account using the virtual currency bitcoin. The messages also warned that the alleged devices would be detonated if “any police activity or unusual behavior” were detected. A deadline of one business day was given to deposit the funds. Throughout the day, police agencies across three continents issued notices cautioning people to remain aware of their surroundings and report suspicious messages or behavior. It was eventually determined that virtually all bomb threats were not credible.

However, it was the sheer number and geographical extent of the threats that shocked law enforcement agencies across four countries. In the United States, threats were reported in cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Oklahoma City, where over dozens of specific addresses were targeted. Nearly 30 schools were placed on lockout in the state of Colorado, while numerous buildings were evacuated in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Cincinnati and Seattle. Smaller cities were also affected, including South Bend, Indiana, Grand Rapids, Iowa, Charlotte, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia, and Park City, Utah. In Canada dozens of bomb threats were issued in Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Toronto, where five of the city’s subway stations were shut down for several hours. Media reports late on Thursday said it was unclear how many —if any— of those targeted paid the bitcoin ransoms demanded by the hoaxers.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 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

France freezes assets of Iranian spies in response to foiled terror attack in Paris

French Ministry for the EconomyFrance has seized the financial assets of two Iranian spies and frozen all assets belonging to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, in response to a foiled bomb attack in Paris, which the French government has blamed on Tehran. The alleged bomb attack was uncovered on June 30 of this year, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, while another Iranian man was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals were charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group with roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government. France, Germany and Belgium allege that the aborted bombing plot was an attempt by Iran to disrupt the close relations between the MEK and Western governments.

On Tuesday, Paris announced the seizure of assets of two of the men who were arrested in June and July. One is an accredited Iranian diplomat identified as Assadollah Asadi, who is believed to be an official-cover intelligence officer. The other man is Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, who was arrested by French authorities. He is believed to be an Iranian sleeper agent. All assets belonging to the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence were also been frozen, effective immediately, it was announced. In a joint statement, the French ministers of foreign affairs, economics and the interior said that the move reflected the France’s “commitment to fight terrorism, in all its manifestations […], especially on its territory”. The statement added that “the extremely heinous act envisaged on our territory could not go without a response”.

The Iranian government has denied all connection to the alleged plot in Paris and has dismissed the incident a “false flag” operation staged by MEK in cooperation with Tehran’s “enemies at home and abroad”.

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

Radioactive device goes missing in Malaysia, prompting security fears

Malaysia’s Atomic Energy Licensing BoardA highly radioactive device used by an energy company has gone missing in Malaysia, sparking a nationwide emergency for fear that it might have been stolen by a militant group. According to Malaysia’s Straits Times newspaper, a radioactive dispersal device (RDD), which is used for the industrial radiography of oil and gas supplies, disappeared during transit on August 10. The device, which weighs approximately 50 pounds, or 23 kilograms, disappeared from the back of a company truck in the early hours of the morning while it was being transported by two technicians. They were reportedly transporting the RDD from Kuala Lumpur to Seremban, an industrial town with a population of approximately 600,000, located 40 miles south of the Malaysian capital.

The technicians told the police that they placed the RDD onto the back of a company truck for the routine transport, at approximately 2:00 a.m. Upon arriving in Seremban at 3:00 a.m. that night, they realized that the device had “simply disappeared” from the truck. The Straits Times said that both men were immediately arrested, but were released last Friday, August 17, after the authorities determined that they were not implicated in sabotaging or stealing the radioactive device. On Monday, August 20, the Reuters news agency contacted Mazlan Mansor, police chief of Selangor, the federal province that includes both Kuala Lumpur and Seremban. He told the news agency that “yes, there is a report and we are investigating”. However, he refused to elaborate on the missing RDD, according to Reuters.

A major question regarding the missing device concerns the amount of iridium that is inside it. Iridium is a radioactive substance that is used for the non-destructive testing (known as industrial radiography) of oil and gas supplies. Some experts have expressed concerns that the radioactive substance inside the missing RDD could be combined with conventional explosives and be used as a ‘dirty bomb’ in order to contaminate a highly populated area with radiation. The New Straits Times quoted an unnamed official at Malaysia’s Atomic Energy Licensing Board as saying that the RDD “cannot fall into the wrong hands, as the consequences can be deadly”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 July 2018 | Research credit: A.G.B. | Permalink

Man who attended Charlottesville far-right rally tried to derail passenger train

Amtrak trainA man who attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with members of a neo-Nazi organization, has been charged with terrorism offences after he tried to derail a passenger train. Taylor M. Wilson, of St. Charles, Missouri, was arrested by federal law enforcement officials on October 22, after he attempted to sabotage a passenger train with 175 people aboard in rural Nebraska. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wilson entered the train’s engine room and pulled the emergency brakes, thus bringing the train to a sudden halt. He was eventually subdued by a train conductor and other railway employees, who successfully prevented him from reaching for a loaded revolver that he had with him. Following his arrest, police found in his backpack a box of ammunition, a knife, a hammer, and a full-face respirator mask with a filter.

Now the FBI says that Wilson boarded the train intent on carrying out a terrorist assault, and that he pulled the train’s breaks “with intent to harm those aboard”. In court documents that were unsealed last week, FBI agents state that a search of Wilson’s property in Missouri uncovered a large weapons cache consisting of fifteen firearms, some of which were automatic. Nearly 1,000 rounds of ammunition were also confiscated from Wilson’s house, where federal officers also found literature published by American white supremacist organizations like the National Socialist Movement. According to the indictment, some of the weapons and white nationalist literature had been hidden inside a concealed compartment located behind a refrigerator unit.

It appears that Wilson obtained most of his firearms legally and that he had been issued a concealed carry permit. However, the FBI claims that Wilson’s firearms “have been used for, or obtained in anticipation of engaging in, or planning to engage in, criminal offenses against the United States”. In addition to this claim, the FBI indictment states that Wilson traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of last year to attend the “Unite the Right” rally, which was organized by various white supremacist, white nationalist, neo-Nazi and militia groups. The FBI says that it has statements from Wilson’s associates and at least one family member, who claim that the accused traveled to Charlottesville as part of a contingent of a neo-Nazi group.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2018 | Permalink