Poland Prepares for Russian Invasion

As Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to threaten Ukraine, having stolen Crimea in the spring and exerted de facto Kremlin control over much of the Donbas this summer, war worries are mounting on NATO’s eastern frontier. New reports of Russian troop movements on the Ukrainian border this week are not reassuring to those Atlantic Alliance members who suffered Soviet occupation for decades, and still live in Moscow’s neighborhood.

Neither are Russian air force incursions into Western airspace calming nerves with their reborn Cold War antics: yesterday, NATO fighters intercepted no less than nineteen Russian combat aircraft, including several heavy bombers. No NATO countries are more worried about Kremlin aggression than the Baltic states, with their small militaries and lack of strategic depth, which are frankly indefensible in any conventional sense without significant and timely Alliance assistance.

But Poland is the real issue when it comes to defending NATO’s exposed Eastern frontier from Russian aggression. Only Poland, which occupies the Alliance’s central front, has the military power to seriously blunt any Russian moves westward. As in 1920, when the Red Army failed to push past Warsaw, Poland is the wall that will defend Central Europe from any westward movement by Moscow’s military. To their credit, and thanks to a long history of understanding the Russian mentality better than most NATO and EU members, Warsaw last fall, when the violent theft of Crimea was still just a Kremlin dream, announced a revised national security strategy emphasizing territorial defense. Eschewing American-led overseas expeditions like those to Iraq and Afghanistan that occupied Poland’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) during the post-9/11 era, this new doctrine makes defending Poland from Eastern aggression the main job of its military. Presciently, then-Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, contradicting optimistic European and NATO presumptions of our era that conventional war in Europe was unthinkable, stated in May 2013, “I’m afraid conflict in Europe is imaginable.”

Particularly in light of the fact that both NATO and the Obama administration rejected my advice to seriously bolster Alliance defenses in the East with four heavy brigades, including the two brigades that Warsaw explicitly asked NATO — meaning, in practice, the United States — for after this year’s Russo-Ukrainian War began in earnest, the issue of Poland’s military readiness is of considerable importance to countries far beyond Poland. Instead of creating a militarily viable NATO tripwire that would deter Russian aggression, the Alliance, and Washington, DC, have opted for symbolic gestures — speeches, military visits, small exercises — that impress the Western media but not the Russians.

Simply put: Can Poland defend itself if Putin decides to move his aggression westward? Even if NATO rides to the rescue, as they would be required to under Article 5 — that is now an “if” question to many in Warsaw — will the Polish military be able to buy sufficient time for the Alliance to come to their aid? Notwithstanding that Poland (and Estonia) are the only “new NATO” members that take their Alliance obligations fully seriously, spending more than the required two percent of GDP on defense — a standard almost all longstanding NATO members can’t manage to meet — there are serious doubts about the ability of Poland’s armed forces to defend against a major Russian move to the West.

There is good news. When it comes to resisting what I term Special War — that shadowy amalgam of espionage, terrorism, and subversion at which the Kremlin excels — Warsaw, with its long acquaintance with sneaky Russian games, is probably better equipped than any almost NATO country to deter and defeat Putin’s secret offensive. The recent arrests of two Polish agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU), one of them a Polish military officer assigned to the MoD, sent a clear message to Moscow that Special War will be countered with aggressive counterintelligence.

When it comes to conventional defense, however, the news from Poland appears less rosy. Despite the fact that no one questions the basic competence of the Polish armed forces, nor the impressiveness of their current defense acquisition program, there is a matter of size. The recent MoD announcement that it is moving thousands of troops closer to the country’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine, where any threat would emerge, is encouraging but not sufficient (thanks to the Cold War, when Poland’s Communist military was directed westward, most of its major military bases are closer to Germany than the East). Since the abandonment of conscription five years ago, a cumbersome process that caused readiness problems for some time, Warsaw’s armed forces come to only 120,000 active duty troops, with less than 48,000 in the ground forces (i.e. the army). That number is insufficient to man the army’s structure of three divisions with thirteen maneuver brigades (ten of them armored or mechanized).

A solution to this manpower shortfall was supposed to be found in the establishment of the National Reserve Forces (NSR), with 20,000 fully trained part-time volunteers who would flesh out the order of battle in a crisis. Yet the NSR, which was announced by the MoD five years ago with much fanfare, has had considerable teething problems, with shortages of recruits and inadequate training budgets. Recent reports indicate both morale and readiness are low among NSR soldiers, who feel poorly treated by the regular military, while none dispute that the force has only recruited and trained 10,000 troops, half the target figure.

Quality can compensate for deficient quantity to an extent, and Poland’s recent acquisition of more late-model Leopard II tanks from Germany, adding to the 124 it already has, means they will be able to replace most of their Soviet-model legacy armor, and meet any Russian incursion on an equal footing in terms of quality, if not quantity. By approximately 2020, the air force will have wholly replaced its Soviet-era helicopters, buying 150 modern airframes, while the MoD plans to purchase thirty-two late-model attack helicopters by 2022, which would pose a significant threat to Russian armor.

More interesting still are plans taking shape to give Warsaw asymmetric deep-strike capabilities to resist Russian aggression. The navy and the army intend to acquire long-range missiles to counter superior Russian numbers, but the cornerstone of the deterrence concept called “Polish Fangs” by Warsaw is the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM), to be carried by the air force’s F-16 fleet (the wing of forty-eight F-16’s is the backbone of Polish airpower). Combined with drones and Poland’s excellent special operations forces, which are among the best in NATO, Warsaw believes that the American-made JASSM on the American-made F-16 will give them an important qualitative advantage over the Russians, including the ability to precisely hit targets up to 370 kilometers behind enemy lines.

Yet even the most optimistic forecasts predict that “Polish Fangs” will not be fully operational for three more years — five seems a more realistic estimate — so there is the pressing matter of deterring Putin’s rising aggression right now. To provide additional deterrence, Warsaw is taking the remarkable step of creating home guard forces to harass the Russians in the event of occupation, a condition that Poles are only too familiar with. Unlike Ukraine, Poland plans to be prepared should Putin opt for war.

Ever since Moscow’s aggression against Kyiv became overt in the spring, the Polish MoD began quietly standing up volunteer forces to bolster the armed forces, should the Russians come again. Word of this became public this week with a story in the Polish edition of Newsweek that details what’s been going on behind the scenes. Building on shooting clubs that exist all over the country, possessing several hundred thousand members, the MoD has been supporting the establishment of paramilitary units that would bolster the army if needed. Their intent would be to counter Russian irregulars, GRU’s “little green men” that caused such havoc in Crimea a few months ago.

How many volunteers have already been enrolled is unclear, though it’s evident that the number far exceeds the 10,000 belonging to the NSR. In late September, and explicitly invoking the legendary Home Army (Armia Krajowa — AK) that resisted Nazi occupation in the Second World War, the first volunteer unit was sworn in at Świdnik, near the eastern border, with modest public fanfare, despite the fact that the MoD considers the existence of this new shadow army to be officially classified.

Advocates of the reborn Home Army speak of finding 100,000 volunteers soon, but that seems a rather long-term goal. While this project has attracted the support of some Polish right-wingers — the sort who tend to join rifle clubs — its MoD manager is Major General Bogusław Pacek, the director of the National Defense Academy, a veteran of Poland’s Cold War Communist military not known for dirigiste views. Pacek’s quiet enthusiasm for a new Home Army has been noted and it can be expected that before long “AK 2.0” may constitute more than a nuisance to any invader.

This begs that question why Poland, a leading member of the Atlantic Alliance, thinks it needs to worry about an actual Russian invasion. In the first place, the Poles have been invaded and occupied by Moscow too many times over the centuries, including twice during the last one, to think this is just a fantasy. Putin’s harsh and threatening language gets more attention in Warsaw than just about anywhere else.

The Poles also understand that Article 5 only works as a deterrent if everyone understands that NATO will actually go to war to defend a member under threat. Here, again, recent history gives room for doubt. All of Europe was happy to sit back and watch Poland fight off the Red Army in 1920, alone, while Kremlin sympathizers in Western Europe blocked desperately needed arms shipments headed to Warsaw. More germanely, the joint Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 brought none of the Allied help that Poland was obligated to receive under treaty. Although both Britain and France were supposed to come to Poland’s direct military aid, they were content to declare war on Germany and essentially do nothing, letting Hitler and Stalin dismember Poland completely. Warsaw’s war plans assumed they needed to buy time — perhaps six weeks — until the British and French arrived. That promised rescue force never came, and every Pole today knows it.

Hence NATO assurances are met with a certain skepticism in Warsaw, including — perhaps especially — in defense circles. Then there is the touchy issue of President Obama. The Polish Right was never enamored of him, noting with disgust how Obama in 2009 cancelled a US/NATO missile defense system in the country, termed “betrayal” by Poland’s president, while making the announcement on September 17, the seventieth anniversary of Stalin’s invasion, added insult to injury. More than a few Polish right-wingers have doubted the staying power of Obama, particularly given his youthful dislike of President Reagan, a revered figure to many Poles for his major role in ending the Cold War and regaining Poland’s freedom.

Obama’s talky dithering on foreign and defense issues and his rough dealings with America’s friends have led to Polish worries spreading well beyond the country’s right wing. I deal regularly with Polish defense and intelligence officials, and over the last few years their doubts about Washington, DC’s courage and wisdom have mounted steadily. Poles understand that without American leadership there is no NATO in any military sense. Since the onset of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, those fears have multiplied and there are now many in Warsaw who wonder if Obama would really honor Article 5 in a crisis.

Yesterday I spoke with a top Polish MoD official, a man of sober and strongly pro-American views whom I’ve known for years. Referring to this week’s needless White House crisis with Israel, another American ally who has doubts about the current administration, he noted, “I didn’t need the Beltway media to tell me who the real chickenshit is.” “They really have no idea what they are doing,” he opined about Obama and his national security staff, “and we know it. You have no idea how many promises we’ve been given, even by the President himself, but there’s never any follow-up, it’s all talk. He thinks he’s on Oprah.” When I asked if he thought America would come to Poland’s aid in a crisis, he said laconically, “I’d flip a coin.”

In a similar vein, a senior Polish intelligence official, another veteran of long collaboration with Washington, DC, expressed his skepticism to me. “Is it 1939 again? I don’t know,” he explained, “but I think Obama isn’t even a Chamberlain,” citing the British prime minister who left Poland in the lurch at the beginning of World War Two. Given such doubts, combined with Putin’s obvious desire to break the Atlantic Alliance, Poland will prepare to resist the Russians alone, while hoping and praying it does not have to.

The Mysterious Case of David Drugeon

Three weeks ago, McClatchy made worldwide headlines with a remarkable scoop: recent U.S. missile strikes on Al-Qa’ida forces in Syria, the so-called Khorasan Group, explicitly targeted a French national who was a defector from his country’s intelligence services. Citing unnamed European intelligence officials, the article provided considerable detail, though it did not name this mystery man (“Two people, independently of one another, provided the same name, which McClatchy is withholding pending further confirmation.”) Although sources could not agree whether this Frenchman gone rogue had belonged to the French military’s special forces or the country’s foreign intelligence service (DGSE), or perhaps both, the piece left no doubt that this was a very serious problem as the defector, said to be skilled with explosives, represents a grave threat to his former employers. Needless to add, from any counterintelligence viewpoint, such a defector into the jihadist camp — the first from the West by a bona fide intelligence officer — would be very bad news indeed. Worse, the U.S. missile strikes did not manage to kill this most wanted renegade.

While U.S. intelligence officials did not comment to McClatchy on the piece, the reaction in Paris to its publication was swift and solid. Following custom, DGSE had no public utterance on the allegations, but the French Ministry of Defense (MoD) minced no words, declaring that the story was patently false. While Paris admitted they were worried about a mysterious Frenchman, whom they did not name, who is serving Al-Qa’ida, officials stated repeatedly that the wanted man has no connection to French intelligence. One official simply derided the McClatchy report as “stupid.” Whispers followed that the piece may have been a hit job engineered by U.S. officials who are displeased with Paris of late (“Some American leaders do not welcome Paris’ criticisms of the inconsistency or errors of Washington’s policy in Iraq and Syria,” opined one French official). 

My old counterintelligence spidey sense smelled something amiss with this sensational story, so I made the usual inquiries. Old friends in European intelligence circles, including French, were adamant that McClatchy’s scoop was simply wrong, and had to be, since if a French spook had gone over to the mujahidin, European counterintelligence circles — it’s a small world actually — would have talked about little else, and none of my friends had heard any whisper of a high-placed defection. They were as surprised by the McClatchy piece as everyone else was; it was the talk of every water cooler in every European spy agency for a week or more.

Within days the true story began to emerge, and thanks to a comprehensive analysis of this sensational case by L’Express magazine, we now know the truth of the matter. The target of U.S. cruise missiles in late September was a twenty-four year-old French national named David Drugeon, who indeed did cheat death as American missiles rained down on him. His is the unlikely story of a Catholic boy from Brittany who grew up to become an important member of Al-Qa’ida, achieving the youthful success in the jihadist underworld that eluded him in normal life.

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Born in 1989 in the Breton town of Vannes, into a working class family, Drugeon’s upbringing wasnormal. While his mother was a devout Catholic, his neighborhood was ethnically and religiously diverse, with many North Africans. Close to his brother and an avid soccer fan, David seemed like a typical young French boy until 2002, when his world fell apart when his parents divorced. He was thirteen. In a pattern that’s sadly typical, David filled the void in his shattered life with extremist religion.

This was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and Salafi radicals were in David’s neighborhood, stirring up trouble. He quickly accepted a hardline version of Islam, as did his brother, and began calling himself Daoud. One local Salafi played a father-figure role for the lonely boys, who stayed with their mother after their parents divorced.

Daoud soon had scant interest in anything not relating to extremist Islam. Soccer was in the past, as were his studies. While he had wanted to become an architect, that dream fell to Salafism, as Daoud’s hours and days became devoted to politico-religious indoctrination. As his father explained, “We gave him a choice: either study or religion. He opted for religion.” Back in the neighborhood, Daoud got on the radar of the local police for his extremist activities, while his brother, though a pious Muslim convert, eschewed violent radicalism. By his late teens, the police knew of Daoud’s tendencies, but as he was just a teenager they considered him to be of no real importance, threat-wise, evaluating his small, rag-tag group of local Salafis as “a joke,” conceded a security official.

Daoud came to the attention of the DGSE due to three trips he made to Egypt in 2008-2010. He worked odd jobs in Vannes to finance his visits to Cairo and Alexandria, which he undertook for periods from three to six months, studying at Islamic schools in Egypt, perfecting his Arabic to boot. Yet he remained in touch with his family throughout this period, and outwardly seemed little different: “As far as I could see, he had not changed. He was still the same young man, smiling, sporty, nature-loving and fond of forest walks,” recalled his father.

At no point was Daoud engaged with the French military or its intelligence agencies, Paris has stated more than once. McClatchy made a mistake here, according to the French MoD. Daoud attended a sports training course in the Breton town of Coëtquidan, which happens to be the home of St-Cyr, France’s West Point. This apparently was misread by American reporters. An MoD source, however, was adamant about Drugeon: “He never tried to join the Army. He was never approached by our services. He trained with a civilian organization, and that is all.”

By the spring of 2010, the emerging jihadist abandoned his old life altogether, as L’Express explains:

In 2009 he worked continuously for six months, earning enough money for a visit that he told his father would be similar to his previous ones. On 17 April 2010, his father saw him for the last time.  David/Daoud set off secretly on the road to jihad. He traveled by carpool from Vannes to Brussels, where he boarded a plane. He stopped over in Rome before landing in Cairo. According to our information, he did not travel alone, but was accompanied by a close associate of the imam of the [Vannes] “mosque.”

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Where exactly he went after Cairo is uncertain, but within months Daoud (see picture) was in Pakistan, specifically in the border tribal region of North Waziristan, in the Al-Qa’ida-infested area of Miranshah. He spent the next three years there, going on active campaign with the Taliban for months at a time, gaining a reputation as a skilled bomb-maker and assuming the nom de guerre Souleiman. He was part of a French-speaking jihadist cadre, many of them from the Maghreb, becoming close to their leader, Moez Garsallaoui, a noted Al-Qa’ida fighter and fellow French speaker. In late September 2011, they were joined by a fanatic young Frenchman, Mohamed Merah, who after undergoing weapons training with this group, went back to Toulouse and engaged in a terrible killing spree.

It may not be a coincidence that Merah made his way to the back hills of Miranshah, a place few Europeans can find. Drugeon is possibly the connection between Merah and Al-Qa’ida, as it is difficult to see how the petty criminal from Toulouse could find his way to Pakistan’s wild tribal areas without a friendly sponsor; the two may have met when they were both in Egypt in 2010.

Moez Garsallaoui was killed by an American drone strike in October 2012, while Drugeon survived the attack. Not long after, he abandoned Pakistan and made his way to Syria, like much of Al-Qa’ida’s best cadres, to continue the jihad against the Assad regime. By now he was a leader of the mujahidin himself, despite only being in his early twenties. Legends of his exploits in Syria are widespread but, like nearly all such jihadist tales, impossible to confirm.

His family last heard from Drugeon in June 2010, when letters to both his parents arrived from an unknown location. He had already pressured his mother into converting to Islam, and in his final communication, he exhorted his father to do likewise, promising that the family would “meet in heaven.” Since then, his father has waited for a knock at the door by policemen to tell him of his lost son’s violent end.

Drugeon avoided that American-led end, again, in Syria a few weeks ago. The odds of war suggest that he cannot escape the long arm of U.S. drones and cruise missiles — or perhaps the savage infighting among jihadist groups in Syria — indefinitely. Until then, he will continue to rise in Al-Qa’ida ranks and burnish his legend of the convert from Brittany who led the fight against the “infidel” in several countries.

We can put to rest McClatchy’s claim that Drugeon is any sort of French super-spy gone rogue. It cannot be ruled out that, to cover up something that might look bad, Paris is leaving out parts of the Drugeon tale, perhaps even important parts. Frequently jihadists are approached by security services to cooperate, sometimes with more than a whiff of coercion, and the story that is presented to the public later is too simple (Merah’s case certainly was more complicated than initially believed). It is possible that Drugeon cooperated with French intelligence at some point, Parisian denials notwithstanding, but McClatchy’s account of a top operative, some sort of French James Bond, defecting to Al-Qa’ida is simply untrue. It belongs in the movies, not the newspapers.

Iran’s Secret New Balkan Spy-Terror Offensive

An important European security issue I’ve tried to raise awareness about for years is the nefarious role played by Iranian intelligence in Southeastern Europe, above all in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Tehran’s covert tentacles in that unfortunate country reach deep, since Iran began extending its malign influence there back in 1990, as Communism collapsed in Yugoslavia, and the mullahs dispatched spies with cash to Sarajevo to buy politicians, spread radicalism, and recruit and train terrorists. Iranian intelligence, meaning both its civilian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (VEVAK) and the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran), became very influential among Bosnian Muslims in the 1990’s thanks to their secret alliance with the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which has ruled in Sarajevo for most of the post-Yugoslav period. I’ve explained this messy saga in detail in my book Unholy Terror.

When the United States and NATO intervened in Bosnia’s civil war in the latter half of 1995, the presence of hundreds of Iranian spies in the country was a major concern, and pressure from Washington, DC, forced the SDA to become more discreet about its links with Tehran. Yet these have never disappeared, and for VEVAK and Pasdaran, Bosnia remains very much “their” playground. As Sarajevo would ultimately like to join NATO and the European Union, they understand that every few years the Americans and the EU will put pressure on them to reduce their ties to Iran, particularly to its intelligence services. A sort of Balkan kabuki theater inevitably follows, with promises by the SDA to crack down hard, this time. A few Iranian “diplomats” are discreetly asked to leave the country, some of the more overt Iranian intelligence fronts in Bosnia shut their doors, usually only temporarily, and the Americans and Europeans are bought off for a couple years. And the Iranians remain.

The result of all this is that Iran has a considerable espionage base in Bosnia, which they view as a safe haven for their secret operations in the rest of Europe. Of greatest concern are the detectable ties between Iranian intelligencers and Salafi jihadist groups in Bosnia, some of which operate more or less openly (Sunni-Shia disputes notwithstanding, Tehran is happy to arm, train and equip Salafi jihadists, and nowhere more than Bosnia, where they have been doing that for over two decades). This Tehran-Sarajevo spy-terror nexus cannot be divorced from radical activities in Vienna, since Austria’s capital in many ways is the de facto capital of Salafi jihadism in Southeastern Europe, as well as a major playground for Iranian spies. These form an extended web of malevolence that stretches across Eastern and Central Europe.

Things came to a head in the spring of 2013, however, when the behavior of Iranian spies in Bosnia became so dangerous that Sarajevo was forced to do something about it. In addition to their normal sponsoring of jihadist fronts and radical NGOs in the country, Iranian operatives were visiting known jihadist training camps, distributing cash and weapons, and making little effort to hide this activity. In particular, Iranian spies were seen visiting the jihadist colony at Gornja Maoča in northeastern Bosnia which, despite occasional police raids, has operated for years as a more or less open training camp for jihad-minded radicals. Gornja Maoča has long been the base of Nusret Imamović, the leading extremist cleric in the country, who since late 2013 has been in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qa’ida faction fighting the Assad regime.

Regular visits to Gornja Maoča by Iranian intelligence officers were too much for even Sarajevo to stomach, so Bosnia’s Ministry of Security took the unprecedented step of ordering two Iranian “diplomats,” specifically Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, ostensibly the second and the third secretaries in the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Sarajevo but known by local counterintelligence to actually be spies, to leave Bosnia by the end of April 2013, or they would be officially declared persona non grata and expelled. 

Then, in a telling revelation about who really calls the shots in Sarajevo, that deadline passed and the Iranians were still in Sarajevo, an almost unimaginable breach of diplomatic protocol. Nearly two weeks late, the Iranian “diplomats” finally left Bosnia, and for a time VEVAK and Pasdaran activities in the country adopted a somewhat lower profile, in a manner that pleased Western governments as well as the many Bosnians who do not like their country being used as a spy-terror safe haven by revolutionary Iran.

Yet now the Iranians are back to their old tricks. This week the Sarajevo daily Dnevni avaz reported, based on Bosnian intelligence sources, that Tehran’s spies have resumed their old operational tempo, and their nefarious activities have been rising fast since early September. Over the last six weeks, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security has noticed a significant increase in the activities of known Iranian intelligence officers in Bosnia. Outreach to local jihadists by VEVAK and Pasdaran operatives has been observed, and visits to Gornja Maoča are happening again. Although these activities are more subtle than what Hamzeh Dolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab had been doing, namely driving up to the jihadist camp in their car with Iranian diplomatic tags, Bosnian officials are nevertheless deeply worried. As an anonymous Bosnian security official explained:

There have been a number of contacts with individuals from the Wahhabi community in Gornja Maoča. In recent months, associates of this [Iranian] service have been crossing the border frequently. Many of them use identification documents from Bosnia-Hercegovina, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel, which they received via HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

Worse, many top Iranian intelligence officials have been visiting Bosnia in recent months, including Abolghasem Parhizkar, one of the most senior VEVAK officials, who has visited Bosnia twice in 2014 on a diplomatic passport. Pasdaran officers have also been showing up, customarily including a visit to Vienna along with their drop-in in Sarajevo, as the Bosnian security official explained: 

Nasrolah Pezhmafar and Mohamad Mahdi Fadakar Davrani have used their diplomatic passports to enter Bosnia, while Vahid Hozouri and Sorouh Jusefi have been using their official passports.  During entry, particular attention was paid to one suspect “diplomat,” who came to Sarajevo, having previously spent time in Thailand, India and Georgia, where [Iranian-backed] terrorist attacks had been carried out previously.

Of particular concern is the large number of Iranian intelligence fronts operating in Bosnia that provide cover for operations and funding of terrorists and radicals: NGOs, charities of various sorts, and schools. For the Pasdaran, its most important cut-outs in Bosnia are the “Ibn Sina” Research Institute and the Persian-Bosnian College, but there is a long list of Iranian-linked fronts in the country (my analysis of these and how they provide cover for VEVAK and Pasdaran is here) that play an important role in Tehran’s secret war in Europe.

Then there is the knotty question of just how many spies from Middle Eastern countries are actually in Bosnia. The Ministry of Security assesses that about one thousand secret operatives are present, counting those employed in various front organizations, with the lion’s share from Iran, but with significant representation from the secret services of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait too. (Western security agencies place the figure around 650, but this has more to do with counting methods, i.e. who is actually a spy, than disagreements about the extent of the threat.) For Bosnian counterspies, monitoring so many targets is a simply impossible task, particularly considering the country’s deep financial problems and limited budgets.

For years, Bosnian counterintelligence has been well aware of Iran’s nefarious activities in their country, but customarily there has been little political will to do much about this threat, not least because important SDA officials are on Tehran’s payroll, and have been for many years. Privately, Bosnian security officials express their exasperation to Western friends, but barring a major crackdown, which can only happen if NATO and the EU demand it in exchange for any progress on Bosnian membership in Atlantic and European institutions, nothing will change. Since Iran views Bosnia as a safe haven for its espionage and terrorist activities elsewhere, one which they have enjoyed for a generation, we ought to be asking what this current surge of VEVAK and Pasdaran activity in Southeastern Europe means for regional security. It can’t be anything good.

Diamonds (and Disinformation) Are Forever

My recent post What If Everything You Know About Terrorism is Wrong?, which explained the important (and neglected) role of intelligence services behind a lot of terrorism, got considerable feedback. I highlighted the fact that the Russians invented the dark art of provocation, what they term provokatsiya, and still today Moscow is rather adept as such tactics.

Inevitably this led to mentioning of “false flag” operations, a term which is used casually, and almost always incorrectly, by the tinfoil-hat crowd. False flag ops do exist, but they are little understood by those unfamiliar with real-world espionage. Predictably, I got questions about U.S. intelligence and terrorism. The truth is that American counterterrorism operations lack anything like the nefariously imaginative flair that the Russians bring to the table; this neglect may be good for our democracy but I think we can learn something from the Russians here.

Like clockwork, I got questions about the shadowy Operation GLADIO, which is especially beloved by those seeking to “prove” U.S. and NATO malfeasance. The GLADIO myth is based in certain facts, namely that in the early days of the Cold War, when a Soviet invasion of Western Europe seemed like a real possibility, many European NATO countries established stay-behind networks that would operate in the event their lands wound up under the Kremlin’s heel.

Such stay-behind programs were wanted by European NATO members that had suffered occupation by Nazi Germany: setting up networks that would operate after capitulation was a “lesson learned” from the Second World War. These secret efforts were run by these countries’ intelligence services with assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Most of these stay-behind programs languished in the latter half of the Cold War, as the threat of Soviet invasion loomed less ominously, but many NATO countries maintained some sort of secret program along these lines through the 1980’s.

The mythical GLADIO, the existence of which was leaked as early as 1990, became an obsession for some with the publication of the book NATO’s Secret Armies in 2005 by the Swiss historian Daniele Ganser. Although it was published by an academic press and possesses the footnotes one expects from such a turgid tome, Ganser’s work was lacking in academic standards. However, it made headlines with its explosive claims, especially that NATO-linked intelligence networks were responsible for acts of terrorism, particularly in Italy.

Such claims were met with enthusiasm by many Italians, including those on the Left who tend to see the CIA lurking behind every tree. (Let it be said that Italians of all political stripes love conspiracies to explain complex things, so much so that they have a word, dietrologia — roughly “behindology” — for this tendency.) Here at last was an explanation for the admittedly murky “years of lead” from the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s, when Italy was plagued by terrorism, including mysterious bombings that have never been officially resolved. Leftists had long fingered Italy’s intelligence services for what they termed a “strategy of tension” hiding behind some of that terrorism, and here comes Ganser to prove they were right, and the CIA was really behind it all. Needless to say, to certain Europeans this was catnip.

The only problem was that it isn’t true. With few exceptions, specialists in the history of intelligence considered Ganser’s book to be a shoddy work of scholarship. In the first place, he made no effort to hide his biases, noting that he considered CIA covert action to be “terrorist in nature.” Then there was the problem that Ganser was making incendiary assertions he could not prove, as he himself admitted to “not being able to find any official sources to support his charges of the CIA’s or any Western European government’s involvement with GLADIO.”

Peer reviews were harsh. One academic dismissed Ganser’s tome as “a journalistic book with a big spoonful of conspiracy theories,” while another concluded: “A detailed refutation of the many unfounded allegations that Ganser accepts as historical findings would fill an entire book.” Phil Davies, who is a bona fide expert on intelligence, expressed the book’s problem concisely:

marred by imagined conspiracies, exaggerated notions of the scale and impact of covert activities, misunderstandings of the management and coordination of operations within and between national governments, and… an almost complete failure to place the actions and decisions in question in the appropriate historical context…The underlying problem is that Ganser has not really undertaken the most basic necessary research to be able to discuss covert action and special operations effectively.

This is the polite British academic way of stating that Ganser is at best uninformed, at worst a charlatan. Lacking any grounding in this complex subject, Ganser leapt to conclusions for which he had no evidence, but for which presumably he knew there would be a hungry audience.

The CIA stated publicly that Ganser had no idea what he was talking about, and had seriously distorted facts, while the State Department took the unusual step of issuing a public statement attacking the book. The most serious matter it noted was Ganser’s use of a supposed U.S. Army Field Manual 30-31B that gave instructions on all sorts of nefarious activities. The problem is this document is a Soviet forgery, and has been known to be fake for decades. This “Field Manual” was cooked up by the KGB as a disinformation operation, and it became something of a sensation on the European Left in the 1970’s as “proof” of American malfeasance, being pushed by Kremlin mouthpieces like the CIA defector Phil Agee, the Edward Snowden of the polyester era.

There’s been ample evidence available for years about KGB Cold War dezinformatsiya, including forgeries like FM 30-31B. The so-called Mitrokhin Archive, compiled by a KGB archivist and brought to Britain after the fall of the Soviet Union, makes up two weighty volumes by the eminent intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, including considerable primary source documentation of KGB disinformation operations and how they worked.

Either Ganser has not bothered to read and understand these works, making him the least informed intelligence historian in all history, or he simply ignored evidence that did not suit his theories, for which he did not have any primary source evidence. Of course, this did nothing to tamp down enthusiasm for Ganser’s GLADIO theorizing by those who wanted such myths to be true.

To this day, almost any act of terrorism in Europe will be met with cries of “GLADIO!” in certain quarters, with implications — there is of course never any evidence — that the CIA is “really” behind the crime. Such is the cost of fiction masquerading as fact.

Daniele Ganser has gotten off the GLADIO beat, having milked the topic for all the fame and fortune it was worth, and unsurprisingly he has moved on to 9/11 Trutherism, another arena where the absence of evidence is no impediment to those who simply want to believe. His recent work has been in the field of — you knew this was coming — “peak oil.”

Top German Spies Unload on Merkel’s Kowtowing to Putin

One of the West’s open secrets is that Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, consistently behaves in an obsequious manner towards Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian Russia. Time and again, Berlin has refused to confront the Kremlin over its egregious misconduct – from espionage to subversion to terrorism – while throwing NATO allies under the bus to keep Moscow happy.

Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor for 14 years, is no different from Germany’s political class, which seeks to stay in Putin’s good graces at seemingly any cost. Berlin’s preachy pontifications about democracy, decency, and human rights are customarily aimed at NATO allies, seldom at Moscow.

For years, German intelligence higher-ups have chafed at this situation, viewing the Kremlin as a threat to NATO, the European Union, and German security, while Merkel and her ilk pretend otherwise. The spies finally had enough this August when Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian of Chechen background living in Germany as a political exile, was assassinated in a Berlin park in broad daylight. His killer was a Russian thug with easily detectable ties to the Kremlin.

This was a step too far. When the Merkel government showed its customary inability to confront Moscow over anything, German spies – with backing from U.S. intelligence, which valued Khangoshvili – privately made plain that this brazen crime could not be ignored. Once the case was in the hands of prosecutors, following months of delay, Berlin two weeks ago expelled two Russian diplomats – in reality, spies.

That was just the beginning of pushback by German spies against Merkel and her giving Putin carte blanche to do whatever he likes in Germany. A firehose of leaks just burst into public view in Bild, a populist-conservative tabloid that’s Europe’s biggest-circulation newspaper, which takes a hard line on the Kremlin, a rarity in Germany.

Yesterday, Bild ran the sensational story “Former spy chiefs settle accounts with Merkel,” which revealed to the public for the first time just how subservient Germany’s chancellor has been to Moscow. Several retired spy bosses took Merkel to task, denouncing her conduct towards the Kremlin with harsh words: “Obsequiousness” and “Cowardice” were cited, while one former spy chief stated that the chancellor “blamed her own intelligence services” rather than Putin for problems in the bilateral relationship.

Bernd Schmidbauer, who served as the cabinet-level coordinator of Germany’s intelligence and security agencies (a position roughly equivalent to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence), denounced Merkel’s handling of German security vis-à-vis Russia as “worse than bad,” adding it is “a disgrace to our country” how weakly Berlin responded to Khangoshvili’s brazen assassination. This cannot be dismissed as partisan grousing. Schmidbauer, a lifelong member of Merkel’s own party, termed the expulsion of two Russian spies “laughable” given the gravity of the crime perpetrated by the Kremlin in Berlin.

Another former German intelligence chief who did not wished to be named told Bild that Merkel’s conduct towards the Kremlin “from many viewpoints is incomprehensible,” adding that Putin “walked all over” Merkel publicly after the Khangoshvili assassination, as Berlin stood by silently as the Kremlin maligned the murdered man. Another senior German intelligence official denounced Berlin’s handling of the case as “unprofessional…a declaration of political bankruptcy.”

This bombshell from the spooks exploded the pleasant myth, popular in certain circles, that Merkel is the “leader of the free world” now that the United States has abdicated that role with Donald Trump in the White House. The unpalatable truth is that current U.S. policies towards the Kremlin – to be distinguished from Trump’s tweets and rants – are tougher than they were under Obama, and much harsher than they have ever been in Berlin under Merkel.

Adding fuel to the fire, only a few hours after the first spy-leak salvo, Bild ran another story, “The trail of Putin’s spy leads to Parliament,” which shared tantalizing details about Evgeniy Sutskiy, a deputy military attaché at Russia’s Berlin embassy who was expelled earlier this month over the Khangoshvili hit. In reality, Sutskiy is a senior officer of Russian military intelligence or GRU, and Bild supplied details about him and his family. In particular, the story revealed that Sutskiy devoted considerable effort to penetrating Merkel’s ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union or CDU.

Sutskiy had several meetings with Salahdin Koban, a German of Kurdish background and a former CDU parliamentary candidate. Since these Berlin rendezvous smack of clandestine intelligence gathering, given known GRU tradecraft, Bild’s account raises troubling questions about Merkel’s own party and how deep its Kremlin ties really are.

Then, today, Bild ran a third piece, “How Putin’s network in German works,” a detailed counterintelligence report that clearly draws from high-level leaks in Berlin. “Espionage, influence operations, sabotage, money laundering, gun- and drug-smuggling,” are what Moscow’s spies have been doing in Germany for decades. Bild asserts that at least 3,000 Russian spies are active in Germany at present, counting “sleepers.”

The report runs though the various ways that Russian spies operate in Germany, via “legal” outposts in diplomatic missions to “illegals” operating without diplomatic cover. Bild adds the role played by the Russian diaspora in Germany in espionage, as well as a prominent part played by the Russian Orthodox Church in clandestinely serving the Kremlin abroad. Think-tanks, too, get mentioned, given their important role in disseminating Russian propaganda in Germany and beyond.

Bild likewise notes the significant part played by Russian business interests, including Gazprom, in supporting Kremlin espionage and influence operations in Germany. Neither does the piece shy away from mentioning the clandestine role of Russian intelligence behind various sports clubs, as well as Kremlin connections to drug-smuggling rings operating in Germany. Most controversially, the report states that certain German politicians, ranging from the Alternative for Germany on the right to Die Linke on the left, are handled by Russian intelligence via “traveling diplomats.”

This is all old hat to counterintelligence veterans, who understand how deeply Russian spies since the Cold War’s end have penetrated German politics, economy, and society at all levels, but this will be shocking news to average citizens. Bild’s reporting this week constitutes a direct challenge to Angela Merkel and her government about their willingness to let Vladimir Putin literally get away with murder on German soil. Germans should have questions about what’s really going on here, and why.

More is coming…watch this space.