Terrorism versus Fake Terrorism

One of the big, if largely unspoken, issues in counterterrorism is the considerable role played by intelligence agencies in manipulating terrorist groups – penetrating their cells, confusing them, sometimes wrecking them altogether. This sort of thing, termed provocation by insiders, is a messy business which is understood by counterintelligence hands worldwide yet seldom gets mentioned by BigTerror “experts” since it doesn’t fit the neat and tidy “good guys v. bad guys” narrative they prefer.

Yet provocation happens in the real world and plays a big part in defeating terrorists. The most successful campaigns against terrorism have usually incorporated provocation, often with great operational success and baleful humanitarian consequences. Provocation works, so many intelligence services employ it. But provocation isn’t nice, indeed it’s a nasty business, so BigTerror “experts” usually avoid mentioning it.

When provocation is employed effectively by your intelligence agency – you take your time, you place agents carefully inside the terrorist group – you wind up taking effective control of one terror cell, then another, until eventually you’re running the show. At which point you run the terrorists into the ground, encouraging them to do stupid and self-defeating things, and you declare victory. Sounds like a bad movie, but the Russians, who invented this sneaky tactic, have been taking it to the bank for over a century. They call it provokatsiya.

Others do it too, and it leads to situations where it can be difficult to determine which terrorists are legit and which are “under control” as the pros say. Unraveling it all can be challenging, and sometimes nearly impossible. It makes analysis tough, which is why conventional analysts simply avoid the issue altogether … and thereby miss the real story.

One of my favorite examples goes back over thirty years. Back in the 1970s, strange as it may sound today, Croatians were one of the world’s biggest terrorism problems. Emigres living in the West who hated the Communist regime in Yugoslavia waged a shadow war against Tito by attacking Yugoslav embassies, shooting up regime facilities, hijacking airplanes – ah, the good old days, when terrorists took over commercial planes to win sympathy and not just fly them into buildings – and even staging commando raids into the motherland. Most of their activities were in Western Europe, but the Croatian freedom fighters brought terrorism to Australia, Canada, and even the United States, where they did bombings, killed rivals, and are the top suspects in one of the bloodiest terrorist outrages in U.S. history.

I’m from the Yugoslav government, and I’m *not* here to help.

Naturally, these shenanigans got the attention of the Yugoslav secret police, the dreaded UDBA, which successfully penetrated many of the terrorist groups deeply. During the Cold War, UDBA waged a very successful and very nasty campaign against troublesome emigres which involved assassinating over eighty people in the West – some of them actual terrorists, some of them people Tito just didn’t like. By the 1970s UDBA was in functional control of several of the Croatian terrorist groups and proceeded to eliminate them one by one. By the mid-1980s Yugoslavia’s emigre terrorism problem had been liquidated (just in time for Yugoslavia to collapse under its own weight, but that’s another story).

One of UDBA’s top successes was the case known as the Croatian Six, which remains a big story in its native Australia and offers an ideal study in provocation. In February 1979, Australia was rocked by the arrests of six Croatian immigrants who according to police were plotting to blow up a long list of prominent targets around Sydney, including a major theater packed with innocent people, several businesses, and even an attack on Sydney’s water supply. The police were tipped off by the seventh member of the group, Vito Virkez, who called the cops and dimed out his co-conspirators.

1979 … when terrorism suspects knew how to dress.

The Croatian Six from day-one protested their innocence, and from the outset there were whispers that things were not quite right. In the first place, the six guys were actually two groups of three, and they didn’t seem to know each other.  The cops went hard on them and coerced confessions, and may have planted explosives. No one bothered to ask why six average immigrants, who hated Tito but had no grudge against Australia, would want to blow up a bunch of innocent Australians. How that would help liberate Croatia from the Communists and endear Aussies to their cause remained a mystery. Above all, the prosecution failed to disclose that ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence service, suspected that the whole thing was an UDBA set-up and knew that, shortly before calling the Australian cops, Vito Virkez had phoned the Yugoslav consulate in Sydney, which ASIO knew was staffed by UDBA officers.

As expected, Virkez testified as the star witness against the Croatian Six, who were convicted of a raft of charges and sentenced to hefty prison terms. That Virkez promptly left Australia to return to Communist Yugoslavia, which he allegedly had been fighting against, got less attention than it should have. To this day the case remains the highest-profile terrorism trial in Australian history, despite the fact that as far back as 1991 it’s been confirmed that this was all a fake. Australian TV reporter Chris Masters tracked down Mr. Virkez in his native Bosnia, who admitted that his real name was Misimovic and he was actually a Serb, not a Croat. He was an UDBA agent provocateur who’d been dispatched to Australia in the early 1970s to penetrate and discredit Croatian groups down under. By tarring the Croatian emigration with extremism and terrorism, UDBA gained a big political victory and neutralized its enemies in Australia.

A lot has come out since “Virkez” had his cover blown in 1991, including an excellent report earlier this year by Hamish Macdonald (full disclosure: I was a source for that story), and lawyers and activists are trying to get justice for the poor guys who got set up and falsely convicted of terrorism over thirty years ago. Let’s hope they succeed – better late than never.

UPDATE: Australian journalist Sasha Uzunov, who has closely looked at just-declassified intelligence documents, reveals that in January 1977, ASIO reported that Yugoslavia warned Australia that, if Australian authorities didn’t act to suppress anti-Yugoslav activities down under, Belgrade would take matters into its own hands … this appears to be UDBA’s warning shot across the bow before setting up the Croatian Six. Nice job, Sasha!

A Bombing in Burgas

Another suicide bombing in Europe, this time in – of all places – Bulgaria. Yesterday, an as-yet-unidentified bomber got on a bus filled with Israeli tourists and killed himself, five tourists (earlier reports said six but this morning Israeli authorities have dropped that by one), and the local bus driver; many more were wounded. Tragedy has arrived at the seaside town of Burgas, 250 miles east of the capital Sofia, which has become in recent years a getaway for Israelis.

Bulgarian officials, who are working closely with U.S. and Israeli partners to get to the bottom of this quickly, have asserted that the bomber possessed a fake U.S. driver’s license. Israel has wasted no time pointing a finger at its arch-nemesis Iran, claiming this was Tehran’s operation using Hizballah as a cut-out.

Within hours of the atrocity, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu explicitly blamed Iran, adding, “Iranian terror is spreading worldwide.”  Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised the customary payback, while this morning Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, never one for subtle words,  stated that Iran’s culpability for the attack was “crystal clear,” and that the rapid identification was “certain,” without explaining what evidence that conclusion was based upon.

Though Iran has, of course, denied involvement, Tehran certainly has the means, motive, and opportunity, not to mention a track record of doing just this sort of thing. In recent months, Iranian operatives, or their surrogates, have tried to blow up Israelis in India, Georgia, and Thailand, while it’s tough to write off as a mere coincidence that the Burgas atrocity fell eighteen years to the day of the 1994 AMIA bombing, when Hizballah operatives blew up a Jewish center in Buenos Aires on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the feared Pasdaran. That spectacular killed 85 and wounded hundreds and caused such blowback for Iran that it backed away from terrorism in Latin America for years.

What about Burgas? The not-so-secret secret war that’s been brewing between Iran and Israel in recent years has been spilling out all over the place. Iran has repeatedly pointed the finger at Netanyahu & Co. for the killings of its nuclear scientists, mysterious explosions, plus major cyber attacks against its defense infrastructure, with American help – which sounded rather conspiratorial, until someone in the Obama administration admitted that the U.S. and Israel really are behind the cyber-shenanigans.

As pointed out today by Uzi Arad, the former Israeli national security adviser, the current shadow war between Tehran and Tel Aviv began in February 2008, with the Israeli assassination of Imad Mughniyah, Hizballah’s longtime operations boss and a top Pasdaran officer (and the world’s leading terrorist for more than two decades; Osama was never the varsity), and since then Iran has retaliated repeatedly and by now the lethal tit-for-tat has taken on a momentum all its own.

So the odds on Iranian culpability for yesterday’s crime are good, particularly given Tehran’s involvement with low-rent and downright kooky terrorist efforts of late, but there are mitigating factors. First, Iran and Hizballah historically haven’t been a big concern in Bulgaria. Security officials in Sofia have usually rated them pretty low-down on the pecking order of threats (the last time Iranian intelligence was in Bulgarian news for violence was back in 1993 when an Iranian operative was killed by local mafiosi in a gunfight; Tehran’s man was either a spy moonlighting as a drug baron, or a drug baron moonlighting as a spy).

Moreover, the Balkans aren’t known for suicide bombings – that’s more of a London thing, really – while Iran’s once impressive terror infrastructure in Southeastern Europe has been whittled down in recent years. Back in the 1990s, Tehran built up a robust  intelligence posture in the Balkans, with hundreds of Pasdaran operatives serving in Bosnia during that country’s civil war (this was a story mostly ignored by U.S. media but there’s a fabulous book on the subject if you want to know the facts). But after some missteps, including getting caught using Hizballah as a cut-out to try and blow up the U.S. Embassy in Croatia in 1995, Iran gradually reduced its networks in the region. While Tehran still maintains a noteworthy intelligence presence in the Balkans, they generally have kept a lower profile, particularly since 9/11. They – like Al-Qa’ida – consider the Balkans to be a safe haven of sorts in Europe, not a major operational venue.

Until, perhaps, now. If Tehran is behind the Burgas atrocity, that says something significant about Iran’s increasing willingness to go ugly in the shadow war with Israel. That the still-quite-revolutionary revolutionary regime might do this while the U.S. Navy is significantly increasing its assets in the Persian Gulf speaks to Tehran’s unwillingness to back down in the face of Western military might.

This will likely get interesting, and dangerous, perhaps a good deal quicker than many are expecting. Let’s see what evidence the Israelis come up with to match this week’s claims of Iranian terrorism.

UPDATE: While the Bulgarian foreign minister has pronounced that it’s “wrong and a mistake” to blame anyone at this point in the Burgas investigation, a noted Israeli defense analyst has stated, “Netanyahu wants to turn the Israeli intelligence failure over Bulgaria into an excuse to strike Iran,” noting that it took Bibi a whole two hours to point the finger at Tehran yesterday.

UPDATE 2.0: While the Israeli media today generally endorses the government’s view that the Burgas attack probably was the work of Hizballah (read: Tehran), many commentators are counseling caution – unlike the Netanyahu cabinet – before Israel retaliates: “given the current situation in the Middle East, which is both uncertain and sensitive, much thought should be invested here,” says Ron Ben-Yishai.

UPDATE 3,0: Senior U.S. official confirms to NYT that American intelligence believes that the Burgas bomber was part of a Hizballah cell operating in Bulgaria, and this was Iranian “tit for tat” against Israel for recent attacks on Iranian interests, though no specific intelligence supporting that conclusion has been cited.


When I was an NSA officer my co-workers and I always found it amusing to laugh at the high-silliness Hollywood portrayals of No Such Agency (as we used to call it), monitoring average Americans in the minutiae of their daily lives. Enemy of the State may have been a serviceable action flick but it was a deeply misleading portrayal of what NSA actually does.

After 9/11 NSA got mired in the so-called wiretapping scandal, something which the left got quite hot and bothered about during George W. Bush’s second term; yet as with drones, we’ve heard minimal civil liberties yelping from the MSNBC crowd now that their guy is in charge.

I have to confess the post-9/11 kerfuffle never moved me much, since I knew what was actually going on, and that it bore scant resemblance to what the media portrayed as gross civil liberties violations. Moreover, it all looks different when you’re on active service, charged with protecting the nation and its citizens from terrorists bent on mayhem and murder. You don’t have the luxury of pontificating quite the same way you do as when you’re blogging with bunny slippers on.

That said, huge changes in telecommunications in the last decade-plus have thrown up a very different intelligence playing field. Simply put, everything is out there in the online world, in the ‘trons somewhere, just waiting to be picked up and exploited. And you don’t have to be a hardcore civil libertarian, as I am not, to be a tad concerned about the implications of all this. In the borderless online world, what exactly are the boundaries? It was all a lot clearer back in 1993 when U.S. Signals Intelligence Directive 18, USSID 18 to the cognoscenti, was promulgated. But that was a long, long time ago in telecom. Now it’s … murky.

In recent years several NSA whistlebowers have come forward to explain how Big Brother really is listening in on you, reading your emails, snooping on your chats, et al. Most of those speaking out are individuals with agendas and sometimes failed careers behind them.

But Bill Binney was different. One of the finest Agency crypto-mathematicians of his generation – these being the scarily brilliant geeks who develop the code-cracking algorithims that allow NSA to protect you, dear citizen, while you sleep – Bill resigned in 2001 in disgust over what he believed to be the Agency’s misuse of his pet project, THINTHREAD, to spy domestically.

Bill has kept chugging along, explaining repeatedly that domestic espionage is out of control, and now he’s stated that NSA is collecting information on practically every American. Mincing words, not so much:

 “They’re pulling together all the data about virtually every U.S. citizen in the country … and assembling that information,” Binney explained. “So government is accumulating that kind of information about every individual person and it’s a very dangerous process.” He estimated that something like 1.6 billion logs have been processed since 2001.

I simply don’t know if this is true. And if I did, I wouldn’t be stating it openly on a blog anyway. But I will say is that this statement, if accurate, runs deeply contrary to the training about privacy protection which I had rammed into me received as a larval intelligence analyst some years ago. Moreover, Bill Binney is not a crank, a weirdo, or a charlatan. He is a very gifted man and a patriot who believes NSA, presumably on orders from “the top,” is misusing its enormous technological prowess. Certainly some public debate about espionage and privacy in the digital age – something which of course NSA and the Intelligence Community but also very much the Bush and Obama administrations have avoided at every turn – seems overdue.

NSA’s historical record in this arena can be considered less than stellar. During World War Two the U.S. signals intelligence service, NSA’s forerunner, began collecting drop-copies of every telex – you can explain to the kids and grandkids what those were – going in and out of the United States. This huge undertaking, which sucked up on average 150,000 messages per month, continued for 30 years as Operation SHAMROCK until it was shut down by the NSA director just before Congress got overly interested. Worse, beginning in 1967 – yes, under LBJ, not Tricky Dick – NSA started Operation MINARET, the listening in on several thousand domestic individuals and groups considered hostile or subversive.

This Congress did get pretty worked up about during the Church Committee hearings in the mid-1970s, which led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, as well as the construction of “the wall” between law enforcement and intelligence which worked quite well at protecting civil liberties but was rather less effective at thwarting terrorists bent on their “big wedding” …. as we found out on 9/11.

More than a few NSAers were unhappy with the misuse of their Agency during the Johnson and especially Nixon years. One of them was my father, a career NSA officer (full disclosure: both my parents were career NSAers – it was an interesting childhood; I was “born with clearances” in insider jargon) who felt that his Agency had exceeded its mandate and was acting unconstitutionally. He voiced his concerns “up the chain” as they say. Back in the early 1970s the Agency still lived by the mantra of Never Say Anything so going to the media was unthinkable. Even limiting one’s protest to internal channels was not, shall we say, a career-enhancing move for a few years, until Congress changed everything, but it was a principled stand. A few years later, NSA would get very concerned about protecting the country from foreign threats in a manner consistent with the Constitution and our values: a balance which can be difficult to achieve consistently in the real world.

That terrible day in late summer 2001 rightly changed a lot about how U.S. intelligence fights terrorism. The infamous “wall” got lowered and even moved around a bit. If what Bill Binney says is true it has been lowered considerably more and may have been chopped down altogether, and that is something we should all be discussing.

Was Tito really Tito?

(Although this blog deals largely with current events it will occasionally delve into historical topics …. because that’s how I roll.)

Who got the last laugh?

First, we’re talking about the longtime Yugoslav leader, born Josip Broz, not any member of the Jackson family. And, up front, the question sounds … odd. But it’s been asked for a long time, and may not be as crazy as it sounds.

Josip Broz, known by his nom de guerre Tito, was unquestionably one of the most successful revolutionaries of the 20th century, leading his Yugoslav Partisans to victory against the Fascist occupiers in 1945, and holding on to the leadership of that fractious Balkan country until his death in 1980. Although he was a sincere Marxist-Leninist, his fateful break with the Soviet Union in 1948 drove Stalin into conniptions and made Yugoslavia something of an associate, if unofficial, NATO member through the Cold War.

But who really was Josip Broz? There has never been any doubt that he was a bona fide International Man of Mystery and large parts of his life remain shrouded in darkness – and Communist hagiography. Born in Kumrovec, in then-Habsburg Croatia, into a peasant family in 1892, to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother, Broz became a locksmith and moved around Austria-Hungary in the years before the First World War looking for work; unlike nearly all other Communist leaders, Tito had actually once been a proletarian. Little is known for sure about his early life, only a very few pictures survive, but when the Great War came he was serving as an NCO in the Austro-Hungarian Army, fighting against Serbia in 1914 (something which Yugoslav authorities obscured until after Tito’s death, since it looked bad), and then against the Russians in 1915. A good soldier who was decorated for valor, Broz was captured a few months later, badly wounded.

There the path gets convoluted. What exactly he did in Russia as a POW is almost impossible to determine. He returned to his homeland five years later a convinced Communist and joined the underground Soviet-led apparatas a full-time revolutionary. Tito was very much a creature of the Soviet secret police, an “illegal” with 33 NKVD

Whoever he was, I’d like to meet his tailor.

covernames to his credit. Accordingly, he spent the interwar years on the run from the authorities in several countries. Stalin knew him as WALTER, the covername he used the longest. There is little doubt that in the 1930s, when he perfected his clandestine tradecraft (what the NKVD tellingly called konspiratsiya), Tito was in Moscow for extended periods of time – doing what isn’t clear, but there’s little doubt that he played an active role in Stalin’s notorious purges. The Yugoslav Communist Party leadership was all but annihilated by the NKVD in 1937-38, and Tito was more or less the last man standing, leaving him fatefully in control of the party in 1941, when the Axis invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia. Conveniently, he and his cadres had spent the last 20 years living underground and perfecting their clandestine political work, readying for eventual armed struggle. The rest, per the cliché, is history.

There have long been whispers that Josip Broz, Croatian peasant, and Tito, world leader, were not the same man, with the implication that the NKVD switched an impostor at some point. There have been many variations of the Balkan urban legend: the real Broz died in battle in 1915, or in Russian captivity during WWI, or he was killed during the purges in the late 1930s. One version, predictably, claims that Tito was “really” a Jew (and perhaps a Freemason too, for full conspiratorial effect).

As for hard evidence, there has never been any. What is not in doubt, however, is that many Yugoslavs felt that Tito never spoke his native language very well, including people in Kumrovec who didn’t seem to recognize him. He made regular grammatical errors and used malapropisms that normal Croats wouldn’t say. To many, his pronunciation sounded a bit … Russian. When Dragoljub Mihajlovic, leader of the Serbian nationalist Chetnik resistance during WWII, first met Tito in 1941, he thought that he actually was a Russian – and Mihajlovic was far from the last to wonder.

Tito’s defenders have always said that the man had spent so much time in Russia, from 1915 to 1920, and certainly quite a bit of time in the 1930s too, that it had changed his speech patterns, and there was no mystery. Yet the urban legend has never gone away, and periodically new stories will emerge to stir the pot without providing anything conclusive to bolster the “fake Tito” hypothesis.

Yet the U.S. National Security Agency has recently released a paper which sheds important light on this obscure, yet intriguing, topic. Shortly before the Yugoslav leader’s death, “Is Yugoslav President Tito Really a Yugoslav?” appeared in Cryptologic Spectrum, a classified NSA in-house journal. Through close analysis of Tito’s speech patterns, the unnamed author concluded that Tito did not speak Croatian like a native, but like someone whose native tongue was Russian (or Polish). Moreover, Tito’s spoken variance with standard Serbo-Croatian (to use the Communist-approved linguistic term) could not be explained by spending a few years in a foreign country. Given’s NSA reputation as a – and perhaps the – world leader in language analysis, this conclusion deserves to be taken seriously.

The paper can shed no light on who Tito really was – that unfortunately will be left to the conspiracy theorists – yet provides convincing evidence that he was probably not Josip Broz, the Croatian peasant lad. Perhaps the NKVD was even better at creating “legends” for its illegals than anyone suspected. It appears doubtful there’s much light left to be shed on this case, since relevant papers were probably destroyed long ago, plus Tito and his Comintern contemporaries are long dead, yet it now seems fair to take this strange-sounding question out of the realms of weird websites into more respectable venues.

UPDATE, 26 SEP 2015: The NSA link above isn’t working as of today; I don’t know if this is a temporary glitch or permanent so below is the cited article — enjoy!

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