Boston: A Whole New Ballgame?

A couple days ago, in a post about the tragedy in Boston and the “meaning” of the Tsarnayev brothers, I indicated that, so far, I thought this was not probably about a failure of intelligence, rather something bigger in terms of policy.

To quote myself: “Federal law enforcement and intelligence didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory pre-bombing with this one, but neither do I (yet) see much evidence of what the pundits love to term an ‘intelligence failure’.”

That’s still a terrible cliche, but I might need to walk the cat back a bit here. Since the mask may have just fallen.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a pretty informed guy, yesterday said something pretty revealing, which needs to be examined closely, regarding the FBI and the case: “They may have messed up, because Russia did call and say they have doubts about Tsarnaev. The FBI interviewed him, but then he went to Russia. And when he came back, he immediately started placing on his website very inflammatory items about jihad.”

Got that? Sen. Schumer is admitting what I, among others, had suspected, when this case broke. Having gotten a tip from the FSB, our frenemies in Moscow, the FBI had a chat with young Tamerlan. That’s always a risky move, since it rolls the dice on further radicalization, since there are only three possible outcomes from that talk:

1. Gosh, wow, I really love America, I’ll back off. My bad, bro.

2. Ummmm (sound of urinating one’s own pants)… Can I get out of this jam by cooperating?

3. See you in hell, infidel!

From the look of things, the FBI got Door No. 3 here, and Tamerlan promptly went off to a half-year in Dagestan where I’m sure we’ll eventually find out he was hanging with some unpleasant guys with jihad and mass murder on their minds. There is no doubt that Tamerlan came back from Dagestan a different, far more dangerous person. Did the FBI’s leaning on him help bring that about?

If it did – and at this point an ‘if’ is necessary, although Sen. Schumer’s leading comment is the giveaway, folks – then the FBI’s not keeping Tamerlan under surveillance upon his return from Dagestan isn’t just a fail, it’s an epic fail.

This has all happened before, many times. Most recently, Mohammed Merah, who went self-starting-jihad in southern France last year, was leaned on by French domestic intelligence (DCRI), which failed utterly, and instead induced further radicalization, including a trip to Pakistan and eventually mass murder at home. They, too, failed to keep a dangerous young man under surveillance.

Did the same thing happen with Tamerlan Tsarnayev? It’s looking increasingly like it might have. The other day I encouraged the Bureau to get to the bottom of this case, fast, and not bungle it like the Oklahoma City 1995 investigation (AKA OKBOMB). This time, if the FBI seems to be dragging its feet and doesn’t appear eager to answer the obvious questions …. well, we’ll know why.

[The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, and not those of any of his employers, past or present.]


Unraveling Boston

I happened to be far away from my New England home when Boston was hit by the most consequential terrorist attack in the city since, well, the original Tea Party. Boston has been an important part of my life, having lived and been educated in that special city; like many Americans, I have an affection, indeed love for Boston which will never leave me. So the news of the bombing was shocking, even to this counterterrorism professional. Not least because not long ago I stood at the very spot where the attack occurred with my own sons.

While Chechen losers were doing their worst I was in Bucharest, for a meeting of the Combating Terrorism Working Group – a very successful meeting, I’m happy to report, and our Romanian hosts were superb – and it’s an odd thing to be surrounded by terrorism gurus from a couple dozen countries when something like Boston goes down. Then I went to Switzerland for more meetings, and the conversations continued. I was en route to Geneva when the most interesting thing to ever happen in Watertown went down, and I followed it in real-ish time; how I do love me the Twitter.

I’m home now, getting over the jet-lag, and have a bit of time to collect my thoughts in a more methodical fashion. So here it goes, dear readers. BLUF: We were lucky that the casualty count wasn’t higher; I realize how callous this may sound but compared to, say, London’s 7/7 attacks (52 victims dead, several hundred injured) or what Najibullah Zazi & Friends had planned for NYC in 2009, Boston got off almost lightly.

The brothers Tsarnayev were amateurs, thank God, and read their Inspire magazine closely; professionally trained terrorists would have produced more lethal bombs, and very likely an escape plan too. It’s important to note that Tamerlan and Dzokhar were really just losers: the former a narcissistic douchebag, the latter a dumbass pothead. They are fodder not for a Bond film but something by the Coen brothers. They are anything but interesting. It’s not hard to see why they sought “meaning” for their stupid, pointless lives.

I have no doubt that we will soon find out that they had a circle of muj-wannabe pals, mostly online, violent fantasists like themselves, but if the T-Bros were agents of any real intelligence service or even bona fide terrorist group I’ll be surprised. They – and here I mostly mean Tamerlan, the obvious driver of the plot, leading his younger, smaller, and frequently stoned little brother along for a sick ride – are self-styled mujahidin from central casting. We’ve seen this movie before, the sordid saga of the do-it-yourself Salafi holy warrior, and unfortunately we’ll see it again.

Federal law enforcement and intelligence didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory pre-bombing with this one, but neither do I (yet) see much evidence of what the pundits love to term an “intelligence failure.” Dots, some provided by our frenemies in Moscow, were not connected, per the world’s worst intel cliche. A Customs and Border Protection rep at the Boston JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force: the interagency place where guys and gals from different teams are suppose to collaborate, share information, and “build synergies” but don’t always) failed to pass some nuggets about Tamerlan to the right people – the sort of human-derived screw-up that happens every day in the real world of CT but seldom matters as here – but it’s time to be honest and admit that, given existing laws, there’s not a lot the FBI could have done about the T-Bros “left of boom” as we like to say.

Media commentary on FBI methods is mostly uninformed, and the American public needs to understand that there are a lot more people in the country with wacky ideas, some of them violent and nasty, than we like to imagine, and that is not, in itself, a crime. As long as Tamerlan confined his activities to talking like a jihadist asshat to boxing pals and online fantasists like himself, plus visiting weird places with deep Al-Qa’ida connections, there wasn’t much to be done about it. More clearly should have been done here, Tamerlan’s long visit to Dagestan ought to have set off a lot of alarm bells, but just as I previously reported about France’s Mohammed Merah, the local security service knew quite a bit, some of it worrying, but didn’t actually do much of anything, or at least nothing effective, to stop the carnage that was coming. Ultimately this is a matter of policy, not intelligence.

Why exactly does this country allow immigrants with violent views to remain, hang out, collect welfare, etc? I happen to think this is insane, I have no idea why the United States allows non-citizens to remain here when authorities know they hold deeply disturbing and potentially violent views. People like Tamerlan Tsarnayev need to be declared persona non grata and shown the door, for good. Vladimir Putin warned the West a few years back about the wisdom of allowing Chechen refugees, some of them scary people, into their countries and, no matter what one thinks of that ex-KGB colonel, here he was surely right. America has enough native-born wackos, we really don’t need to import more. Yet given that the current administration cannot even mention the word “jihad” and persists in describing MAJ Nidal’s Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence,” we should not be surprised that Washington, DC, isn’t eager to look deeply into the real roots of the Boston catastrophe either.

Until the United States gets serious about immigration and pondering the sort of people we want to come and stay here, not much will change. And incidents like Boston will happen again. In the years after 9/11, Americans took pride in the fact that Muslims here seem so much better adjusted and genuinely assimilated than their immigrant co-religionists in Europe; and, in the main, they undoubtedly are. But what happened in Boston should make Americans pause to reflect on this again, as the trajectory for angry, disaffected Muslim immigrants here may be no happier in the long run than in Europe, a development with alarming implications.

That said, we shouldn’t let the FBI off the hook just yet. The Bureau has a long and depressing history of botching big terrorism investigations and leaving important questions unanswered and sometimes not even seriously asked.  The FBI ought not take the fall for the travesty of the 9/11 Commission, which simply refused to deal with issues it didn’t like or feel comfy with. But AQ’s huge and complex  “Planes Operation,” the ultimate muj “big wedding,” bears little resemblance to the Tsarnayev’s half-baked, bomb-in-the-kitchen-of-your-mom undertaking.

Yet the Boston bombing does bear more than a passing resemblance to another major domestic terrorism case, namely what happened in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. That investigation, what the Bureau termed OKBOMB, was vast yet unsatisfying and incomplete. While there is no doubt that Timothy McVeigh (executed three months, to the day, before the 9/11 attacks) and Terry Nichols (in prison for the next millennium or so) were part of the plot, the FBI never looked very seriously at the wider conspiracy – yes, I said it – behind the awful attack that killed 168 Americans, 19 of them children under the age of six.

Perhaps they didn’t want to know more details, since somehow the FBI missed McVeigh and Nichols during the course of their intense, multi-year investigation into radical-right circles, known as PATCON, which dug up a lot of information in the early 1990s about neo-Nazis but nothing on, you know, the actual bombers. That never looks good. Over at INTELWIRE you can find a lot of information about just how badly the FBI handled the case, none of it making for edifying reading.

In the absence of a thorough Federal investigation, reporters and self-motivated investigators, plus more than a few upset private citizens, some of them not altogether in earth orbit, took up the slack, and dug deep and put out a lot of information, some scurrilous yet some tantalizing. As a result, important questions that the FBI left unanswered (or worse, unasked) became fodder for “conspiracy theorists” and weird websites. But the simple fact is that, eighteen years later, there’s a lot of stuff about OKBOMB that we don’t know and really ought to.

The best official effort to get to the bottom of some of this morass of unknowns came a decade after the attack, when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) sponsored a re-look at some of these questions, above all – were foreigners involved in the OKBOMB plot? Federal authorities, especially the FBI, were anything but cooperative with this Congressional investigation, as Rep. Rohrabacher made clear publicly, and the ultimate report, which bears reading by anyone interested in this topic, is detailed yet inconclusive. Among the key issues which the FBI failed to unravel, and obstructed others from getting to the bottom of, include:

1. Who were the other persons unknown (not just the vaunted “John Doe No. 2”) seen with McVeigh and/or Nichols in the days before the bombing, by multiple credible witnesses?

2. What were McVeigh and especially Nichols doing during multiple trips to the jihadist-infested southern Philippines and whom did they meet with? And relatedly, who taught them to make the bomb that was used in the OKBOMB plot?

3. What was the relationship between McVeigh and Nichols and the neo-Nazi compound at Elohim City, which was filled with violent extremists who seemed pretty serious about making war on Uncle Sam at home?

At this point, with McVeigh dead and Nichols keeping quiet in his cell, not to mention almost two decades of uncooperative behavior by the FBI – which reeks to this counterintelligence hand like CYA of a serious kind – it seems unlikely that any of those big questions will ever be answered satisfactorily. As a result, the American people may never know what really happened in Oklahoma City, and the field is mostly left to guys running websites while wearing tinfoil hats in their mom’s basement. Some serious researchers have kept the investigation open, but there’s not much room for optimism about a “big break” in OKBOMB now.

Which is a travesty. It’s important that the same not be allowed to happen again. Federal investigators, with the FBI in the lead, must dig into the Tsarnayev case with more than due diligence. The victims deserve answers, even if they are not edifying to the Bureau’s image and reputation, or to the administration’s preferred theory of the crime. The public should demand no less.

[The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and in no way representative of the views of any of his employers.]

How Iranian intelligence trained Bosnian terrorists

The important role of Iranian intelligence during the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995, something which got little attention at the time, was a major story exposed in my 2007 book Unholy Terror. My research into this murky story showed how Iran’s intelligence service (VEVAK) and especially its paramilitary Revolutionary Guards Corps (Pasdaran) played a major secret role in the Bosnian war, training Al-Qa’ida-linked mujahidin groups, as well as radical units of the Bosnian Army that were responsible for numerous war crimes. At the height of the conflict, Iran had hundreds of spies and special operators in Bosnia, and they left the country slowly after the late 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war and brought NATO forces into Bosnia in large numbers. The continuing presence of Iranian spies and terrorists in the Balkans over two decades after they established their Bosnian beachhead is a continuing research interest of mine, as well as a major theme of this blog.

One of the unpleasant stories that my book exposed, which few in Sarajevo or their fans in the West wanted discussed, was how the Bosnian Muslim leadership committed war crimes too, including murders of political opponents and even staging atrocities to blame on the Serbs and Croats. Sarajevo’s ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and its leader, Alija Izetbegovic, understood the importance of favorable coverage for their cause in the gullible Western media, so when actual atrocities were hard to come by – especially nasty things like snipers taking out civilians for no reason – the SDA invented some.

This very dirty work, including hits on opponents such as top Muslim generals and politicos, was perpetrated by a shadowy special operations unit called Seve (Larks), which answered to the SDA leadership and was under the control of Nedzad Ugljen, a senior Muslim intelligence official and, not coincidentally, a top Iranian agent. Ugljen’s extremely close relationship with Tehran’s spies was a poorly guarded secret, so the question of whether Iran had something to do with the Larks has remained open and important, given the large number of atrocities which that special unit perpetrated back in the 1990s.

Although Ugljen was murdered under still-unexplained circumstances in late 1996, while serving as the number-two man in Sarajevo’s intelligence apparatus, intelligence information has now come to light, and has been reported by the Sarajevo newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna, which answers that key question. To improve the unit’s competence in murder in mayhem, Ugljen in mid-1994, about two years after the unit was first established at the war’s outset, selected Seve operators for advanced training in Iran.

This team, hand-chosen by top SDA officials, left for Iran in mid-June 1994, having each been given a thousand deutschmarks by Bakir Alispahic, a senior spy in Sarajevo. The men first transited Croatia, with the tacit approval of the government in Zagreb – the best can be said of the Croats is that they only indirectly assisted the Bosnians here – then flew to Frankfurt. In all, the secret journey to Tehran took five days, with the Bosnians being escorted by Iranian spies who spoke their language.

To maintain operational security, while in Iran the Bosnians presented themselves as Austrian engineers, traveling with Teutonic-sounding aliases. The trainees were hosted in a renovated mansion in the northern part of Tehran, a Pasdaran safehouse; the Bosnians, coming from a warzone, found their accommodations more than satisfactory. Training took place every day but Friday, with full twelve-hours days of instruction in a wide array of subjects, including religious indoctrination.

Yet most of the curriculum was what a special operator needs: training in the use of a wide range of small arms, from AK-47s to Uzis to light machine guns, several pistols, plus RPGs. Bomb-making featured prominently in the classes too. Learning how to drive a car, fast, in a city was also taught, as was how to fire weapons from a moving car or motorcycle: the sort of skills needed more by terrorists than soldiers.

Before the group completed the course, all students were required to sign an oath of secrecy, before Allah, promising to never reveal any details of their training, or even the fact that they had been to Iran. The newly minted Larks returned to Sarajevo on 12 September 1994 and quickly got down to committing assassinations and war crimes against innocents on behalf of the SDA.

While Iran’s role in training and equipping terrorists in Bosnia and across Southeastern Europe has been generally known, particularly since Unholy Terror was published, this new information provides critical details on how Iranian intelligence had a direct hand in terrorism and war crimes in Bosnia. The real question is – does the Pasdaran still today?

Al-Qa’ida source claims Benghazi Embassy attack was failed kidnapping

In an interesting development, it was reported today that last September’s terrorist attack on US Embassy Benghazi, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, was actually an effort to kidnap Stevens to exchange him for high-value Al-Qa’ida detainees. MEMRI has the story or if you have Arabic you can read the original here.

The site where the posting appeared is Ansar al-Mujahidin, a well known Salafi jihadist forum with ties to Al-Qa’ida, and the person credited with the posting is Abdallah Dhu al-Bajadin, a known AQ fanboy and famous bomb-maker in jihadist circles, who was behind the oddly named “Al-Qa’ida Airlines” magazine.

The post claims that the Benghazi attack was a well-planned AQ operation which sought to capture Stevens with the intent of trading him for high-value jihadist prisoners in US or Allied hands. The post, which is filled with taunts against the United States, the State Department, and former Secretary Hillary Clinton for alleged incompetence, adds that Stevens did not die through asphyxiation, as Washington, DC, has claimed, rather he was killed by mujahidin via lethal injection when the kidnapping operation went wrong.

The author provides no direct evidence for his claims, but this looks certain to reopen the Benghazi attack, which remains controversial and partly unexplained, particularly since this is the day Senator Lindsey Graham accused the Obama administration of a cover-up about Benghazi, telling survivors to “be quiet” about what happened.

More as it happens …. the Benghazi story appears far from over.

What if everything you know is wrong?

One of the nice things about working in counterintelligence is the acceptance of the notion that some things are not quite what they seem to be. (One of the bad things is that it can make you weird, even slightly crazy, if you stick to it too long; see: James Angleton.) Working in CI, every day you encounter people, even whole organizations, acting out secret agendas that are carefully hidden from public view … but you get to know the hidden truth.

It is fashionable to deride anything like what I’m suggesting as a “conspiracy theory” which conveniently cuts off discussion amidst images of people living in basements wearing tinfoil hats. Yet conspiracies do exist – pretty much every revolution starts as one – and such thinking forms the basis of all espionage. There is a good reason the Russian word for espionage activities, what Americans term “tradecraft,” is konspiratsiya. Those who have labored in counterintelligence know that agents provocateurs, fronts, and even false flags happen all the time, indeed they are unexceptional, bread-and-butter things on Planet CI.  Just don’t expect civilians, normal people – especially academics, mainstream journalists, and nearly all “deep thinkers” – to believe you. Yet every once in a while the secret world jumps into open view, and the reaction to the revelation can be anything from outright denial to speechless confusion.

Back in the spring of 1967, West Germany was enjoying a wave of student protests of the sort then causing annoyance across much of the Western world as the baby boomers came of age, crankily, and acted out in public. On the evening of June 2, a big demo in West Berlin protesting the visit of the Shah of Iran, who was in town that night seeing an opera, got out of hand. Police were jumpy and soon the demo was verging on something ugly. Then a twenty-six year old student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the back of the head by a policeman – for no reason, according to his friends. Ohnesorg died at this, his first demo, leaving behind a pregnant young wife.

Benno Ohnesorg: the victim

Benno Ohnesorg: the innocent victim

Outrage ensued, not least because the protestors claimed that the unarmed Ohnesorg had been murdered by the police without cause; no one under thirty believed the policeman when he said that he had seen a knife and had to defend himself. For a generation, the murder became “the shot that changed Germany.” It didn’t help matters that the killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, was a middle-aged cop of thuggish inclinations who had served in Hitler’s army in the Second World War, and was almost a caricature of the “fascist mentality” that West German baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s so detested about their parents. Kurras was an ideal stand-in for the so-called “Auschwitz generation” that younger leftists reviled and wanted to junk on the ash heap of history as soon as possible.

For the hard Left, Ohnesorg was a welcome martyr, since his death confirmed all their dark fears about West Germany, which they asserted was objectively a fascist state, despite actually being a high-functioning democracy, not to mention a quite prosperous one, with exceptionally stringent protection of civil liberties and dissent. There soon arose the June 2 Movement, a terrorist group dedicated to Ohnesorg’s martyrdom. Next came the far more dangerous Red Army Faction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, a terrorist movement dedicated to Ohnesorg’s memory that claimed to be fighting fascism, but whose leaders seemed mostly into fast cars, turgid ideological dissertations, and murder-as-self-actualization. It took the West German intelligence and police agencies over a decade to stamp out the RAF, even though the gang was small and not very adept, a longevity that, it turned out, had a lot to do with the RAF’s close relationship with the Stasi, East Germany’s notorious Ministry for State Security (MfS). The Stasi offered RAF fighters sanctuary, logistical support, training, even weaponry. (The support by East Bloc intelligence services for terrorist groups in the West was another issue dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” by mainstream thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s, but with the collapse of the Soviet empire and access to secret files – whoops – turned out to be quite true.)

Plenty of West Germans to the right of the Baader Meinhof thugs were troubled by the conduct of the German police. Kurras was never seriously punished for the Ohnesorg killing. Twice he was acquitted of major charges and was suspended from the force for four years, working in private security, but after that suspension he was back with the Berlin police and was actually promoted. Kurras continued a normal career, retiring to a pension at age sixty, remaining defiant and unrepentant: “Anyone who attacks me is destroyed,” he explained to a reporter who asked him about the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg.

Karl-Heinz Kurras: fascist cop, killer, secret Stasi star

Karl-Heinz Kurras: fascist cop, killer, secret Stasi star

By 2009, Karl-Heinz Kurras was an elderly pensioner and a mostly forgotten minor hate figure, yet that May he returned to the front pages in a sensational fashion when it was revealed that he had been for years a highly valued agent of the Stasi. Information from the files of the MfS, which German authorities have combed through carefully for over twenty years, revealed that Kurras had volunteered to work for East German intelligence in 1955. He wanted to move to the DDR, but Stasi handlers convinced him to stay where he was and to serve as an agent-in-place inside the West Berlin police. Files indicate that Kurras was a loyal and effective Stasi source, handing over reams of documents and all the information he could find to the MfS. He was decorated several times and was allowed to secretly join the SED, the East German ruling Communist Party, in 1964, a rare honor for a foreign agent. He helped the Stasi and the KGB expose double agents, reported regularly on U.S. and NATO military developments, and during the 1961 Berlin Crisis was informing the Stasi about critical events at Checkpoint Charlie, the heart of the East-West confrontation.

The revelation that Kurras was a long-term and highly valued agent of East German intelligence exploded like a bombshell, turning a generation’s worldview on its head. The man that Germany’s baby boomers loathed as the archetype of fascism, a living symbol of the evil Nazi-ish past, actually was a Stasi hero, a loyal servant of Communism. Many had no idea what to make of it, as the implications of the news were so stunning.The important question arose at once: Did Kurras kill Ohnesorg on the orders of the MfS, to bolster the radical Left movement in West Germany? It is impossible to answer this question with certainty, though it seems to be the obvious explanation for the crime, since the files are incomplete (and Kurras is keeping his mouth shut about any details, though he has admitted in recent years that he did serve the Stasi). Fearing that he was now toxic, the MfS put Kurras on ice after the Ohnesorg killing, as he was the recipient of much media attention. A recent reexamination of the Ohnesorg case has revealed that the killing was indeed premeditated, no one had threatened Kurras – he simply shot the young protestor in the back of the head without provocation, a crime which the Berlin police actively covered up the facts about. Why Kurras did this may never be known, but it seems unlikely to this former counterintelligence hand that an agent of such value to the Stasi would do something so certain to cause scandal and uproar out of literally nowhere, for no reason.

This sensational case is destined to leave behind as many questions as answers. It has caused a more-than-minor reassessment of the 1960s in German life, and the path of the Left in Germany in the decades since. Not to mention the irony noted by many that both Kurras and the radicals his criminal act gave birth to in the form of terrorism, were under the control of the Stasi. A brilliant op, clearly. And a good reminder that some things are not quite what they seem to be.

Algeria’s Hidden Hand

The United States is deeply involved with a key Muslim partner in the struggle against jihadist terrorism. Although the relationship between the countries is superficially robust, encompassing years of military and intelligence cooperation and bolstered by American financial support, the inner workings of the relationship are seldom transparent to Washington. This is thanks to the dominant position of the country’s powerful military intelligence service, which is the backbone of the regime. This service often works at cross purposes to stated policy, sometimes actively opposing Western goals. At times, the service seems to be beyond the control of the civilian government and even the military chain of command. For the United States, it is a frustrating situation which seems beyond remedy.

That description encompasses the trying “frenemy” relationship that the United States has long enjoyed with Pakistan, thanks to that country’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the spy service known to the Taliban as “the black snake.” Certainly the ISI has done much clandestinely to frustrate U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan, as well as supported terrorism against India. Its reputation as a regional mayhem-maker, as well as the real power in Pakistan, is hard earned.

But the description also holds true for Algeria … read the rest at The National Interest

The Lessons of Mali

Considering the French operation to defeat – or at least blunt – the jihad in Mali has only just begun, and the outcome remains impossible to discern, it seems premature to ponder “lessons” just yet. Not least because the U.S. military’s love of “lessons learned” – our British partners more honestly term this process “lessons identified” since they often remained unlearned – is one of the more tedious and frequently ineffectual of Pentagon undertakings. But pondering lessons sooner, not later, seems wise.

There will be no beating up on the French here. For all the neocon love of taunts about “cheese eating surrender monkeys,” as I write this troops of the Foreign Legion are engaging in house-to-house fighting for the key town of Diabaly, the fall of which a few days ago to the mujahidin prompted rapid French intervention. This promises to be a nasty fight, as street combat always is, especially against an enemy quite happy to die in place. I wish the best to the Legionnaires who, Paris assures us, are defending Europe in the deserts of West Africa. You will find not a single paunchy writer for National Review or Commentary in their ranks – for they are specialists in killing muj with their mouths.

No doubt there is a bit of Parisian wag the dog here, since M. Hollande is desperate to distract attention from his disastrously failed domestic policies, but the French are right to be alarmed about the collapse of what’s left of the Malian state and the takeover of the whole place, rather than just half, by the forces of jihad. Mali is a complex place and this struggle is commensurately so. Two years ago, the Tuaregs of the north rebelled against the central government for the fifth time since independence from France in 1960, coinciding with the spread of Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the local Friends of Zawahiri, across the Sahel, along with several other shadowy jihadist groups. It’s premature to claim that the northern half of Mali is “the largest AQ-controlled space on earth” since no one has every really controlled that wasteland in any Western sense. Moreover, AQIM and its jhad-inclined partners are a nebulous bunch, and much of the area is more under the control of the Algerian military, specifically its powerful intelligence service, the DRS, than anyone else. That said, it is unquestionably an ominous development that jihadists of various stripes have managed to penetrate into central Mali, where France fights them now. Indications that Tuareg separatists, who pine for a statelet of their own rather than virgins in paradise, may side with France against the jihadists are encouraging, but this campaign is far from over.

However, it is perfectly clear that France has intervened because American policy in Mali has failed dismally. The controversial creation of DoD’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) in late 2008 was predicated on helping African militaries to fight AQ and its allies on our behalf, with our help, without needing direct U.S. military involvement. No African country was more important to the new AFRICOM in this regard than Mali, where the AQIM threat has been rising for several years, and where DoD has spent vast sums and man-hours trying to bring the Malian security forces up to snuff. Emphasizing what the Pentagon calls Phase Zero operations, meaning trying to prevent a full-blown rebellion from breaking out, has been AFRICOM’s main job across the Sahel, Mali especially. This falls under the au courant rubric of Theater Security Cooperation, a Pentagonism which has launched ten thousand PowerPoints, but TSC’s connection to reality is sometimes tenuous, as the Malian case shows.

Just how blind to local realities AFRICOM’s expensive Malian adventure was has been summed up nicely by Adam Garfinkle in a new article which is worth quoting at length:

the U.S. counterterrorism training mission in Mali made the stupefying mistake of choosing three of four northern unit commanders to train who were Tuareg. As the article says, when the Tuareg rebellion in Mali gained steam after the denouement of the Libya caper, greatly stimulated by the return of heavily armed Tuareg brethren from that fight, these three Tuareg commanders defected to the rebels, bringing soldiers, vehicles, ammunition and more to the anti-government side. Anyone who was surprised by this is an idiot, or at the very least a terminal ignoramus. And anyone in the U.S. military who failed to understand the ethnic composition of the country’s politico-military cleavages, such that he let U.S. Special Forces training be lavished on Tuareg commanders, was clearly insufficiently trained to do his job. And believe me, that’s about as nice a way to put that as I can summon.

As one who has gotten the (frequently delusional) AFRICOM perspective in more than one painful PowerPoint briefing, I cannot improve on that assessment. It’s not DoD’s fault that an officer trained in U.S. military schools led a coup in Mali last March, one more thing which destabilized a weak state, but it is certainly the Pentagon’s fault that it enacts policies which seem willfully blind to local politico-ethnic realities. Mali is hardly the first place DoD has followed an unwitting own-goal policy, but here the consequences were swift and painful.

Last fall Paris – which has better connections in its former African colonies than the U.S. ever will – was warning that Mali was on the verge of state collapse, with a jihadistan stretching over the region being a real possibility. Another big factor here was how northern Mali was flush with weaponry, thanks to NATO’s 2011 crushing of the Gadhafi regime in neighboring Libya, where huge arsenals of small arms were opened up, to the benefit of rebels, bandits, and holy warriors of many stripes all over Northwest Africa. French concerns, however, were blown off rudely. General Carter Ham, the AFRICOM commander, stated bluntly that military intervention in Mali would fail, while our always tactless UN Ambassador Susan Rice publicly mocked French plans to bolster Mali against the jihad, which had regional African backing, as “crap”. Of course, last week, when American-trained Mali forces fell apart under jihadist assaults, leaving the country vulnerable to takeover by madmen, it was U.S. plans and policy which were revealed to be crap. One hopes Ambassador Rice has the decency to send a discreet apology to the Quai d’Orsay, accompanied by a decent bottle of wine. Maybe General Ham can co-sign the card and chip in a few bucks for the wine.

Where Mali goes from here is unclear. Harder fighting is ahead than many realize. But don’t count the French, who have long experience in West Africa, out just yet. This campaign, which appears a weird redo of a similar operation back in the 19th century to crush jihad-inspired rebels in the same part of Mali, has the backing of pretty much the whole world, and already NATO allies are stepping forward with logistical and related assistance. A great deal of the rebellion could be finished off with a pair of U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships, which may be the outcome anyway.

There is much concern about Mali becoming another Afghanistan, meaning a never-ending counterinsurgency operation against determined Muslim rebels, minus the mountains and far closer to Europe. This worry may be overstated, however, since the French seem to be approaching this in the vintage manner of suppressing a rebellion – something they did frequently in their old empire – rather than counterinsurgency in the current Petraeusian understanding. This is about killing off those you cannot deal with, and buying off those you can, not woolly-headed posturing about “nation-building” in the vast deserts of the Sahel. It bears noting that the French, crushing rebellions every few years back in the old days, built far more durable local institutions than anything the U.S. has managed to pull off anywhere since 2001.

How, then, should the U.S. and DoD deal with unstable and poorly governed places where the extremist threat is real? That’s a biggie for another post, soon.

[N.B. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and not those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]

Poland’s “Agrobomber” and European Terror

Last week the Polish government announced the thwarting of a terrorism plot that is worrisome in its audacity and in who was behind it. In a country with minimal experience of terrorism, the discovery of a sophisticated homegrown bomber seeking to decapitate the government by blowing up the parliament and the president has caused shockwaves and introspection.

Meet the Agrobomber

The would-be bomber, Dr. Brunon Kwiecień, a forty-five year old research scientist at Krakow’s Agricultural University, fits few currently fashionable profiles. Neither a jihadist nor marginally employed or socially bereft, Kwiecień is married with two children, has a respectable income, and is reported to have been exceptionally interested in explosives since his youth. A skilled chemist popular with his students and considered unremarkable by his university colleagues, he came up with a truly audacious plot to blow up the Sejm, the Polish parliament in Warsaw, during a joint session where both houses, the president and the full cabinet would be present. As Kwiecień is reported to have conducted visits to Warsaw to select his targets, this appears to be more than the figment of a demented imagination.

Read the rest at The National Interest

Terrorism versus Fake Terrorism, Part II

One of the regular issues this blog tries to shed light on is the shady problem of provocation in counterterrorism. When intelligence services systematically penetrate terrorist groups – which is, bar none, the most effective way to defeat them – things get murky fast, and it can become rather unclear who’s actually doing what, why, and for whom. In that confusion the terrorists usually lose. In some cases, the spies have so many agents inside the terrorist groups that they are functionally in control; this is a morally ambiguous, and sometimes downright nasty, game, but it works a lot better in the long run than using drones (see: Algeria).

Provocation is effective but complicated, not to mention difficult for outside observers to make sense of. The United States has its own experience with this, and the FBI’s highly successful penetration and provocation operations against domestic extremists in the 1960s left a lingering bad taste in the mouths of civil libertarians. The Bureau continues to run informants inside terrorist groups – practically every wannabe jihadist since 9/11 in this country has been stopped well “left of boom” when a secret FBI representative enters the picture – which is unquestionably effective in operational terms but leaves political and ethical questions open. J.M. Berger of the excellent INTELWIRE has explained how good the FBI has gotten at thwarting terrorism domestically through aggressive employment of confidential informants, and that this may raise as many questions as it provides answers. One need not be a dues-paying member of the ACLU to worry where this might lead, not least since when FBI informants go bad, it can be more than a little embarrassing.

Yet this problem exists everywhere, and even societies which worry a lot about civil liberties can get themselves into politically and morally ambiguous situations when provocation comes into the picture. Take Germany, where more than anywhere else in Europe, for obvious reasons of history, right-wing extremism is – shall we say – frowned upon. Since its creation in 1949, the Federal Republic has taken a hard line on groups espousing any affection for the Nazis, and German authorities have banned several fringe parties over the decades when they crossed public redlines (though brownlines seems more apt here). It’s also long been the worst kept secret in Germany that any groups that veer towards Hitlerphilia are surely penetrated by German domestic intelligence, which keeps its eagle-eye on right-wing radicalism.

This can take a vaguely comic turn at times. The National Democratic Party (NPD) is the legal far-right group in the country, though it hardly exists in electoral terms (its performance in federal elections rarely exceeds one percent), but it is an embarrassment to authorities, who periodically try to ban it on the grounds that it engages in neo-Nazism, which is illegal there. A decade ago, the government’s last effort to get the NPD banned failed when the case went to Germany’s highest court, which determined that the NPD’s leadership was so filled with government informants that it was impossible to determine what were the party’s actual views and what were the actions of (many) agents provocateurs. Moves are again afoot to ban the NPD, which unquestionably does have ties to people who think the Nazis were merely misunderstood, but the issue of provocation will doubtless come to the fore again here.

Nevertheless, the German government’s confidence that it has the neo-Nazi problem “under control” (as the spies put it) was badly shaken recently by the revelation that a lone-wolf cell of violent extremists had managed to perpetrate a decade-long wave of terror across Germany. The National Socialist Underground (NSU), as it grandly called itself, consisted of exactly three radicals, two men and a woman, who formed a threesome of a cancerous sort (both the men were named Uwe, conveniently for Beate, the sole female member, who was the intermittent lover of the Uwes) which between 2000 and 2006 murdered nine immigrants – eight Turks and one Greek, whom they mistakenly took to be a Muslim – in random-appearing shootings all over the country. Since the NSU spaced its shootings well, in time and geography, and chose their targets somewhat carefully, they evaded detection for years. They also pulled off some bank robberies, a few small bombings, and killed a cop before they were taken out of business in late 2011; when the authorities finally caught on to them, the Uwes shot themselves while Beate was arrested and is awaiting a very long prison sentence.

The NSU story caused an earthquake in Germany far beyond its direct criminal impact. The press and bien-pensants have expressed horror that such a thing could have happened, despite the fact that Beate and the Uwes were quite moderate serial killers compared to a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy. For their part, Germany’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which were always confident about their handle on this sort of thing and therefore are wearing egg on their faces now, have been in full meltdown mode over the fact that there actually was a small bunch of violent neo-Nazis not under their control.

The recriminations for the cops and spooks have been considerable and embarrassing. Since the NSU were a secretive and malignant triumvirate unto themselves, living off the grid and possessing little contact with established neo-Nazi groups, they were never on the authorities’ radar. To make matters worse, Der Spiegel, Germany’s top newsmagazine, has published a detailed article which establishes that the issue is a good deal worse than it seems, raising awkward questions about the long-term impact of penetration and provocation.

It has never been in doubt that German domestic intelligence (the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, BfV for short) has deeply penetrated known neo-Nazi groups for decades, often at the very highest levels. But that, it turns out, may be part of the problem. In 1997, before the NSU ever got off the ground, the German federal police (BKA) issued a secret report elaborating the shortcomings of the infiltration approach to the far right. This detailed assessment painted a disturbing portrait of just how deeply the BfV had penetrated neo-Nazi groups, and how that was actually making the problem worse. BfV agents inside radical groups, some handsomely paid, were egging each other into ever-greater extremism, even violence, while the BfV was protecting its “stars” from unwanted BKA attention. These agents provocateurs were often criminals, and many seemed quite authentically radical, creating what the BKA, which wondered who was really in charge here, called  an “incendiary effect.” Not to mention that some BfV officers seemed awfully cozy with their agents, whom they got to know well, and in some cases bonded with personally. It seemed more than coincidental that certain well-placed radicals seemed to be tipped off about impending police raids. The bottom line, the BKA concluded, was that German domestic intelligence, instead of preventing extremism, was instead actively encouraging it through its extensive use of confidential informants, many of whom acted as agents provocateurs, but whose ultimate loyalty was questionable. Unfortunately, this assessment fell on deaf ears – whether due to interagency rivalry or willful obtuseness is impossible to say – and the BfV’s tricky game has now been exposed in the aftermath of the NSU’s murder spree.

None of this will be new to anyone who is familiar with provocation – the rivalries among agencies, the problems of working with morally dubious people, the need to do bad things to “protect cover,”  plus the perennial doubts about ultimate loyalties. These enduring challenges are a feature, not a bug, of the counterintelligence approach. Yet the NSU scandal has put it all into the German public’s view for the first time, with negative effects. As a counterintelligence officer by background, I have no doubt that agents provocateurs are the most effective weapon against terrorists and extremists. But the German case illustrates why some activities ought to remain secret, since the public cannot be expected to stomach certain things over the weekend paper with a nice breakfast.

Algeria – The Ugly Truth

What if everything you know is wrong? What if what you’ve been told is international terrorism, Al-Qa’ida even, really …. isn’t?

The world is a complex place. More complex than the media usually allows. Seldom does the MSM deal with the unpleasantness of the real world of terrorism and, especially, counterterrorism: the operations, the penetrations, the provocations. Not something the Big Terror industry talks about much.

I’ve got an op-ed in today’s National Interest Online which pulls back the curtain a bit on the Algerian unpleasantness of the last twenty years – one of the world’s nastiest wars in recent memory, and one of the least understood.

If you like this kind of thing, you like this kind of thing.