Donetsk Rebels and Russian Intelligence

As the world tries to answer the question of who exactly fired the missile that shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, killing 298 innocent people, Moscow is doing its best to lie, obfuscate, shift blame, and evade responsibility. The Kremlin’s best-case scenario now is that local rebels in Ukraine’s Donetsk region who are under the operational control of Russian military intelligence (GRU), took it upon themselves to shoot down a passenger aircraft, using a Russian-supplied Buk (SA-11) anti-aircraft system, having mistaken it for an unarmed Ukrainian An-26 transport plane. The reality may be worse, and it will take time to establish the facts, particularly with Kremlin proxies obstructing the investigation, destroying evidence, hiding bodies, and acting as if the world is not watching this closely. The extent of Russian push-back suggests that Moscow has a great deal to hide.

Nevertheless, even if the shootdown was entirely the work of Donetsk locals, self-styled Cossacks with an itchy trigger finger and an excess of vodka, it bears noting that the pseudo-state there is in fact under the tight control of the Kremlin, in particular of its powerful intelligence agencies, what the Russians call the “special services.” The premier of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) is Aleksandr Boroday, a Russian citizen who, Pravda reported back in 2002, is a member of the special services, specifically the powerful Federal Security Service (FSB).* Boroday was appointed an FSB major-general at the tender age of thirty-five. In the FSB, Boroday worked in the sensitive “political field” and has been tied to Russian nationalist causes. Right now he is busy keeping investigators away from the MH17 crash site.

The DNR’s “defense minister” is the shadowy Igor Girkin, AKA Strelkov, another Russian citizen who has been the subject of much media commentary, given his belligerent actions and obvious power in the Donetsk area. Although he is reported to have an FSB background, he is a GRU asset now, according to U.S. intelligence, and serves as the local coordinator of Kremlin-controlled militias. Strelkov was gloating online about the Boeing 777 shootdown, thinking his forces had destroyed a Ukrainian An-26, then quickly deleted his comments. The DNR individual caught by Ukrainian intelligence on tape discussing the shootdown with GRU superiors is Igor Bezler, another longtime GRU operative with a murky past. It is important to note that the intercept confirmed that Bezler is fully within the GRU chain of command, as is the whole DNR military.

To illustrate just how tightly controlled by the Kremlin the DNR actually is, a little over a week ago it relieved its deputy premier for security, a Ukrainian, and replaced him with Vladimir Antufeyev, another Russian from the special services. Antufeyev previously served as the head of security in the Russian-controlled territory of Transdnistria. Russian media have reported that Antufeyev was brought to the DNR to “restore order” and tamp down in-fighting among some of the rebel bands. It is known that Boroday, Strelkov, and Antufeyev all worked together on behalf of the Russian special services during the 1990s conflict in Transdnistria.

Regardless of who exactly fired the missile that killed 298 innocent people, and who issued the order to do so, the Donetsk pseudo-state is a wholly-owned Kremlin subsidiary, with its top-three “power ministries” all in the hands of Russian citizens who are longtime creatures of Moscow’s special services. The only law in the DNR is Putin’s, as exercised through GRU channels. As such, it is difficult to imagine anyone undertaking any important decision there without Kremlin approval and the go-ahead of Russian intelligence.

*It has recently been claimed that this article was a “joke” — some joke — but Boroday’s affiliation with the special services since the 1990s is admitted by the Russian media.

Exploring Al-Qa’ida’s Russian Connection

[Note: This is an unusually controversial piece, even for my blog, for reasons that will quickly become obvious. Linkages between Al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence have been discussed in hushed tones among spies in many countries, for years, and this matter has been a “hobby file” of mine for some time. Here is a think-piece on it, in the hope of spurring additional discussion and research into this important yet murky matter. This is particularly necessary given rising tensions between Moscow and the West at present. Considering the subject, I have eschewed my usual hyperlinks in favor of proper end-notes.]

There are two histories: The official history, mendacious, which is given to us; and the secret history, where you find the real causes of events, a shameful history.”

– Honoré de Balzac

The history of al-Qa’ida has been extensively documented in many languages. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, massive research has been devoted to uncovering the origins of the global jihad movement, its strategies, concepts of operations, and ultimate aspirations.[1] Such works have been assisted by the willingness of al-Qa’ida to talk openly about some parts of its narrative. While many aspects of al-Qa’ida’s almost thirty-year history have been examined in impressive detail, other parts of the story remain shrouded in mystery. In some cases, gaps are caused by a lack of information available to analysts and researchers. However, other underreported stories in the development of the global jihad movement remain untold, or unexplained, by apparent design.

No greater example exists of this “blank page” in the al-Qa’ida story than its connections to foreign intelligence services. While it is generally known that bin Laden’s legionaries have fostered ties, at times, with secret services as varied as the Saudi, Pakistani, Sudanese, Iranian, Iraqi, and Bosnian, few details have emerged, thanks to the desire on all sides to keep the saga out of the media spotlight.[2] The murkiest of these relations, however, has been the connection between al-Qa’ida and Russian intelligence. While the outlines of the story have been known for years, and even admitted by Moscow and the mujahidin, details remain elusive. Moreover, asking important questions about this relationship seems to be an issue few appear interested in probing deeply, even in the United States.

That Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s right-hand man and the leader of the global jihad movement since bin Laden’s death in May 2011, spent almost a half-year in the mid-1990s in the custody of Russian intelligence is admitted by both sides and is a matter of public record.[3] Just as significant, Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn occurred at a pivotal point in the development of al-Qa’ida; the shift in strategy, resulting in attacks on the “far enemy” (i.e. the United States), the road leading to 9/11, occurred after Zawahiri’s imprisonment by the Russians.

The outline of the story is clear.[4] At about 4 am on December 1, 1996, Zawahiri was detained in southern Russia while attempting to enter Chechnya, the breakaway province of Moscow recently roiled by war. Accompanying the doctor in the van were two other radicals from Egypt and a Chechen guide. The Egyptians, wanted men in their home country and several others, were traveling under aliases; Zawahiri was “Abdullah Imam Mohammed Amin,” according to the Sudanese passport he carried, which had stamps from many countries – among them Yemen, Malaysia, Singapore – he had visited in the 20 months before his arrest.

Zawahiri’s two Egyptian companions were veteran mujahidin from Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), the group Zawahiri had been associated with for years and had headed since 1993. Ahmad Salama Mabruk ran EIJ’s activities in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, while Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi had extensive experience on jihad in parts of Asia.

The three Arabs were extensively interrogated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which noted the inmates’ religious fervor, and the surprising support they received from Islamic organizations around the Muslim world. Twenty-six imams signed an appeal for the release of the three “businessmen”; others denounced Russian authorities of doing “the devil’s work” by detaining the hard-praying Muslims.

The FSB had ample reason to doubt the Arabs’ cover story. Among the items confiscated from the trio included details about bank accounts in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia, and the U.S. (specifically St. Louis), plus substantial cash in seven currencies. Their laptop computer was seized and subjected to forensic analysis by the FSB. “Mr. Amin,” whose Sudanese passport depicted a Western-dressed middle-aged man with a very short beard, arrived in Russia possessing two forged graduation certificates from Cairo University’s medical faculty, with differing dates. FSB investigation of Bavari-C, the EIJ front company in Baku, quickly determined that no such firm existed in Azerbaijan.

Radical Muslims in Russia, including one member of the Duma, pleaded for their release, explaining that the Arabs had come to Russia to “study the market for food trade.” Various activists from across the region likewise wrote letters on the men’s behalf, claiming they embodied “honesty and decency”; the advocates included leading Arab mujahidin, among them Tharwat Salah Shehata, later head of EIJ. When Shehata got permission to visit “Mr. Amin” in his prison cell, he was given an encrypted letter by the inmate; after the visit, the FSB claimed to have found $3,000 in the cell occupied by the Arabs.

When the case finally went to court in April 1997, “Mr. Amin” prayed hard and lied effectively, claiming that he had entered Russia “to find out the price for leather, medicine, and other goods.” Rejecting the prosecution’s request for a three-year sentence, the judge gave them six months each; almost immediately they were released, time served. The FSB returned the men their possessions, including the cash, communications gear, and the laptop. After their release, Zawahiri spent ten days clandestinely meeting with Islamists in Dagestan, which presumably had been the original purpose of his trip to the region. Shortly thereafter, he headed for Afghanistan to establish his fateful alliance with bin Laden, which was cemented in the mid-February 1998 announcement of a new partnership between the men and their organizations in a Global Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. Thus was al-Qa’ida officially born and the path to 9/11 was established.

Zawahiri has been tight-lipped about his half-year in Russia; his numerous writings and pronouncements about his life barely mention the tale. “God blinded them to our identities,” he explained. The FSB agrees that they failed to identify the leading holy warrior. “In 1997, Russian special services were not aware of al-Zawahiri,” elaborated an FSB spokesman in 2003: “However, later, using various databases, we managed to identify this former detainee.”[5]

There are many reasons to doubt the official story told by both sides in the affair. In the first place, Zawahiri was one of the world’s most wanted terrorists in 1996, having played a leading role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981; the doctor’s role in the subsequent public trial was televised in many countries. He was hardly a secret mujahid. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that a security service as proficient and thorough as the FSB did not have its interest piqued by the appearance of three Arab mystery men, bearing multiple identities and cash, in the middle of a warzone. It is equally difficult to accept that the FSB was unable to uncover the mysteries contained in Zawahiri’s laptop – as the Americans would do after many such laptops belonging to al-Qa’ida leadership were captured in Afghanistan after 9/11 – had the Russians really wanted to. Last, it can be assumed that the FSB would have tortured the Arabs to obtain information, had that been deemed necessary; and Zawahiri’s breaking by the Egyptian security service through torture in the 1980s is a matter of public record, and a subject of some remorse by the al-Qa’ida leader.

What, then, is to be made of Dr. Zawahiri’s Russian sojourn? Few have bothered to ask the question in any detail.[6] While some conspiracy theorists have touched the issue, they have shed little light on the real story.[7] While the idea that Russian intelligence may have developed a relationship with Zawahiri sounds fantastic to most in the West, the notion is far from implausible, and is consistent with known Soviet/Russian espionage practices. During the Cold War, the KGB had robust ties with many terrorist groups, including several from the Middle East. Its links to the PLO, including arms and training for cadres, were substantial for decades, while Palestinian groups like PFLP-GC were, in effect, wholly owned subsidiaries of the KGB. It would be naïve to think such ties evaporated with the Soviet Union.

Moreover, anyone acquainted with the Russian practice of provokatsiya (provocation) as Moscow’s preferred counterterrorism technique, finds the idea of a Russian relationship with al-Qa’ida to be entirely plausible. Indeed, such is the easiest explanation for Zawahiri’s six months in Russian custody and sudden release back to wage jihad.

Hard evidence about what Zawahiri was doing in Russian custody has not been forthcoming. Dissident FSB Colonel Aleksandr Litvinenko made explosive claims. In a 2005 interview, Litvinenko asserted that Zawahiri actually underwent training by the FSB in Dagestan during his half-year in Russian custody, and that Russian intelligence then dispatched him to Afghanistan to become bin Laden’s right-hand man. “I worked in the same division [of the FSB],” he stated, “I have grounds to assert that al-Zawahiri is not the only link between the FSB and al-Qa’ida.”[8]

Litvinenko’s assertions are impossible to substantiate, though his assassination in London a little over a year after giving that interview, apparently at the hands of Russian intelligence, gives the claims perhaps more believability than they might otherwise warrant.[9] Just as important, it is known that Russian intelligence had ties to Islamist extremists in Chechnya long before Zawahiri entered the region. From the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence formed discreet ties with radical Islamists in the Caucasus, including men who would later become leading mujahidin.

In perhaps the best example, Shamil Basayev, the long-serving emir of the mujahidin in Chechnya, was an agent of Russian military intelligence (GRU) in the 1990s. In 1992-93, he and his brother Shirvani fought in Abkhazia against Georgian forces, leading fighters as surrogates for Moscow’s policies in the breakaway region.[10] Although Basayev was for many years Russia’s most wanted man and alleged to be behind dozens of terrorist attacks on Russian soil, his collaboration with Russian intelligence has long been something of an open secret. Not long before Basayev’s death in July 2006, apparently at the hands of the FSB, a GRU officer cryptically noted to the media, “We know everything about him.”[11]

Secular elements of the Chechen independence movement have long alleged collaboration between Moscow and the mujahidin, with the aim of discrediting the nationalist cause by tarring it with extremism and terrorism. Moderate imams in Chechnya have been reluctant to have ties to more radical Muslims, fearing them to be Russian agents provocateurs.[12] Collusion between radical Islamists and Russian special services in the Caucasus would be fully consistent with traditional Soviet/Russian counterterrorism techniques; it also adds a very different dimension to understanding the Chechen wars of the last fifteen years, and their links to the global jihad.

The mujahidin-led invasion of Dagestan in August 1999 in brigade strength that helped trigger the Second Chechen War was led by Shamil Basayev. Moscow publicly blamed “Al-Qa’ida-Wahhabite aggression” for that event, using it as justification to restart the war on terms more favorable to Moscow. But what, then, is to be made of Basayev, who has been memorably described as “a GRU staff member with a great deal of work experience?”[13] The other direct cause of the Second Chechen War, the bloody apartment bombings around Moscow in August 1999 that killed over 300 civilians, likewise remain shrouded in mystery. Basayev was blamed for those atrocities, too, but what really happened continues to be hotly controversial. The case for some FSB involvement in the bombings, always strong, has grown stronger over the past decade, yet remains a highly taboo topic in Russia.[14]

What, then, can we conclude about al-Qa’ida’s murky Russian connection? Unsurprisingly, Dr. Zawahiri has had little to say about his half-year adventure with the FSB. He has often criticized Russia and its policies, sometimes in vehement terms. Yet he speaks of Iran with equal venom, and al-Qa’ida’s discreet yet detectable relationship with Iranian intelligence goes back to at least 1996, and apparently continues to the present day.

His two Egyptian cellmates aren’t available to add details. Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi stayed in the Caucasus, was convicted in Egypt in 1998 on terrorism charges in absentia, receiving a ten year sentence, and was reportedly killed in action in Chechnya in 2005.[15] Ahmad Salama Mabruk was arrested in Azerbaijan in 1998 on terrorism charges, and was extradited to Egypt, where he was convicted on numerous charges and sent to prison.[16] The FSB, to no one’s surprise, has said nothing publicly about this case except for a brief press release in 2003.

It is fanciful to suggest that any formal alliance exists between Moscow and al-Qa’ida; bin Laden’s mujahidin have worked with several foreign security agencies in the service of the jihad, but have never been willing to put themselves fully at the disposal of any of them.[17] Nevertheless, it seems justified, based on the available evidence, to suggest that Dr. Zawahiri reached a quid pro quo with Moscow while he was in FSB custody. That he underwent FSB training appears plausible; that there may be some kind of relationship even today between Russia and al-Qa’ida exists within the realm of possibility. Russia, with its large, growing, and potentially restless Muslim minority, would have ample motivation to reach terms with al-Qa’ida, in the hope of stemming radicalism.

Might Moscow have suggested that it would look the other way about al-Qa’ida’s activities in Chechnya as long as bin Laden and Zawahiri left Russia alone otherwise? It surely appears significant that Zawahiri led bin Laden down the path of global jihad, and direct confrontation with the United States, after emerging from his half-year as a guest of the FSB. As President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear, a unipolar, American-led global system is not in Russia’s interests. To this day, Russia has endured many attacks by Chechen militants, but no confirmed acts of terrorism perpetrated by al-Qa’ida Central. This vexing issue continues to offer more questions than answers, and needs additional research, particularly considering the state of relations between Moscow and the West.

SOURCES:

[1] For a detailed example based on research of what al-Qa’ida thinks about these issues, see this author’s The Terrorist Perspectives Project: Strategic and Operational Views of al-Qa’ida (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2008), co-authored with Mark Stout and Jessica Huckabey.

[2] The most information is available about the robust ties between al-Qa’ida and Bosnian intelligence, with Iranian assistance, in the 1990s; see this author’s Unholy Terror: Bosnia, al-Qa’ida, and the Rise of Global Jihad (Zenith Press, 2007).

[3] Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.

[4] The most detailed account is an article by Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison, “A Terrorist’s Odyssey,” The Wall Street Journal, 2 Jul 2002. For a Russian perspective see the article by Yuriy Tyssovskiy, “Bin Laden nomer 2 sdelalo vremya v nashykh tyur’makh,” in the weekly newspaper Vek (Moscow), Vol.22, 12 Jul 2002.

[5] Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey (Moscow), 23 Apr 2003.

[6] An exception is Evgenii Novikov, “A Russian Agent at the Right Hand of bin Laden?” Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation), Vol.2, No.1, 15 Jan 2004, which provides more questions than answers.

[7] For examples see the articles by Michel Elbaz of Axis Information and Analysis (axisglobe.com), specifically “Russian Secret Services’ Links with Al-Qaeda” (18 Jul 2005), and “Russian Secrets of Al-Qaeda’s Number Two” (19 Jul 2005).

[8] Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, “Drogi terroryzmu – Kto wspiera napastnicy?,” Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw), 16 Jul 2005.

[9] See Alex Goldfarb and Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB (Free Press, 2007).

[10 Patrick Cockburn, “Russia ‘planned Chechen war before bombings’,” The Independent (London), 29 Jan 2000.

[11] Svetlana Meteleva, “Chechnya: my mozhem ubit’ Basayeva, no nikto ne dolzhen,” Moskovskiy Komsolmolets (Moscow), 21 Mar 2005.

[12] For a detailed examination of this viewpoint see the declaration of Chechenpress, 10 Jul 2009, available in both Russian and English at chechenpress.info.

[13] This murky relationship is explained well by Boris Kagarlitskiy, “My ne govorim, chtoby terroristy, no my pomoch’ im?” Novaya Gazeta (Moscow), 23 Jan 2000.

[14] The best case for the “FSB did it” hypothesis remains David Satter, Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (Yale Univ. Press, 2003), pp. 24-33. In September 2009, GQ magazine refused to run in its Russian edition an article by investigative journalist Scott Anderson entitled “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power,” which added details to the FSB role in the 1999 apartment bombings, based on testimony by Mikhail Trepashin, a former KGB/FSB officer – see David Folkenflik, “Why GQ Doesn’t Want Russians to Read its Story,” National Public Radio (npr.org), 4 Sep 2009.

[15] “Death of Senior EIJ Member Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi Reported in the Caucasus,” 17 Apr 2005, at globalterroralert.com.

[16] “Razvedyvatel’naya sluzhba bor’by protiv Islamskovo dzhikhada,” Ekho (Baku), 13 Oct 2001.

[17] Efforts to depict such an “alliance” are overstated, e.g. Konstantin Preobazhensky, “Russia and Islam are not separate: Why Russia backs al-Qaeda,” Intel Analyses, 31 Aug 2007.

Thinking strategically about Syria

Barring some strange turn of events, it’s likely that the United States and key NATO allies will be raining TLAMs (“cruise missiles” to civilians) on Syria by the end of this week. This will be in response to reasonably hard evidence – smart money is on Israeli SIGINT as the main source – that Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical rockets recently in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, killing at least hundreds of innocents.

This was probably not the first time the regime used chemicals in its war against the diverse, largely Sunni coalition that has been fighting to overthrow the regime for the last two years, but it was the first large-scale atrocity in this war that used some version of WMD. President Obama’s “red line,” proffered exactly a year before this latest murderous outrage, seems to have been well and truly crossed.

Thus the White House has little choice but to do something, for the sake of any credibility, though it’s obvious that Obama, who came into office castigating his predecessor’s reckless wars of choice in the Greater Middle East, is a highly reluctant war leader. As well he should be, given the Republic’s recent track record in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial successes were ruined by bad strategy that failed to subdue resistance movements that, by historical standards, were anything but robust.

OSF (ie Operation SYRIAN FREEDOM) is what this administration must avoid, and presumably will at nearly any cost. Using TLAMs and limited conventional bombing to damage Syrian’s chemical capabilities, plus the C2 nodes that support WMD, is a reasonable goal, though it’s far from a panacea. Really taking out Syria’s moderately impressive air defenses – a bigger goal – is a tall order, if one that can be done by NATO in a week or more of sustained effort, 24 hours a day. Lives will be lost, and not just Syrian.

The strategy of the Syrian nightmare merits a book in itself, not a mere blog post, but I will share some strategic insights in no particular order, based on my experiences with America’s post-Cold War military adventures.

1. The enemy gets a vote. Always. He will react in ways you cannot accurately predict. Israel is close-by: hint.

2. When your enemy is on “death ground” – as Assad and his Alawi and Christian supporters surely are – they care a lot more about this fight than you do, or ever will.

3. “Surgical strikes” belong in PowerPoints by greedy defense contractors, not the real world of warfare.

4. When all belligerents in a conflict are morally repugnant, you ought to chose sides carefully (better yet: don’t).

5. Proxy wars will last far longer, and turn out far nastier, than seems logical, especially when the stakes seem high for one or more outside players.

6. If you want to seriously effect change you will wind up putting boots on the ground. Period. If you ignore this reality – or worse, guess wrong about how many troops you need – you may create a firestorm (see: Iraq 2003).

7. Putting Western boots on the ground in cultures where we and our values are hated is a bad idea unless you are willing to play by their rules, ie be highly brutal on a grand scale towards even civilians. Better not to do it.

8. Never, ever stop thinking about the value of the object, ie what do we really want here? Negative aims are fine, but not having clear, achievable aims is a good way to lose quick.

9. Certain cultures are not impressed by “surgical strikes.” They use mass brutality and think anything less is weak, even effeminate.

10. US and NATO are very good at ISR and precision strike, we have learned an enormous amount about the tactics of hi-tech killing over the last dozen years of war in CENTCOM. But this is not the same thing as strategic wisdom or political insight. Strategy trumps tactics in the long run, always.

More as it happens … and you can bet a lot more will be happening soon.

Wikileaks, Snowden, and the Belarus Connection

After having his first round of asylum applications turned down across the board, NSA leaker/defector Edward Snowden may at last have found a home. It’s been reported that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said his country will offer asylum to America’s most wanted IT guy, whom no one else seems to want. This may settle the matter, and Snowden will be able to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport at last, but the more than minor issue of how Ed will actually get to Venezuela remains unresolved.

It’s worth noting that Maduro, who earlier this week was in Moscow, went home via Belarus, where he celebrated independence festivities in Minsk with President – or as Maduro called him, “Comrade President” – Aleksandr Lukashenka. Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, visited Belarus five times, which really stood out because virtually no heads of state visit Minsk these days, thanks to Belarus’s awful record as Europe’s only repressive dictatorship. There the secret police, still termed the KGB (it would have cost a fortune to change the letterhead), keeps a lid on dissent in a way that dismays virtually everyone in Europe. In recent years, Vladimir Putin, once a strong supporter of the weird Lukashenka neo-Soviet cult, has put some distance between Moscow and Minsk because nobody outside quasi-Stalinist circles wants to be publicly associated with Belarus.

Wikileaks, however, is one of the few organizations with kind words about Lukashenka – which, given the awful record of the Belarusian KGB against the press and dissidents is an odd position for an “anti-secrecy” group to take – and here’s where things get interesting. The key figure in all this is Israel Shamir, who is one of the oddest and shadiest characters you’d ever want to meet. Importantly, he’s been telling everyone for years that he’s the Wikileaks representative for Russia and Belarus. He has gone to bat for the latter country and has been involved in discrediting Belarusian dissidents – which, given how badly Minsk treats such people, is no trivial matter.

So who is Israel Shamir? That’s not an easy question to answer with much certainty. His official biography states that he was born in the Soviet Union in 1947 and emigrated to Israel in 1969, but little of his curriculum vitae stands up to detailed scrutiny. He admits to having something like a half-dozen different identities, complete with aliases. Of greatest interest here is that, before he became famous for his Wikileaks links, he was best known as a neo-Nazi holocaust denier in European circles. Which is a pretty rare thing for a Jew and Israeli citizen to get mixed up in. Shamir, operating under several names, is noted for his anti-Semitic vitriol and is fond of extolling the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and hanging out with Nordic neo-Nazis. His views are so strange and vehement that many have wondered if Shamir’s is actually an agent provocateur on behalf of some intelligence service. Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein, known for his own pro-Palestinian views, who crossed paths with Shamir more than once, called him a “maniac,” adding, “He has invented his entire personal history. Nothing he says about himself is true.” In all, Shamir’s a pretty odd choice as Wikileaks’ go-to guy for Russia.

The role of Shamir in Wikileaks, as well as his bizarre views, began to get noticed in late 2010, with an expose in Reason that asked just what was going on here, quoting Shamir as calling Jews “a virus in human form” and boasting of his Holocaust denial. Importantly, that piece had an admission by Kristinn Hrafnsson, Wikileaks spokesman, when asked directly about the group’s links with Shamir:  “Yes. Yes, he is associated with us.”

Not surprisingly, awkward questions followed including in The Guardian, not exactly a right-wing rag. Reports followed – all links here are to The Guardian, which given that newspaper’s current involvement with the Snowden case should indicate something – that Shamir, is indeed deeply involved in the Wikileaks operation: As “Adam,” Shamir (along with his Swedish son, a well-known anti-Semitic activist), has a key role in Wikileaks decisionshe was the editor of the group’s Russian-related US diplomatic cables that were leaked by PFC Bradley Manning, and perhaps most distastefully, he was involved in a smear campaign against the Swedish women who accused Julian Assange of rape (the reason he remains holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London).

Sensing it had a PR problem on its hands, Wikileaks made a few public statements on its employee-friend-whatever Shamir. A Wikileaks press release on 3 February 2011 fudged the issue, observing that it was “almost certainly false” that Shamir is actually an “employee” of the group, while noting that he was being paid by several (unnamed) Russian press outfits; in all, this raised more questions than answers about who Shamir is really working for. Wikileaks followed up with another press release on 1 March 2011, stating, “Israel Shamir has never worked or volunteered for WikiLeaks, in any manner, whatsoever.” This statement seems patently untrue, given what is known about Shamir’s activities, but this remains the official Wikileaks line on this very strange man.

I discovered this again last night, when I was pinged by Jacob Applebaum, the American hacktivist and Wikileaks inner circle member. A Twitter spat followed, in which I repeatedly asked Applebaum to clarify the group’s relationship with Shamir, and he refused to do so beyond citing the 1 March 2011 press release.

Unfortunately, Shamir never seems to have gotten the memo that he and Wikileaks have nothing to do with each other. He divides his time between Israel, Sweden, and Russia – who’s paying for all this, by the way? Wikileaks seems to have limited funds – and pops up in the media in those countries (in the first two countries not normally in a flattering manner). He is prominent in the country of his birth, and he is easy to find in the Russian media, denouncing US neo-imperialism and praising Wikileaks and, most recently, extolling the virtues of Edward Snowden. Of critical importance is the fact that Shamir regularly is identified in the Russian media as a “Wikileaks representative” and speaks as if he has the group’s imprimatur.

Most recently, on 4 July 2013 – exactly two days ago – Shamir was interviewed in the Russian newspaper Zavrta (which has a left-wing nationalist orientation; it’s not a supermarket gossip sheet), in an article titled “The Edward Snowden Phenomenon,” where he was identified as “a Wikileaks representative.” Let me be perfectly clear here. Shamir’s interview portion of the article is sub-headed “Israel Shamir, Wikileaks Representative (Исраэль Шамир, представитель WikiLeaks) – the Russian meaning is unambiguous. The content of the interview is classic Shamir, including fawning praise of Snowden, whom he compares favorably with Kim Philby. I don’t think he was being ironic there.

The bottom line is Israel Shamir continues to represent himself as a member of Wikileaks, indeed he usually implies he’s in the group’s inner circle. More than a few people have questioned Shamir’s mental stability, so it is possible that Wikileaks has indeed cut ties with him and Shamir is simply lying. But given Wikileaks’ less than transparent track record on this matter, more than Applebaum’s obfuscations is required. Someone is clearly lying here, it’s important to know who.

It’s especially important given the fact that Wikileaks is playing a leading role in the Snowden case, to the dismay of some of Ed’s admirers and even members of his family. Not to mention that Snowden, as of this writing, is still in Moscow. One need not be a counterintelligence guru to have serious questions about Shamir and Wikileaks here. It may be a much bigger part of the story than it appears to the naked eye.

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 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

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.