Defeating the Islamic State: A How-To Guide

Last night President Barack Obama addressed the nation, explaining his plan to degrade and defeat the Islamic State. I liked much of what I heard, with the “better late than never” caveat, but I long ago grew skeptical of Obama’s speeches, which often over-promise and under-deliver, so I will be suitably impressed if this plan is actually carried out. I’m not convinced that the suggested counterterrorism templates of Somalia and Yemen are ideal for employment in this case, but at this point any bias for presidential action against the murderous Islamic State is welcome.

We already have the nay-sayers, complaining about the lack of an “exit strategy,” as well as bellowing from George W. Bush-era strategists who, having failed to make their counterinsurgency dreams come true in Iraq the last time, are determined to harass President Obama until he makes the same mistakes. Fortunately, he will not, and the potshots of yesterday’s soi-disant war-makers can be ignored.

I recently explained what a successful strategy to defeat the Islamic State should look like, involving the aggressive application of U.S. and Allied airpower in combination with local proxies on the ground. This approach is attritional — there will be no “big wins” in this fight — and imperfect, but it is the only practical strategy at present. Putting large numbers of American “boots on the ground” in Iraq to defeat an uprising would be a fool’s errand now (it always was, but that’s another story). That said, the addition of superb American Special Operations Forces, the world’s most lethal covert killers,  to this strike package will degrade the Islamic State’s military capacity over time, meaning years not months, and will lead to its ultimate defeat in the Middle East. It remains to be seen if Obama will actually do this, but the path to victory is clear for those inside the Beltway who wish to find it.

I also advised Washington, DC, to get serious about the jihadist threat in other ways, such as dropping security-as-theater and dealing with real threats in a straightforward and adult manner. This, alas, seems unlikely to happen in this administration — though, to be fair, it didn’t happen under Obama’s predecessor either (indeed, the current occupant of the White House has continued, not created, most of this silliness). Institutionalized escapism has become a fully bipartisan American political trait, with baleful consequences for our national security and much beyond.

Nevertheless, it ought to be made clear that the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria is ultimately manageable as long as the United States is willing to employ persistent force in combination with partners. If we fail to do so, others — meaning above all Iran — are far less squeamish than we are in such affairs, and will annihilate Salafi jihadists in their region, along with lots of civilians, if we refuse battle. The Pasdaran, Iran’s feared Revolutionary Guards Corps, is not encumbered, as Western militaries are, by platoons of lawyers and restrictive Rules of Engagement. We may not like the consequences of Tehran taking the lead in this struggle, however.

The real threat presented by the Islamic State is to the West itself, thanks to the vast and unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have joined the jihad in Iraq and Syria. Even top-notch European security services are already overwhelmed by the size and scope of this threat, with hundreds of European jihadists returning home every month, fresh from battle on behalf of the Islamic State, and ready to cause mayhem and recruit others for the jihad.

What, then, is to be done? What does strategic victory over Salafi jihadists look like? I hinted here:

The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.

To vanquish the Salafi jihad in the West, where the Islamic State wishes to perpetrate acts of terror on a scale even Osama bin Laden never attempted, its infrastructure in Europe and beyond must be put out of business. This growing cadre of extremists among us in the West, what I term the Sixth Column, actually is comparatively easy to defeat, since their skills in counterintelligence and operational security — the vital tools of any successful terrorist group — are customarily lacking, indeed often laughably weak. Although they are paranoid about spies in their midst, which constitutes a critical weakness for them, Salafi jihadists (unlike, for instance, Iranian-trained Hizballah) are seldom adept at rooting them out effectively.

Taking a page from the Russians, who are masters of this dark art, this is where a counterterrorism strategy based on provocation is needed. It is not difficult to cause terrorists, particularly inexperienced ones longer on radical talk than effective action, to do self-defeating things, thereby discrediting their virulent message. It is not necessary to perpetrate “false flag” terrorism to defeat the terrorists — which, although highly successful in many cases, is something which no law-based democracy could countenance. Instead, through careful application of offensive counterintelligence coupled with denial and deception, in a patient and holistic manner, Western states together can undo the Salafi jihad movement in the West before it grows unmanageably dangerous.

This would be simply a 21st century version of the Second World War’s British Double-Cross System after which this blog is named: employing multidisciplinary counterintelligence, aggressively applied in a strategic manner, to gain control of the enemy’s intelligence apparatus and thereby blind him and render him vulnerable to mistakes, confusion, and self-deception.

Western security services actually have considerable experience with such messy matters more recently than the Second World War. The British managed a small-scale version of this in Northern Ireland, leading to the ultimate defeat of the IRA in any military sense by the early 1990s, thereby paving the way for long-term peace in that troubled province. In Germany today, the Neo-Nazi movement is so thoroughly swiss-cheesed with government agents, at the highest levels, as to be more or less an appendage of the domestic security service. America is no slouch in this shadowy department either. Hoover’s FBI in the 1960s and early 1970s did a commendable job with its Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in disabling far-left and far-right groups in a comprehensive manner without killing anyone. (I know the mere mention of COINTELPRO brings nostalgics on the Left into a lather; I notice they object less when the identical offensive counterintelligence techniques, applied by the FBI, broke the back of the Ku Klux Klan.)

The issue is will more than capability. If we are not willing to apply non-lethal counterintelligence techniques against the Islamic State, which is vastly more dangerous than the IRA, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers, or the KKK, we may wish to consider giving up now. Applying offensive counterintelligence in a strategy based on penetration and provocation is a messy business, and there will be mistakes, but it is not based on killing, neither does it involve invading other people’s countries, much less occupying them.

Assassination is a legitimate technique against virulent terrorists, but it is a dangerous tool that must be applied carefully; it can be overused as well as misused, with bad consequences for any democracy. Moreover, provocation done right leads terrorists to kill each other, rather than innocent people. Every hour Salafi jihadists spend trying to detect moles in their ranks is an hour they are not building bombs, spreading hate, and learning to fly airliners. Offensive counterintelligence, strategically applied, is highly effective at growing lethal paranoia in the minds of the already pretty paranoid.

We need not reinvent the wheel here. The implosion of the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO) offers an ideal template. Back in the mid-1980s, the ANO was one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations, responsible for murder and mayhem across Europe and the Middle East, including the deaths of several Americans. Abu Nidal had been thrown out of Arafat’s PLO for his violent madness, becoming the world’s arch-terrorist during the mid-Reagan years. (Providing the spark for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was one of his more consequential terrorist acts.) Then, suddenly, he disappeared from the radar and went Elvis.

What happened was Abu Nidal killed off his own organization. A long-term deception operation by several intelligence services (including American), working together, convinced the already half-mad Abu Nidal that his group was swarming with spies and traitors. Instead of finding these (mostly mythical) moles, Abu Nidal decided to basically kill everyone. Over a few months in 1987-88, he unleashed his fearsome security force against his own people, murdering about 600 ANO members, many of them tortured to death in a medieval fashion. Some 170 terrorists were murdered in a single terrible night. With half the group dead and the other half terrified and demoralized, Abu Nidal fled to Baghdad with the remnants of the ANO, under Saddam Hussein’s protection, where they remained until the Americans arrived in the spring of 2003. (U.S. intelligence very much wanted to find Abu Nidal, but it turned out he was dead, ostensibly after having shot himself….several times.)

The Islamic State represents a far more serious and persistent threat to the West than any Palestinian terrorists ever did, and they merit at least as tenacious and cunning counterterrorism techniques applied against them as were used against the ANO. There is considerable false morality at work if we are willing to use drones to kill thousands of terrorists — and along with them hundreds of innocents from “collateral damage” — not to mention occupying countries for years with awful humanitarian consequences, but we are unwilling to wage Special War, which is far less expensive in blood, treasure, and morality.

But will does not represent the only challenge. There are bureaucratic issues at play as well, as there always are in the real world of espionage, which day-to-day has a lot more to do with jockeying for institutional influence, budgetary cat-fights, and endless PowerPoint presentations than actual spying. In the first place, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) is not conditioned to think in strategic terms; by its very nature it’s about tactics, not the big picture. Therefore it may be necessary to create a new organization — small, select, elite, and very secretive — to wage Special War against terrorists (and against troublesome states like Russia too: the counterintelligence methods employed are more or less identical against both state and non-state actors) that can think and act strategically, not just tactically.

Over a decade ago I briefed this concept in classified detail to IC and DOD seniors and was told it was “impossible” — they meant bureaucratically of course. When DC rice bowls win, so do the terrorists. In 1942, FDR created the shadowy Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA — over the strenuous objection of the Army, the Navy, and the FBI, who all (rightly) saw their secret rice bowls getting dented — with a pen-stroke, and there is no reason something similar cannot be done today by any president, if there exists the will to do so.

There is also the touchy matter of keeping secrets. Simply put, if we cannot keep Special War out of the newspapers, there is no point in doing it. Beyond the issue of leaks, which all White Houses of late have been prone to, the Snowden disaster raises troubling questions about the ability of the IC and DOD to protect its most cherished secrets. Until Washington, DC, can get serious about security clearances and merely defensive counterintelligence, it would be a mistake to embark on any shadowy offensive counterintelligence campaign against the Islamic State, which must be kept secret for decades to be effective.

Seriousness, then, is the real issue. If the West wants to win this war, it will. We cannot lose to a cabal of neo-medieval barbarians, we can only defeat ourselves. The Islamic State is murderous and fanatical, but not yet accomplished in international terrorism. It is imperative that we defeat them before they learn those deadly skills and apply them against our homelands, as they ardently wish to. Today, the thirteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the day that opened the new era of Western counterterrorism, it is high time, at last, to seriously start thinking strategically — not just tactically — about victory over Salafi jihadism and how to achieve it.

New Intelligence on Italian Jihadists

Compared to France, Germany, or Britain, Italy’s problem with domestic jihadism is relatively modest, yet it is growing fast, thanks to the wars in Syria and Iraq. A new report in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s paper of record, based on current intelligence from Italian secret services, paints a disturbing picture of rising radicalism.

At present, according to the latest intelligence in Rome, some fifty Italians are fighting with the Islamic State (IS — get my assessment of that dangerous group here), of whom a shocking eighty percent are converts, not immigrants or born Muslims. Many go abroad to wage holy war after a surprisingly brief period of conversion and radicalization. They are very young and come mostly from northern Italy. The Salafi jihadist scene in Italy is fragmented regionally and a key role is played by what Italian intelligence terms “liaison officers,” the individuals who facilitate the recruitment of new holy warriors and get them to the war zone. Over 200 of these “liaison officers” are currently being monitored by the security services. They play a critical role, and here the Italian experience is different from most European countries, as Corriere della Sera explains:

Our intelligence considers them to be very dangerous because they have returned to our country after a period of training in secret bases, mostly in Afghanistan. They are a totally new phenomenon, going against the trend by comparison with other European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Belgium. In those countries most of the jihadists recruited — and they are far more numerous than Italy’s jihadists — go directly to fight as volunteers in the theaters of conflict. In Italy the opposite occurs. Most of them stay behind to offer logistical, organizational, and recruitment support on our soil, which is considered a nerve center. This, among other reasons, because migrant integration and intake policies are making it increasingly difficult to identify, among the poor wretches who land on our shores, those individuals who are returning from Syria or from Libya with leading roles and who are capable of acting as a focal point for new recruits.

Those recruits are very young, mostly between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, and so far exclusively male. To date, ten Italian jihadists have been killed in Syria. Nearly all have been recruited via the internet:

Indoctrination takes place with pervasive and rapid techniques which prompt these kids to take the crucial step of departing for war theaters in a very short time. These powerfully manipulative psychological techniques have been tried and tested in the training camps for young suicide bombers in Pakistan. When the IS’s recruits are ready, they can rely on liaison officers to organize their transportation, which is often a one-way journey only. 

Although some jihadists come from Rome and Naples, most are from the north, with high extremist activity being noted by Italian intelligence in the Brescia area, along with the cities of Turin and Milan, as well as Ravenna and Bologna, the Padua area, and the Valcamonica region, while Cremona is a particular hotspot for would-be jihadists, because the Bosnian extremist Bilal Bosnić, who heads IS recruitment in his country (see my analysis here) has spent time there and is very popular due to his fiery sermons urging holy war against the West and “infidels.”

Neither can the jihadist problem in Italy be separated from the migration crisis that is facing the country, as intelligence reports conclude than many of the 200 “liaison officers” working in the country have arrived illegally, mixed in with the economic migrants who are flooding southern Italy. For the secret services, detecting the criminals in the mix has been nearly impossible so far.

 

 

 

 

War and the (Islamic) State

The barbaric murder this week of the American journalist James Foley by a British jihadist has served as a tragic reminder of the gravity of the global threat posed by the Salafi jihad movement. For the first time in years, the Western public, seeing the horrific images of Foley’s butchering, has been confronted with the reality of our enemy. Those who thought the death of Osama bin Laden three years ago signaled the beginning of the end of his vile cause, a view championed by the Obama administration, were naively mistaken. Bin Laden’s demise was, as Churchill said of British victory at El Alamein, “the end of the beginning” of the struggle against the Salafi jihad movement.

And a movement it is, rather than an organization; those who apply Western, military-style organizational charts to it, in the manner beloved by intelligence analysts everywhere, are and have always been wrong. It shares an ideology but operates differently depending where it goes: there is tactical flexibility nested in severe ideological rigidity. Al-Qa’ida (AQ) never had a monopoly on the global jihad movement, and its slow, predictable decline under the uninspired leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri has opened the door to the even more extreme jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). While AQ is far from dead — its Yemen-based franchise in particular, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), remains very dangerous — it’s evident that the center of gravity in the global jihad movement has shifted to the fanatics of the Islamic State and their self-proclaimed Caliphate.

The struggle between AQ and the group now calling itself IS goes back a decade in Iraq, beginning with Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion in 2003, and, given the gradual decline of bin Laden’s faction, it was perhaps inevitable that the even more murderous IS would win out. Its message of uncompromising holy war against all enemies, from “infidels” outside the Muslim world to the many “apostates” within it, appeals to the basest human instincts and is intoxicating to angry young men who pine for murder, martyrdom, and glory. IS embraces the extreme Salafi vision — they are takfiris to use the proper term — of jihad for jihad’s sake, a fanatical fantasy of “pure” Islam that invariably kills more Muslims than “infidels.” The takfiri tendency lies in the DNA of the Salafi jihad movement, and has burst forth murderously on many occasions, most horrifically in Algeria in the 1990s, where the local AQ affiliate, the Armed islamic Group (GIA), was expelled from the “official” movement for its indiscriminate killing, just as IS was recently. The only difference now is that the world has noticed, with horror, the mass killings of innocents perpetrated by IS murderers in Iraq. True “shock and awe” in Iraq has been delivered by masked fanatics rallied around a black flag, not the U.S. military.

I’ve watched the global jihad movement closely for years, both as a security practitioner and a scholar, and I’ve analyzed its metastasis as it’s moved from region to region. I’ve written books about its strategy and operations as well as its growth in the 1990s into a worldwide phenomenon. Since 9/11, I’ve witnessed two American presidents wage war against the global jihad movement in a rather similar manner, contrary to much public fuss about the differences between Bush and Obama-style counterterrorism, and from the outset I’ve maintained that the U.S. approach is deeply flawed and doomed to fail. My sharper critiques of American counterterrorism strategy have been largely confined to secret and off-record discussions inside the government, within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Intelligence Community (IC), as well as with key Allies. As I am now leaving government employ, I am free to speak my mind. This is a start.

Let me state unambiguously that this is a war that the West must win. Our Salafi jihadist enemy is a threat to virtually every country on earth, including Western ones. Their vision is fanatical and uncompromising. They are a foe who must be killed off through attrition. There is no room for negotiation or dialogue. We must face the reality that our struggle against these fanatics will last decades, not years; everybody currently waging this war will retire before the job is done.

Winning the war will require the full effort of Western governments, working with each other and partners across the Muslim world. This is a two-front war, against Salafi jihadists who struggle against the Muslim world, and also against the fanatics in our midst who reside inside the West itself. For years, we’ve heard facile statements that America embraces a (bad) military-focused approach to counterterrorism while Europeans stick to a (good) law enforcement model. This view was arguably true a decade ago but is wholly false today, with all Western governments now employing police, militaries, and above all intelligence to combat the Salafi jihad wherever it finds sanctuary.

First, the external front. Here there is some good news. In the first place, the very fanaticism of IS and its make-believe Caliphate will ultimately undo it. Without exception, Salafi jihadists who embrace takfiri methods sooner or later wind up alienating the great majority of Muslims around them. While Iraqi Sunnis have allowed IS to play a vanguard role in their broad-based uprising against the Shia-run regime in Baghdad which they hate, eventually mainstream Sunnis will sour on IS butchery visited on co-religionists. Yet this should not overly comfort us, as it will be years, not months, before most Iraqi Sunnis realize they fear IS fanatics more than Shia.

Yet the war against IS in Iraq will be aided by the fact that we have many allies and partners in the struggle who are eager to put the “boots on the ground” that we do not wish to. Kurdish militias are fighting for their lives and Shia militias may be able to show the stamina in battle that the U.S-raised and trained Iraqi military so humiliatingly failed to against IS. We are already assisting Kurds, and more help is needed, with the proviso that DoD should supply weapons, logistics, and some intelligence — and no more: let locals fight in the manner they know how to. The collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of lightly armed fanatics, with whole divisions fleeing before an IS battalion, illustrates that the U.S. military, having wasted years and billions of dollars on Baghdad’s security forces, is thoroughly incompetent at building Middle Eastern militaries. We need to stop pretending otherwise and let the Iraqis, who are quite competent at killing, get on with fighting the fanatics.

Here U.S. and Allied airpower will be decisive, as long as it is applied properly. For years, I dined out on my oft-stated belief that if the Salafi jihadists wanted to destroy their cause, all they had to do was 1. embrace takfirism as a strategy, and 2. set up physical sanctuary somewhere, the Caliphate they pine for. Which is exactly what the Islamic State has done. I believed this because takfiri views are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who find them repugnant and barbaric, moreover setting up shop in any place for very long would be an open invitation to be crushed mercilessly by American airpower. I had assumed, naively, that no U.S. president would hesitate to dispatch AC-130 gunships to annihilate any jihadists foolish enough to control large swaths of territory.

Let me be clear: Attriting IS out of existence in Iraq — and Syria too — where they have erased the Allied-drawn state boundaries of the post-World War One settlement, will not be quick but it can be done through proper application of Western airpower tied to proxy forces on the ground. Indeed, this is the sort of fight the U.S. military today is ideally suited for. Since 9/11, the DoD and IC have honed their terrorist-killing acumen, with secret warriors of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), guided by time-sensitive intelligence, becoming the bane of jihadists in many countries. They have no equal at what they do in secret. The JSOC-IC combination will be critical to destroying IS, one deadly raid at a time.

Just as important will be airpower, delivered through both manned and unmanned platforms. As yet, IS has only rudimentary air defenses, and U.S. and Allied air forces can deliver hammer blows to their battalions without serious losses on our side. Contrary to what activists tell you, the U.S. military goes to great lengths to avoid civilian deaths, what we euphemistically term “collateral damage,”  in its use of airpower. We must understand that IS will use civilians as shields, as HAMAS has done in Gaza. This must not deter us. IS leaders (high-value targets or “HVTs” in the trade) must be killed wherever they are, regardless of whose house they are hiding in. After enough airstrikes, Sunnis will seek to expel IS from their midst for fear of our lethal reach.

The virulent extremism of the Islamic State — they represent to the Salafi cause roughly what the Khmer Rouge did to Marxism-Leninism — means that nearly everybody will want to partner with the West to some degree in fighting it. Once they see the seriousness of our intent, certain Gulf states whose support for IS has been important to their growth will quickly reconsider their position. Even Russia could be a valuable partner in the fight against IS, while Putin’s friends in Damascus are very eager to eliminate this existential threat to the Assad regime. Iran must be handled carefully, as Tehran will be an enemy of the West as long as it is ruled by the mullahs, but they are deadly serious about destroying the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. To wax Churchillian again, the British prime minister famously said that if Hitler invaded Hell he would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons, and that nicely sums up Iran’s place in the loose anti-IS coalition too.

I have been a frequent critic of post-9/11 American beliefs that there is a military solution to every problem, a viewpoint that has caused much heartache for the United States and many foreigners in recent years. In the long run, the wave of Salafi radicalism that has shaken the Muslim world in recent decades will burn itself out. Islam has seen similar waves before. But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon, and the wave may not have crested yet. Moreover, political problems across the Middle East that have assisted the rise of extremism, for instance the sectarian stupidity of the Baghdad government that emerged under U.S. tutelage, leading to a Sunni rebellion with IS at its head, are largely beyond the West’s control to repair or even ameliorate. A Bosnian-style partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish entities, devolving power on ethno-sectarian lines while maintaining a notional Iraqi state, looks like an even better idea now than when Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden proposed it in 2006 (whatever my criticisms of Bosnian dysfunction, that country looks like Switzerland compared to Iraq now), but we ought not believe that politico-economic reform in the Muslim world, however welcome and necessary it may be, offers any short term solutions to the problem of Salafi jihadism. Right now the sole remedy to the challenge presented by the Islamic State is crushing it with brutal force.

The issue, then, is intent. We have it in our power to destroy IS in Iraq and Syria, and although that attrition-based strategy will not achieve success quickly, ultimate victory over at least this part of the Salafi jihad movement is assured as long as we pursue the struggle with patience and vigor. Will, not way, is our problem. President Obama’s take on the jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and his reaction to the rise of the Islamic State does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. While none can fault Obama for a lack of ardor for certain aspects of the war that he refuses to call a war, as the death of Osama bin Laden and hundreds of lethal drone strikes during his presidency attest, his unwillingness to confront the ideological aspects of the struggle has been troubling to many who wage that war. Obvious White House squeamishness about the “I-word,” coupled with idiocies like terming the massacre of thirteen U.S. soldiers by Nidal Hasan, Army psychiatrist turned self-styled jihadist, an incident of “workplace violence,” bespeak a fundamental lack of seriousness about the struggle we are in. While we must always be careful about delineating Islam from Islamism, and I have been sharply critical of those who do not, pretending that Salafi jihadism is not what it actually is only helps the enemy.

President Obama’s penchant for golf, particularly at inopportune moments, has received much criticism of late, with even what might be termed the court press reporting frankly on its negative impact on public perception, including scathing op-eds. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the president is tired of the hard job of being Commander-in-Chief. Certainly his public comments on the Islamic State lack the dire tone emanating from some senior administration officials. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of IS in alarming terms as a threat “beyond anything that we’ve seen…They’re beyond just a terrorist group.” General Martin Dempsey, DoD’s military head, stated that IS possesses an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” and the group “will eventually have to be defeated.” It’s an open secret in the Pentagon that such blunt statements reflect widespread concerns in DoD and the IC that President Obama is not taking the current threat seriously enough. At a minimum, the president must inject his national security staff, which I’ve never found talented or inspired, with purpose and seriousness, while antics such as disclosing failed top secret counterterrorism operations to score political points are unworthy of the presidency and must cease at once.

It is hoped that, confronted by the rising madness and violence of IS in Iraq and Syria, Obama will find the ability to pursue the war against Salafi jihadism with the required vigor, as well as to communicate to the public the nature of the threat we face, including the reality that the struggle will be long and difficult. The Islamic State can be crushed in what remains of Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is a generational enterprise, but refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight IS with all the means at our disposal will not only give the enemy time to grow and metastasize further, it would amount to presidential dereliction of duty. If President Obama does not possess the will to wage this war that has been forced upon us, he should consider devoting himself to golf full time and stepping aside in favor of Joe Biden, who has demonstrated some quite sensible views on terrorism over the years.

That said, the war against IS inside the Muslim world is only part of the struggle we now face, and in many ways it’s the easy part. That James Foley’s killer is British (his identity has been established by British intelligence but not yet released to the public) has focused attention on the painful fact that a considerable number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are from the West. British citizens are estimated to represent a quarter of the roughly 2,000 Europeans fighting with IS at present. Numbers of Westerners in IS ranks are difficult to estimate and the true figure is likely 3,000 or more. Additionally, since many jihadists go to Syria or Iraq for a few months and return home, leading to a high turnover rate, the number of Westerners who have fought with IS in the Middle East exceeds 5,000 and is rising fast.

Going to Syria or Iraq to join IS is very much in vogue among radical Salafis across the West. Getting there is easy, especially for Europeans: Turkey’s looking the other way about the movement of thousands of foreign fighters through the country en route to the jihad is a key factor here. The fanatical IS message resonates among an alarming number of European youths: in a recent poll, sixteen percent of French had a “favorable” view of IS while three percent admitted to having a “very favorable” view of the Islamic State. Warnings from dissenting experts that extremism among European Muslims is considerably more commonplace than it’s politic to admit fell on deaf ears on grounds of political correctness, but have been proved wholly correct. It’s fashionable among hardline European Salafis to go to Syria or Iraq to fight, though in reality most of them spend far more time hanging out than actually engaging in combat. Many of their rest centers, safely away from the front, are surprisingly lavish, leading to the Syrian war being memorably termed a “five-star jihad” in extremist circles.

Historically, only five to ten percent of foreign fighters engage directly in terrorism when they return home, but that figure is cold comfort given the unprecedently vast numbers of Westerners who are going to Iraq and Syria. Some returnees have already engaged in terrorism in Europe, while it is obvious that even effective European security services are overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadists coming back. French intelligence is monitoring some 300 persons, one-third of them women, with links to the Syrian jihad; as they require 24/7 surveillance, this is a daunting task for even the best resourced and most technically capable security services. Some European intelligence agencies, seeing “huge growth” in jihadist numbers, admit to being deluged by potential terrorists. Britain’s security services are likewise overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadist targets they must monitor, a situation that was hardly helped by the massive leaks by Edward Snowden, which the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, scathingly called a “gift” to terrorists.

Moreover, for every returning jihadist who plots terrorism, ten or twenty more veterans engage in furthering the cause through proselytizing, preaching, fund-raising, and generally radicalizing and preparing the next generation of angry youths for jihad. Those who have actually gone to Syria or Iraq, where they have learned to butcher innocents, have enormous cachet among the wannabes back in Europe, who find their message of vitriolic hate toxically enticing. I have been warning for a decade that the West, particularly Europe, functions as a de facto safe haven for many Salafi jihadists who make up what I call the Sixth Column. We have seemingly forgotten that the 9/11 plot was hashed out more in Hamburg, Germany than in any Muslim country. It is long past time for the West to deal with this threat seriously.

There is no single profile for who abandons life in the postmodern West to join the Salafi jihad, particularly its most virulent brand. Some are rabidly pious Muslims, but many lack a firm foundation in matters Islamic, and a surprisingly large number of Western jihadists seem to have scant interest in anything theological: many join for the hate and the camaraderie, a need to belong, not the belief. They are consumed by rage and frustration and seek out a belief system that justifies acting out their evil urges — not the other way around. Many are ne’er-do-wells who have spent time in prison and possess unstable family backgrounds, but the son of privilege who abandons a life of comfort to wage jihad abroad is a Salafi cliche for a reason. Many are born Muslims who revert to a faith they never seriously practiced in their youth, while others are converts. Most are young, with many still in their teens, but the nearly middle-aged are not unknown in jihadist ranks either. Their psychology in many cases resembles that of a spree killer more than any popular conception of an arch-terrorist, while their ideology — a cut-and-paste version of Qutbism, dumbed-down for the online generation, that thrives on hate — is astonishingly consistent worldwide. Women often play an important role behind the scenes in radicalizing their men and keeping them that way.

One trend that is clearly visible among Western jihadists is the prominence of online recruiting and propaganda. Most young Salafis today enter the movement virtually, becoming markedly radical before ever meeting another extremist in the flesh. The time required to become dangerously extreme has shortened noticeably, no doubt due to the prevalence of online jihadism, the digihad, if you like. Back in the 1990s, most Westerners who “joined the caravan” (to use the movement term) were radicalized gradually, over months and even years, slowly turning their backs on their old life, while it is now commonplace to see young men who decide to abandon normalcy in favor of the jihad after only a few months of radicalization, and sometimes only a few weeks. All this makes it increasingly difficult for Western security services to track would-be terrorists, or to differentiate the merely extreme from the positively dangerous.

While the United States has been fortunate in many ways compared to Europe, possessing a Muslim community that is proportionately smaller and far less radicalized than in much of the European Union (EU), there is no reason to think that this will last forever. Americans are fighting with IS abroad too and some will return home with jihad still on their minds. The FBI, with the Intelligence Community, has done a commendable job since 9/11 keeping the domestic terrorism threat largely under wraps, aided by the fact that most of America’s homegrown jihadists to date have been frankly inept, some of them almost comically so. That, too, is a trend that is unlikely to continue indefinitely.

America has no room for comfort as it confronts the Salafi jihadist threat. The enemy’s desire to strike the United States directly remains as great as it ever was, while the fact that we functionally do not have border security means that any terrorists who seek to enter the country illegally will have no more difficulty than the millions of Latin Americans who have infiltrated without detection. Moreover, the large numbers of extremists possessing EU passports (and Canadian too: about 130 Canadians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq), who are able to enter the USA without a visa, mean that attacks on the country can be handled by foreigners easily.

What, then, is to be done? Legal changes are in order if we are serious about defeating this enemy. Some European countries have recently criminalized going abroad as a foreign fighter, or facilitating that, and this is something that all Western countries should adopt promptly. While this will not cease jihad tourism, it will certainly complicate matters for would-be holy warriors. Westerners who do engage in jihad abroad should be deprived of citizenship and told to not come home, ever. While free speech is to be defended, it should at least be asked if engaging in jihadist propaganda ought to be criminalized (as, say, Holocaust denial has been in much of the EU). At a minimum, those who engage in material support of any Salafi jihad-related activity should face severe legal penalty.

In the United States, this also means we must end our security-theater act and get serious about stopping terrorism. The terrorist threat to our airlines is as great as it has ever been, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently admitted, citing his “extreme, extreme concern” about the threat emanating from Syria. The TSA is equal parts laughingstock and nuisance and needs to be wholly revamped into a serious security agency, relying on profiling rather than making life difficult for countless innocent people every day. “America doesn’t have an airline security system, America has a system for bothering people,” said the former head of security for El Al, Israel’s national airline, and seldom have truer words been spoken.

Yet the long-term way to defeat, rather than merely deter, Salafi jihadism, is through intelligence and covert action, not war in any conventional sense. While pummeling IS kinetically in Iraq and Syria is a necessary first step, it is only the beginning. The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.

That strategy is the topic of a forthcoming blog post ….

 

 

 

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.

How many Dutch jihadis are fighting in Syria?

The record number of jihadists leaving Europe to fight in Syria (and to a lesser extent in Iraq) has rapidly become one of the continent’s top security concerns. A major worry is that hard-pressed European intelligence services will be overwhelmed by the numbers of returning radicals and thus unable to cope effectively with the rising threat, and there is already evidence that this is happening.

It therefore caused a sensation at the end of June when the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst – AIVD) informed the public that, according to its analysis, there has been “huge growth” in local jihadism, with about 130 Dutch Muslims having gone to Syria to fight against the Assad regime, of whom almost thirty have already returned to the Netherlands and some fourteen have been killed. While most of the volunteers are of Moroccan descent, there are many converts among them as well, plus Dutch citizens of Turkish, Kurdish, Caribbean, Somali, and Afghan background. Most of the departing jihadists are between twenty and thirty years of age, though there are older volunteers and teenagers too.

Some twenty of the jihadists are women, most of them wives of fighters who have gone to support their men and the cause. AIVD Director Rob Bertholee said he is “flabbergasted” by the large number of Dutch women who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Concerns are rising in the Netherlands about what these jihadists will do when they return home, as most of them will. At best, they will serve as agitators and propagandists for radical Salafi causes, while it can be judged a near-certainty that some of them will attempt terrorism domestically. There seems ample room for concern, particularly because AIVD’s budget is being cut by nine million Euros (about USD 12 million).

But even the AIVD’s dire assessment of the threat may be too optimistic. Malika Elmouridi, a former local politician and activist among the Dutch Muslim community, warned that the government is undercounting the true number of jihadists by a considerable margin. To a large extent, AIVD relies on self-reporting from families whose children have left for Syria or Iraq but, Elmouridi notes, “It is only a very small group of parents who raise the alarm and say: ‘My child has gone to Syria’.”  Many fear the stigma and shame of having produced radical offspring, and stay quiet. Very few have been radicalized at home, though those who fall sway to the Salafi jihadist message are “enormously suggestible,” she states, adding that many have troubled backgrounds.

The majority of the radicalization that leads young Dutch men and women to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq is happening neither at home nor in the mosque, but virtually, in the online world. Facebook and Twitter are the preferred venues of these would-be holy warriors, who demonstrate “no regard for religious or other leaders in the Muslim community,” observes Dutch journalist Hans Wansink. He adds:

The battleground in Syria is functioning as a catalyst; the caliphate is not a dream any longer but a genuine prospect. The successes of ISIS constitute appealing propaganda material. The number of Dutch-language websites glorifying jihadist violence and denouncing the West has multiplied many times over since 2013. As a travel destination, Syria is fairly easy to get to via Turkey. Returning veterans from the civil war are mentally and physically in a position to plan attacks and to carry them out. The terror threat has thus increased sharply in a short time, while the resilience of states and population groups has actually decreased.

Moreover, there is little under current laws that AIVD and Dutch authorities can do to prevent this process. “Programs for ‘de-radicalization’ have little effect,” notes Wansink, regrettably accurately, while much of this social media activity undertaken by Dutch extremists falls under the protections of free speech. AIVD counts several hundred active Salafi radicals in the Netherlands, as well as a few thousand sympathizers, a huge number of potential problems for the underfunded security service to contend with.

Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten has assured the public that “all available means” are being employed to prevent Dutch citizens from waging jihad abroad, adding that it is “not acceptable” for them to be doing this. The risk of domestic terrorism is “genuine,” he admits. Welfare payments of jihadis who have left the country have been stopped and some thirty people have had their passports revoked. But the Netherlands to date has done little more concrete to prevent its citizens from going to Syria and Iraq as fighters — and returning home more radical and more proficient at killing. Such are the dilemmas facing all free and democratic Western societies as they confront this rising threat. In truth, as long as Turkey continues to make it easy for European jihadists to reach Syria through its territory, this problem promises only to get worse.

ISIS Reaches Kosovo

Today, Kosovo police arrested three ethnic Albanians on charges of terrorism and recruitment. The men, said to be linked to the world’s most infamous rising jihadist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), are reported to have recently returned from Syria, where some 150 Kosovar Albanians are waging jihad. The good news is that the Kosovo Intelligence Agency (AKI) tracked down the men before they perpetrated any terrorism (unlike French intelligence of late); the bad news is they are said to have been plotting mass casualty suicide bombings, which would represent a dark new page in the region.

In truth, there have been warnings for some time that Kosovo has become a significant breeding ground for the global jihad. Eyes were opened back in late March, when Blerim Heta blew himself up in Baghdad, killing over fifty people. In some ways, Heta did not fit the normal profile, in that he came from an intact family that was not poor, had no criminal record, and was employed (in fact he worked at Camp Bondsteel, the main U.S. Army base in Kosovo); yet in his sudden and profound radicalization Heta did reflect a depressingly common pattern. He attended sermons by Shefqet Krasniqi, the popular imam at Prishtina’s Grand Mosque, who praised the martyrdom of the first Albanians to die in the Syrian jihad.

In advance of today’s arrests, Kosovo has been aflutter with speculation about an impending wave of terrorism brought by ISIS veterans coming home filled with hate and know-how, with multiple press reports this week warning of a rising threat. Express Online reported that ten Kosovar Albanians had been trained by ISIS to become “kamikazes” to inflict suicide bombings at home. While this report smacks of sensationalist Balkan journalism, today’s arrests indicate that it may not be wide of the mark.

In a more analytical vein, the Prishtina daily Zëri explained that the rise of ISIS constitutes a serious threat to security in Kosovo and across Southeastern Europe. Thanks to the participation of many local radicals in the Syrian and Iraq jihads, “It was a low-scale threat but now it has risen to a medium-scale threat and it is gradually growing to high-scale threat,” explained a local security expert. Moreover, it is far from clear that the AKI and the Kosovo police, which are underfunded and strained, are up to the task of blunting this rising threat; neither do the international organizations that oversee many aspects of life in this small and impoverished country seem fully cognizant of the extent of the ISIS threat either.

Fatimir Mediu, Albania’s former defense minister, explained in the Tirana daily Panorama that the rising threat represented by Albanian jihadists returning from Syria is likely to become more acute, and young Muslims across the region are prone to recruitment thanks to widespread and seemingly intractable local concerns and troubles. Specifically, the Balkan-wide problems of dismal economics combined with very high unemployment, weak state structures, deeply embedded corruption, and persistently ugly ethno-religious politics, mean that Salafi radicalism will appeal to a certain subset of young men, particularly among the poor and disempowered. Fixing this, Mediu argued, requires taking the threat more seriously as a social and economic as well as security problem, bolstered by closer engagement with NATO and the European Union on counterterrorism matters, as well as local actions to isolate radicals before they move into terrorism.

Those are good ideas, and Kosovar authorities, the AKI particularly, are to be applauded for stopping something awful before it happened, but given the size of the threat represented by ISIS veterans coming home to Europe, combined with the region’s deep-seated socio-economic problems, it seems only a matter of time before the terrorists get it right, somewhere in the Balkans.

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.

Putinism and the Anti-WEIRD Coalition

Vladimir Putin’s slow-rolling conquest of Ukraine has restarted openly today, with calls for an “independence referendum” for the newly declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk” in the East. It’s clear that Moscow intends to conquer something like half of Ukraine – through quasi-covert means if possible, by overt invasion if necessary. Regardless, this will place the West on a course for something like the Cold War 2.0 I’ve written about.

That notion is not accepted yet by many in the West, who seem not to understand Putin’s agenda. Among the doubters is President Obama, who dismissed the idea of a new Cold War with Russia, on the grounds that Putin has no ideology, so what’s there to fight about? As Obama put it recently“This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO do not seek any conflict with Russia.”

While it’s certainly true that the U.S. and NATO don’t seek confrontation with Russia, it’s worthwhile remembering Trotsky’s line that you might not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you. As for the rest of Obama’s statement, it’s simply wrong, and that matters, because the U.S. and many of its allies at present are unable to see the rising conflict with Russia and its friends for what it actually is. And it’s hard to craft a counter-strategy when one side doesn’t even understand the stakes or the issues.

Putinism is a far cry from the Marxism-Leninism that animated the Soviet Union, Putin’s Sovietisms and undisguised affection for some aspects of the USSR notwithstanding. That said, it’s good to remember that Soviet ideology, as practiced, was a pretty cobbled-together edifice too that only had intellectual coherence if you were standing firmly inside the bubble.

I’ll elaborate what Putinism actually is, but before I do, it’s important to understand why President Obama and countless other Westerners cannot see what is right before them. Putin and the Kremlin actively parrot their propaganda, they are doing anything but hide it, yet we still cannot make it out.

This is simply because we are WEIRD. That’s social science shorthand for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic – and nobody is WEIRDer than Americans. In the last several decades many Americans, and essentially all our elites, have internalized a worldview based on affluence, individualism, and secularism that makes us unique, globally speaking. So much so that we seem unable to comprehend that there actually are opposing viewpoints out there.

Barack Obama, by virtue of his diverse ethnic and religious background and elite education, is almost an ideal stand-in for the WEIRD demographic, as he embodies so many things WEIRDos admire: education, affluence, diversity, progressive social views, etc. He comes close to being almost the perfect post-modern American, which perhaps is why so many Americans of that bent adore him deeply. Thus when President Obama says he detects no ideological rivalry with Putin’s Russia, he undoubtedly speaks the truth as he sees it.

Americans of all stripes have a well-honed ability to ignore inconvenient facts, and our better educated citizens seem particularly prone to this (as I noted with our “expert” inability to see what North Korea believes, even though they aren’t shy about it). At root, I suspect Obama and many Americans refuse to accept the in-our-face reality of Putin and his regime because they represent a past version of ourselves, caught up in retrograde views that are entirely unacceptable to our elites, therefore they pretend they do not exist, because they don’t actually exist in their world.

Simply put, Vladimir Putin is the stuff of Western progressive nightmares because he’s what they thought they’d gotten past. He’s a traditional male with “outmoded” views on, well, everything: gender relations, race, sexual identity, faith, the use of violence, the whole retrograde package. Putin at some level is the Old White Guy that post-moderns fear and loathe, except this one happens to control the largest country on earth plus several thousand nuclear weapons – and he hates us.

Of course, this also happens to explain why some Westerners who loathe post-modernism positively love Putin, at least from a safe distance. Some far-right Westerners – the accurate term is paleoconservatives – have been saying for years that the West, led very much by America, has become hopelessly decadent and they’ve been looking for a leader to counter all this, and – lo and behold – here he is, the new “leader of global conservatism.” Some paleocons have stated that, with the end of the Cold War, America has become the global revolutionary power, seeking to foist its post-modern views on the whole planet, by force if necessary, and now Putin’s Russia has emerged as the counterrevolutionary element. Cold War 2.0, in this telling, has the sides reversed.

I’m skeptical of all that, but it is important to note that the post-modernism about cultural and social matters that has become the default setting in the West in the last couple decades has had a hard time putting down roots in Eastern Europe. It’s an odd fact that living under the Old Left (i.e. Marxism-Leninism) inoculated Eastern Europeans from much of the New Left of the 1960s and after, with its emphasis on gender, sexuality, and race. “Critical Studies” didn’t get far with people who had to live under the KGB; indeed, East Bloc secret police in the 1980s viewed all this – the feminism and the gay rights stuff especially – as bourgeois deviance and a subversive Western import. Since 1990, Western countries have made actual efforts to import that, but it’s met a lot of resistance, and doesn’t make much of an impression outside educated circles; which is why when educated Westerners meet, say, educated Poles, “they seem just like us” – because they have accepted, verbatim, what we’ve told them is normative in a “developed” society.

Resisting Western post-modernism on a cultural level is but one component of Putinism, albeit an important one. What comes first, however, is an emphasis on national sovereignty, meaning a more traditional, indeed Westphalian, view of state power and non-interference in others’ affairs. That Putin has stolen Crimea indicates that Moscow’s views on this are highly conditional. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Putin’s regular incantations of the need for respect for sovereignty, which are of course aimed directly at the United States, which Russia views as a hypocrite of the highest order in international affairs, are popular among other regional powers who fear U.S. military might, especially China and India. Moreover, Putin would no doubt argue that his seizing Crimea is in no way a violation of sovereignty since Ukraine is not a legitimate country in the first place (an interview last year where Putin referred to Ukraine as a mere “territory” did not get the attention abroad that it merited). For most Russians, all this falls under the need to restore national honor after the disasters of the 1990s, and is to be applauded heartily. Additionally, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t like Putin or Russia, yet who are happy that someone, somewhere is standing up to American hegemony.

Nationalism matters too. This is a tricky issue in Russia, which possesses some 185 recognized ethnic groups and many religions, with ethnic Russians making up but four-fifths of the population, and that figure is declining. Until recently, Putin had done a good job of promoting state patriotism and a Muscovite sort of multiculturalism that celebrates citizens of the Russian Federation, of any ethnicity or religion, as long as they accept Kremlin rule; that this bears little resemblance to post-modern Western notions of “tolerance” and “diversity” should be obvious. All the same, hardline Russian ethno-nationalists, local equivalents of David Duke, have regularly faced arrest in Putin’s Russia, which has feared setting off ethnic disputes that could turn explosive quickly.

Yet the reconquest of Crimea has caused a clear change of tone in Moscow, with celebration of old fashioned Russian nationalism coming into fashion. In his speech to the Duma announcing the triumphant annexation of Crimea, when speaking of Russians, Putin specifically used the ethnic term – russkiy –  not the more inclusive rossiyskiy, which applies to all citizens of the Russian Federation. This came among incantations to the full Great Russian program, with a Moscow-centric view of Eastern Europe seemingly endorsed by mentions of great Orthodox saints. Unstated yet clearly, this was all of a piece with “Third Rome” ideology, a powerful admixture of Orthodoxy, ethnic mysticism, and Slavophile tendencies that has deep resonance in Russian history.

Westerners seemed shocked by this “Holy Russia” stuff, but Putin has been dropping unsubtle hints for years that his state ideology includes a good amount of this back-to-the-future thinking, cloaked in piety and nationalism. Western “experts”  continue to state that a major influence here is Aleksandr Dugin, an eccentric philosopher who espouses “Eurasianism,” an odd blend of geopolitical theory and neo-fascism. While Dugin is not irrelevant, his star at the Kremlin actually faded a decade ago, though he gets some Kremlin attention because his father was a GRU general. Far more important to divining Putin’s worldview, however, is Ivan Ilyin, a Russian political and religious thinker who fled the Bolsheviks and died an emigre in Switzerland in 1953. In exile, Ilyin espoused ethnic-religious neo-traditionalism, amidst much talk about a unique “Russian soul.” Germanely, he believed that Russia would recover from the Bolshevik nightmare and rediscover itself, first spiritually then politically, thereby saving the world. Putin’s admiration for Ilyin is unconcealed: he has mentioned him in several major speeches and he had his body repatriated and buried at the famous Donskoy monastery with fanfare in 2005; Putin personally paid for a new headstone. Yet despite the fact that even Kremlin outlets note the importance of Ilyin to Putin’s worldview, not many Westerners have noticed.

They should, however, because Putinism includes a good amount of Ilyin-inspired Orthodoxy and Russian nationalism working hand-in-glove, what its advocates term symphonia, meaning the Byzantine-style unity of state and church, in stark contrast to American notions of separation of church and state. Although the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is not the state church, de jure, in practice it functions as something close to one, enjoying a privileged position at home and abroad. Putin has explained the central role of the ROC by stating that Russia’s “spiritual shield” – meaning her church-grounded resistance to post-modernism – is as important to her security as her nuclear shield. Meanwhile, Kremlin security agencies have publicly embraced Orthodoxy too, with the FSB espousing a doctrine of “spiritual security,” which boils down to the ROC and the “special services” working together against the West and its malign influences. Where Chekists once persecuted the church with fanatical fervor, now it’s de rigeur among Russian intelligence officers to be religious, at least publicly. The FSB basically kept the old KGB logo, the famous sword and shield, with St. George slaying the dragon in place of the former red star.

Putin, of course, is a public believer, and while there’s been skepticism expressed in the West about how this onetime mid-level KGB functionary suddenly became a pious Orthodox, it’s clear that, whatever he may believe privately, Putin’s regime benefits from the ROC giving it assistance for its neo-traditionalist state ideology. The Moscow Patriarchate, to use the proper term for ROC leadership, has been anything but shy in its support for Putin and his Kremlin, offering regular expressions of what exactly it believes about the West, often quite vehemently.

ROC propaganda portrays a West that is declining down to its death at the hands of decadence and sin, mired in confused unbelief, bored and failing to even reproduce itself. Patriarch Kirill, head of the church, recently explained that the “main threat” to Russia is “the loss of faith” in the Western style. The practices of “sexual minorities,” to use the Kremlin term for LGBT lifestyles, come in for harsh criticism. Fr. Vsevolod Chaplin, who is the MP’s frontman on these matters, explained about homosexuality, “it is one of the gravest sins because it changes people’s mental state, makes the creation of a normal family impossible, and corrupts the younger generation. By the way, it is no accident that the propaganda of this sin is targeted at young people and sometimes at children. It deprives people of eternal bliss.” Moreover, Chaplin explained, the triumph of same-sex marriage means that the West doesn’t even have fifty years left before its collapse, and it will be up to Russia then to save what can be saved,  to “make Europe Christian again, that is, go back to the ideals that once made Europe.”

Gay activists in the West have latched onto all this, but it’s important to note that Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda” ought to be seen as part of a full-spectrum assault by the ROC, and therefore the Kremlin, on Western post-modern values. (Westerners seem not to notice that Russia’s anti-homosexual laws are mild compared to many in the Islamic world and Africa, and Moscow continues to have a thriving LGBT scene.) Putinism rejects Western-style feminism just as strongly as homosexuality. As Patriarch Kirill explained recently, “I consider this phenomenon called feminism very dangerous, because feminist organizations proclaim the pseudo-freedom of women, which must appear firstly outside of marriage and outside of family,” adding that it’s no coincidence that most feminist leaders are unmarried and childless.

Faith aside, it’s not hard to see why Putin wants to fight off Western values based on individualism in the sexual realm that have unquestionably led to lower birthrates, which is something that Russia, which is already facing demographic disaster, cannot afford. The existence of the country itself is at stake, so we should not expect Putin to back off here, especially because he may actually believe all this as a matter of faith, not just natalist practicality.

The West, and the United States especially, have helped cause this by active promotion of the post-modernism that Russia now rejects. It is not a figment of Moscow’s imagination that the U.S. State Department encourages feminism and LGBT activism, at least in certain countries. When Washington, DC, considers having successful gay pride parades a key benchmark for “advancement” in Eastern Europe, with the full support of U.S. diplomats, we should not be surprised when the Kremlin and its sympathizers move to counter this. My friends in Eastern Europe, most of whom are comfortable with gay rights and feminism, have nevertheless noted to me many times that it’s odd that the U.S. Government promotes such things in small, poor Eastern European countries it can intimidate but never, say, in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, there remains the question of just how universal post-modern Western values actually are outside educated elites. There is ample evidence that many average people in Eastern Europe who fear Russia nevertheless are closer to the Kremlin’s positions on cultural matters than to America’s. In Georgia, where loathing of Russians generally and Putin particularly is universal, resistance to LGBT rights and feminism remains deep and broad, with the support of the Orthodox Church, while much the same can be said of Moldova, where fears of Russian invasion are acute, but so are fears of Western social values. Neither is this resistance limited to the East. It can be found as well in Central Europe, among NATO and EU members. In Poland, the Catholic Church continues to resist post-modern sexual values – what they collectively term “gender,” meaning feminism plus gay rights – leading one bishop to term this “ a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.” Strongly Catholic Croatia last December in a national referendum rejected same-sex marriage by a two-thirds margin, to the dismay of progressives across Europe. One of the big talking points from the Kremlin and the ROC is that Russia represents the actual global consensus on such matters, while the West is the decadent outlier. Its postmodernism, proclaimed Fr. Chaplin recently, “is increasingly marginal,” adding that “it cannot cope with modern challenges,” while Orthodox Christian, Chinese, Indian, Latin American and African civilizations share opposite values and will play an active role in building peaceful relations between civilizational systems. Given recent trends in sexual matters globally, with India and countries in Africa enacting harsh anti-gay laws, it is worth considering if Moscow has a valid point.

We are entering a New Cold War with Russia, whether we want to or not, thanks to Putin’s acts in Ukraine, which are far from the endpoint of where the Kremlin is headed in foreign policy. As long as the West continues to pretend there is no ideological component to this struggle, it will not understand what is actually going on. Simply put, Putin believes that his country has been victimized by the West for two decades, and he is pushing back, while he is seeking partners. We will have many allies in resisting Russian aggression if we focus on issues of freedom and sovereignty, standing up for the rights of smaller countries to choose their own destiny.

However, too much emphasis on social and sexual matters – that is, telling countries how they must organize their societies and families – will be strategically counterproductive. Some Americans already believe that Putin, not Obama, is on God’s side in this struggle, and this will only get worse as Europe elects more far-right parties to power, many of which are sympathetic to Putinism, and some are secretly on the Kremlin payroll. If we choose to resist Russia because Putin rejects gay rights and feminism, we will have fewer allies and well-wishers than if we instead focus on matters of national sovereignty and dignity. The choice is ours. The Internationale famously promised, “this is the final struggle” (c’est la lutte finale), and now perhaps we are in that very conflict; there is no doubt that post-modern Westerners feel their social beliefs are the endpoint of all human development, and we may soon find out if they are right. The first step is accepting that we are in fact the WEIRD ones.

[As always, the opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.]

Western Journalists and Russian Intelligence

The Russian seizure of Crimea plus Moscow’s intimidation, and worse, of all Ukraine, has created an awkward situation for Edward Snowden’s fans and enablers. That Ed has taken up residence in Putin’s Russia, and continues to pontificate about privacy and the perfidy of Western intelligence while under Kremlin protection, is a bit much, so much so that even MSM stalwarts have begun to ask difficult questions about the whole Snowden-linked apparat.

Judging from their conduct, not to mention the vicious online abuse suffered by myself and others who have questioned the narrative that Snowden is a pure-hearted patriot who “just happened” to wind up in Moscow, it seems justified to ask about the motivations of Snowden’s stalwart defenders in the West. Some may be pawns of Russian intelligence but most, I suspect, are what Communists once called Useful Idiots: Westerners whose hatred of their own society is so profound that they accept baldfaced Kremlin lies uncritically. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the egregious Walter Duranty has present-day equivalents.

Yet espionage cannot be ruled out either. Indeed, Moscow’s powerful intelligence apparatus has long considered Western journalists to be an easy and tasty target, not least because so many volunteered their services freely, or at least cheaply. Post-Cold War revelations made clear that among numerous Useful Idiots in Western journalists there were paid-up Soviet agents too, who consciously transmitted Kremlin Line agitprop masquerading as “daring” journalism.

This rot was present from the start. The father of Central European “investigative journalism,” Egon Erwin Kisch, can serve as our Patient Zero. In the waning days of Austria-Hungary, the young Kisch, who gave himself the sobriquet “the raging reporter,” cemented his reputation in 1913 with his scoop about the notorious traitor Colonel Alfred Redl – a sordid tale of espionage, corruption, suicide, and sex – who was probably the Spy of the (20th) Century. Kisch virtually created the image of the hard-boiled, cynical journalist who went the extra mile to uncover what others sought to hide: “nothing is more annoying than the truth” was his mantra.

Yet behind the muckraking there was an unpleasant, if concealed, reality. After 1918, as he rose to journalistic stardom across Europe, Kisch was a committed Communist who secretly served Soviet military intelligence (GRU). His solidarity with Moscow was unshakable, as he was every bit as credulous about the Kremlin as he was incredulous about everything else,  and while he reported on all sorts of scandals that put “bourgeois society” in a bad light, he was taking GRU orders. Kisch’s allegiances were an open secret in certain circles and even some committed Leftists found his stock line, “I am Stalin’s soldier,” hard to swallow. Through the Ukrainian genocide-famine, the Purges, all the worst Stalinist excesses, Kisch was a deeply devoted Soviet agent while posing as a truth-teller to his Western readers. His devoted service to one of the most murderous regimes in history notwithstanding, there is an Egon Erwin Kisch Prize for journalists in Germany today.

American journalism, too, had “secret soldiers of Stalin” in its ranks, and there were more than a handful. In a case I was involved in decades after the fact, back in the 1940s one of the most prominent members of the U.S. journalistic scene was, we discovered much later thanks to information derived from KGB sources, also a devoted secret Communist. He was so overtly pro-Stalin that it creeped out his fellow-traveling friends, and during World War II he apparently passed U.S. classified information to the Soviets. However, by the late 1940s, he had a change of heart and over time became a committed anti-Communist, which was not uncommon back then. Moreover, there was nothing to be done with the case, as we learned of his treason decades after the event, which was mitigated by the reality that he abandoned the Moscow Line early in the Cold War, and he was dead to boot. It’s an interesting file that some researcher will make an intriguing “footnote to history” out of decades hence, once it’s been declassified and released to the archives.

The most notorious case, however, is that of I.F. Stone, Izzy to his legions of admirers on the Left, who cultivated the image of the muckraking journalist for truth pitch-perfectly for decades. It was a fraud. Inconveniently, he was an agent of Soviet intelligence in the late 1930s, at the height of Stalin’s purges, and maintained some sort of witting relationship with the KGB to 1956, when he broke with Moscow – later than many – over the invasion of Hungary. KGB efforts to reestablish their relationship with the elderly Stone, an “old master” in Chekist parlance, in 1968 were not successful. The extent to which Soviet connections influenced Stone’s “daring” reporting must remain an open question, but the vehement efforts of his defenders to deny his ties to the Soviet secret police are thoroughly debunked here.

Needless to add, there is an “Izzy Prize” to reward “special achievement in independent media” in honor of I.F. Stone. Its inaugural winner was Glenn Greenwald, who along with Jeremy Scahill was recently named to the “I.F. Stone Hall of Fame.”

For too many decades, among too many Western investigative journalists, secret loyalty to the Kremlin has been more a feature than a bug. As we enter a Second Cold War of the Kremlin’s creation, it’s time to face up to this reality and start asking about the real motivations of “truth tellers” who like to criticize the West while dodging negative comments about Moscow.

“The most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons”

It was a remarkable day in Ukraine, with Moscow-backed separatism becoming more plain to see especially in Crimea, coupled with the Kremlin’s surprise announcement of huge Russian military exercises beginning Friday for four days near the border with Ukraine. It’s difficult not to note that the force involved here, about 150,000 troops, is almost exactly the size of the U.S. force that invaded Iraq in March 2003. The revelation that a senior “former” GRU officer assisted with Yanukovych’s plans for mass repression in Ukraine has not calmed moods either.

Today, the Moscow daily Izvestiya, which is generally pro-Kremlin, ran a remarkable interview with a senior official in Crimea who describes the alarming conditions prevailing in that tumultuous region, reflecting the Moscow line that the recent revolution in Kyiv was a “coup.” This piece by  Mariya Gorkovskaya and titled “The most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons,” follows in its entirety:

Outside the Supreme Council of Crimea in Simferopol, local residents staged a rally on 25 February. Several hundred people demanded that the people’s elected representatives should not become “accomplices in the criminal coup” in Kyiv and should not obey the decisions of the new authorities. Simferopol City Council head Aleksandr Mal’tsev has told Izvestiya how Cossacks and Afghan war veterans are defending Crimea against representatives of the new authorities and radicals.

Q: What are the people who took part in the rally outside the Supreme Council of Crimea trying to achieve?

A: Crimeans are frightened. Many of those who gathered outside the Supreme Council have tried to go to the Maidan to support President Viktor Yanukovych. However, their buses were stopped in Kyiv and Cherkasy regions and burned, while they were brutally beaten by radicals in masks.  One of the demonstrators was even shot in the thigh from a nonlethal weapon. Because of that, the atmosphere in Crimea is charged. People do not want the government to change. They are gathering outside administration buildings in order to express their views, and are doing so without masks or weapons. You see, even though no one supports Yanukovych anymore, we have elected him in a lawful election. And now we have to wait for the next time to vote. People living on the peninsula are afraid that there will be a repetition of what happened in Kyiv, but this time it will be against the local administration.

Q: Yesterday, Crimeans refused to disarm the local division of Berkut [special police], so under pressure from the crowd, acting Ukrainian Internal Affairs Minister Avakov had to abandon this idea….

A: Crimean Cossacks have taken upon themselves to defend Berkut. They have formed a live shield at the entrance to their base  Cossacks, even though they are armed merely with whips, will not allow lustration or any persecution of our law-enforcement officers who were involved in the events in Kyiv. Of course, from a legal point of view, the Cossacks’ actions are illegal, but this is impossible to explain to the Cossacks, who do not recognize the coup d’etat.

Q: Apart from the Cossacks, who else in Crimea is getting organized in order to say “no” to what is happening in Ukraine?

A: Thanks to social networks, all kinds of people have been getting together to form vigilante groups and attend rallies. Cases involving Crimeans forming groups are becoming increasingly widespread. Groups of Afghan war veterans are on duty in Simferopol. Young people have formed their own groups. Crimean women are sending out information and answering calls at call centers. They were prompted to take to the streets in particular by the video of armed Right Sector radicals beating up people, which was distributed in the Internet. There are no clashes here yet.  But in these conditions, the most pressing issue for Crimeans is where to get weapons if they come to us with weapons.

Q: Such sentiments cannot please the new authorities. Crimean people’s deputies have already reported cases of pressure from Kyiv.  What do you know about this?

A: I cannot confirm this information, although I cannot deny it either. The Party of Regions, despite the latest developments, has huge influence in Crimea. That is why the country’s new leadership simply needs to take representatives of this territory under its control.

Q: Rumors are going around about preparations for a popular referendum on the question of Crimea seceding from Ukraine and becoming part of Russia….

A: There are no such proposals yet at legislative level or in statements by deputies. But in private conversations with Crimeans, you will often hear them say that either Kyiv should reckon with us or we would better become part of Russia. In any case, if the information about Russian deputies promising to organize the issuing of Russian passports to Crimeans using a simplified procedure proved correct, your missions would have to work round the clock.