French Terrorism Expert: “Bin Laden Has Won”

In recent months, the counterterrorism scene in the United States has been riven by debates about what al-Qa’ida (AQ) actually constitutes today, over two-and-a-half years since the death of Osama bin Laden. This has been a politically charged matter as it’s gotten caught up in the lingering catfight about exactly what happened at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, and why. This debate isn’t especially edifying, producing more partisan heat than analytical light, but I don’t expect it to go away either. Not to mention that defining the AQ threat accurately is necessary if we want to defeat it in detail and score more than tactical triumphs over the jihadists.

I consider it especially important that American CT experts listen to other voices from beyond the United States and the Anglosphere, so I’m passing on a recent interesting interview with a French CT expert, Yves Trotignon, in the Paris daily L’Opinion. Trotigon is a former CT analyst for DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service, and he continues to study terrorism as an outside expert, and he has recently authored a study on the current status of AQ and global jihad for the French military. Trotignon’s viewpoint is encapsulated in the article’s title: “Osama bin Laden has won: the al-Qa’ida threat has never been more significant.” His comments are interesting and, to some, controversial, so I’m passing on the entire interview:

Q: Nearly three years after the death of Osama bin Ladin on 2 May 2011, there is still talk of al-Qa’ida (AQ) in Iraq, Syria, in the Sahel and elsewhere. Where is the terrorist organization?

A: The jihadist threat was never more significant in the past thirty years, that is to say, since this phenomenon first appeared! There is today a real Sunni insurgency, with active movements everywhere, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, but also in North Africa, the Sahel, Yemen, the Sinai, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and even in Southeast Asia. These are powerful movements, interrelated and armed. This threat has taken knocks, but it has adapted to crackdowns. In addition, the Arab uprisings [since 2011] have opened a period of instability, which benefits them.

Basically, Bin Ladin’s gamble has paid off: He hoped to start something global. This has happened, and now AQ dresses up the conflicts, although it does not necessarily organize them. Besides, from 2003, bin Ladin explained that he had wanted to start the fire and that from that point onward AQ would support and inspire other actions.

Q: Can we still speak of AQ as an organized structure, or is it more accurately a movement?

A: Both! There are movements that are direct manifestations of, or have been dubbed by AQ – frequently changing names to this effect, such as Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). They are to be found in North Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, in the Sinai, and now in Somalia, where the Al-Shabab organization joined AQ in 2012.

The situation is different in other regions, for example in Indonesia, Nigeria and the Caucasus. There, movements claim ideological kinship with AQ and act in the way they think that AQ would, by imitation, without AQ asking them to do anything. Therefore it is not an International body, as was the communist Comintern, with a central body exercising control with a short leash. Pakistan remains the main center of gravity, particularly at the intellectual and ideological level, but there are others, in North Africa, the Caucasus and Yemen. Everything is in a continuous state of flux, but everything is connected. It is a movement that reconstitutes itself continuously.

Q: How many of these radical jihadists are there?

A: There is no exact number and it’s probably impossible to know. Whom do we count, in effect? The hard core of people trained in terrorism, the fighters in insurgent movements, their supporters, their logistical support? In any case, they number in the tens of thousands …

Q: You say that the threat has never been as significant, but the West appears to have been secure since the major attacks in the early 2000’s, the 9/11, London and Madrid attacks?

A: Yes, we have overcome this by managing to make sanctuaries out of Western Europe and North America against new major attacks, even if there were – as there will be – many foiled attempts. This suppression was effective but it has not stemmed the threat. In particular, it has failed to stop recruitment. One only has to see the number of Europeans who have gone to fight in Syria. They will return and this is a great source of concern for intelligence services and the police.

In particular, the jihadist networks have adapted. One has to read the theoretical texts of al-Zawahiri, bin Ladin’s successor. He favors small, but very spectacular, operations by isolated individuals such as [Toulouse killer] Mohamed Merah, or the attack on the Boston Marathon.

The terrorists committed spectacular actions, such as the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi or at the hotels in Mumbai, where they were sure to reach Western expatriates. In that way they get more mileage than from attacking a barracks in Algeria or Nigeria. What they want is to dampen spirits: Terrorism exists only because we talk about it

Q: What do you think of the situation in Iraq, where AQ has captured cities; and in Syria, where it is confronting Islamist resistance groups?

A: It is a little early to tell because the dust of battle has not yet settled. What we do know is that this is the result of a complex set of alliances between the various international supporters – including from the Gulf – and the interests of various local actors, warlords or tribal leaders. In Syria, everyone says that al-Assad is gaining the upper hand over the rebellion. In Iraq, it remains to be seen if the army can regain control of the cities that have been lost. The two countries somewhat constitute the same theater, since their frontier is a figment of the imagination. Besides, AQ there is called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or, as in the English acronym, ISIS.

Q: AQ is fighting the West but also the Shia. If the enemy of my enemy is my friend, can you imagine a reversal of alliances between the West and the Shia – Iran to begin with – against Sunni terrorism?

A: Certainly, we are on the same side as the Shia in this case, but only in this case! I believe that it is difficult to have a position of general principle. We should act on a case-by-case basis, pragmatically, with cold calculation, depending on local and regional circumstances. We can also ask ourselves if AQ poses a mortal threat to the West. On balance, would not maintaining the Assad regime in power be at the expense of greater risk for French or British interests? The situation obviously is different in countries like Kenya, Algeria or Niger…

Q: How do you view the way things are developing in North Africa and the Sahel?

A: In the Sahel, France will be engaged for some years, that’s for sure! The big problem is Libya, which is now a failed state, from which the jihadists want to act in Tunisia, Egypt and the Sahel. We should avoid contagion. We often forget Algeria, where the situation has not stabilized. AQIM is still active in Kabylia and the predictable demise of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika will usher in a period of uncertainty that terrorists could exploit.

Q: What fundamentally is AQ’s political aim?

A: It is very simplistic and their ideology is not thoroughly structured: Overthrowing states and establishing an Islamic caliphate, this is a fantasy. This is very hard-core Islamism, unlike that of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example … Depending on the situation, they either use Third World, or ethnic or pan-Islamist themes. In fact, what they are really interested in is the battle itself, not the project. They are much too radical to be able to govern and there are unbelievable gaps in their political planning.

Q: What can we do to fight them?

A: I have been wondering that for a long time now … It is essential to suppress them; on the other hand, it is difficult to counter them politically, because you cannot hold a dialog with them. Can we build something on the societel level to halt the recruitment … in 20 years? Certainly it is necessary, but it will not be enough, because AQ does not recruit only the unemployed; it also recruits from the middle classes. The most important point probably is this sense of cultural domination by the West, which AQ rejects. Therefore everything that stems from us is doomed to be ineffectual.

Lots to ponder there, folks, but I find myself in essential agreement with Trotigon’s point that AQ is fueled by a violent fantasy ideology, a toxic version of Salafi jihadism, that is ultimately fantasy-based and cannot actually achieve any of its political goals. Neither can it be reasoned or parleyed with. But it’s far from dead either, despite many setbacks. We ought to dispense with any wishful thinking that the fight against the AQ-inspired global jihad movement is anywhere near over.

New Intelligence: Al-Qa’ida was behind the Benghazi murders

Thanks to The New York Times recently giving us a re-treatment of the background to the 11 September 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that took the lives of four brave Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, this messy, unresolved tragedy is back in the news.

This is a murky story, as I’ve explained more than once, made so by the challenging relationship between the Department of State and U.S. intelligence on the ground in Benghazi, worsened by the intensely partisan nature of the debate that has surrounded this issue from the beginning. I blame both sides for this politicized mess, which is regrettable on many fronts, since it’s important to ascertain what actually happened that terrible night, and why. NYT has hardly helped clarity by essentially going to bat for Hillary Clinton here, well after the fact, and making a not very convincing case that Al-Qa’ida (AQ) was uninvolved in the attack on CONGEN Benghazi. Rather, according to NYT, this was the work of local extremists who got fired up by that infamous anti-Islam video. I won’t even get into the questionable professional ethics of sending the same reporter to bolster his original controversial account of Benghazi.

In a sense, this is a false debate, since it gets into important yet somewhat obscure definitional questions of what “AQ” really means today. This is a worthwhile query, however, and big-picture, I can’t improve on what Clint Watts has already said on this knotty matter. Additionally, if you’re looking for an informed counterpoint to NYT’s flimsy “no-AQ-in-Benghazi” position, look no further than Tom Jocelyn here.

What’s interesting about the NYT’s position, which seems generally shared by many who adhere to the White House line on the Benghazi debacle, is that it’s already been refuted by many others, including some who cannot be construed as FoxNews representatives. Back in October, the United Nations added to the Security Council’s AQ Sanctions List one Muhammad Jamal Abd-Al Rahim Al-Kashif, a longtime Egyptian terrorist and rather senior AQ affiliate. His violent Islamist gang is termed the Muhammad Jamal Network (MJN) and has deep roots in Egypt but also in Yemen, and has strong links with AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) too. The UN’s explanation of al-Kashif’s involvement in Benghazi is rather clear-cut:

Some of the attackers of the U.S. Mission in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 have been identified as associates of Muhammad Jamal, and some of the Benghazi attackers reportedly trained at MJN camps in Libya.

Al-Kashif is no stranger to seasoned AQ watchers – as well as the U.S. Intelligence Community – as he’s been involved in the global jihad since he went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, during AQ’s foundational period, and he’s been a problem for Cairo for decades as a key member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Most recently, al-Kashif, known as Abu Ahmad in the jihadist underworld, was arrested by Egyptian authorities in November 2012 due to his connections to the Nasr City terrorist group.

His Yemeni ties have been deemed important, however, not least because he has a Yemeni wife and spent several years in that troubled country, helping build AQAP, among other jihad-related nefarious activities. That al-Kashif played a key role behind the Benghazi attack seems evident to many experts, and the belief that his part was critical has been bolstered by a new report on the Yemeni news site Al-Omanaa, which is based on information from unnamed senior security officials in that country.

Entitled, “The killer of the U.S. Ambassador in Libya was living in Yemen,” the article claims that U.S. and Egyptian security services have recently asked Yemeni counterparts for information on al-Kashif, whom Washington, DC has accused of “being behind the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on 11 September 2012 in Benghazi.” Additionally, Al-Omanaa says that U.S. intelligence (i.e. NSA) intercepted a phone call between al-Kashif and AQ boss Ayman al-Zawahiri, implying that the call may have discussed the Benghazi attack.

As of now, this is just one report, and the reliability of Middle Eastern media must be assessed as questionable until proved otherwise. That said, if U.S. officials have asked for information about al-Kashif, a longtime AQ associate, on grounds that he was behind the Benghazi raid, that tells us something significant. This is not the first time Arab media has mentioned al-Kashif as one of the ringleaders behind the Benghazi attack – not long after the attack Egyptian media reported that the FBI actually tracked his movements relating to Benghazi, all the way to Cairo after the atrocity – but given the NYT’s recent report, this matter has taken on added significance.

As I concur with Blake Hounshell that we’ll be discussing the Benghazi story for years to come, I’ll file this under “developing” for now and see what emerges … watch this space.

Dutch Study: Muslims in Western Europe Are More Radical That You Think

One of the hotly debated topics among counterterrorism professionals in recent years is the extent of radicalization among diaspora Muslims in the West. This debate is often polemical, with allegations of “Jihad denial” being countered by claims of “Islamophobia,” and has taken on major importance In Europe, where Muslim minorities are increasingly restive and are sending young men to fight in the Syrian jihad in numbers that are deeply worrying to European security officials.

The Amsterdam daily NRC Handelsblad has an interesting report on the extent of radicalization among Muslims in Western Europe that has several disturbing revelations. The piece, by Frank Vermeulen and titled “Muslim Fundamentalism in Western Europe No Marginal Phenomenon”, is translated below (and it should be noted that Handelsblad is a left-of-center paper, not prone to Islamophobia):

Muslim fundamentalism is not, as is often thought, a marginal phenomenon in Western Europe.  From research in the Netherlands and five other European countries, it now emerges that two-thirds of questioned Muslims consider their religious laws more important that the laws of the countries in which they live.

Aside from this, three-quarters feel that the Koran can only be interpreted one way.  In addition, Dutch Muslims are stricter with respect to the teachings than Muslims in Germany, for example.

Sociologist Ruud Koopmans, director of the migration research group of the WZB Social Science Research Center Berlin that published that information this week, says that the difference between Dutch and German Muslims is remarkable.  That is to say that it gives the lie to the prevailing idea that fundamentalism is a reaction to institutional exclusion, he explains today in NRC Handelsblad:

“And that is evidently not so, as Muslims have noticeably fewer rights in Germany than in the Netherlands.  To put it more strongly, not in one single European country do Muslims have as many rights as in the Netherlands.”

Survey Among 9,000 Turkish and Moroccan Migrants

The research is based on a rather broad telephone survey among 9,000 Turkish and Moroccan migrants and 3,000 native people as a comparison group with respect to the consequences of labor migration in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria and Sweden in 2008.

In the interview with this newspaper, Koopmans warns that fundamentalist views mostly go together with hostile images of homosexuals and Jews, for example:

“There are disturbingly large numbers of Muslims — 45 percent — who feel that Jews are not to be trusted.  A similar number believe that the West wants to annihilate Islam.

Naturally there are 20 percent of natives in the Netherlands who believe the reverse — that the Muslims want to annihilate the West — and that is where Geert Wilders gets his votes.  In an absolute sense, that is more people.  That is also a big problem.  Yet those hostile images are much more widespread among Muslims.”

Hostile Image Can Be a Growth Medium for Violence

Apart from this, Koopmans thinks that this fundamentalist hostile image can be a growth medium for violence:

“Fortunately, of course, only a fraction of all the millions of Muslims in Europe are prepared to cross over to violence — but at this moment, from all over Western Europe, we have some 2,000 jihad fighters who are learning to handle heavy weapons in Syria.  When they are likely to come back traumatized, that is something about which to worry.”

Snowden’s Thunder Down Under

In recent days, the international propaganda operation fueled by classified documents stolen by Edward Snowden has taken aim at Australia, which is a longstanding member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Allegations that the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the local SIGINT agency that partners with NSA, has spied on Indonesia, including its political leadership, have caused heartburn in Jakarta.

Indonesia has recalled its ambassador from Canberra and cancelled joint military exercises. Of perhaps greater significance, the Snowden revelations have placed anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries in jeopardy, a major problem given how much Australia worries about any rise in violent extremism in its huge neighbor to the North. There is more than a little hokum and faux outrage in Jakarta’s reaction, not least because Indonesia spies on Australia too, including in SIGINT, but the political damage inflicted to date seems real, if not likely permanent.

Yet even short-term damage can cause serious pain to both sides. Not least because Indonesia is highly dependent on Australian intelligence, especially ASD SIGINT, to keep its domestic extremists and terrorists in check. This is causing serious worry in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the country’s domestic security service, charged with counterterrorism and counterintelligence. The real world of espionage is far more complicated than the cheap moralizing of Planet Greenwald would have you believe. Just how messy this all is, and why the Snowden damage matters, is conveyed nicely in a detailed report in The Australian, a Sydney daily, which I reproduce here:

More than 300 convicted terrorists will be released from Indonesian prisons in the next 12 months, posing a renewed terror threat to both Australians and Indonesians at a time when the spy scandal threatens to derail intelligence co-operation between the two countries.

However, as the fallout from the Snowden leaks intensified, with Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announcing the suspension of some intelligence sharing arrangements, there was no immediate indication which areas of counter-terror co-operation would be effected. Dr Yudhoyono announced yesterday co-operation with Australia would be downgraded across a range of areas – mainly people-smuggling – but also military co-operation and intelligence sharing.

“I will instruct (officials) to halt some co-operation that is called exchange of information and exchange of intelligence among our two countries,” the Indonesian President said.

The announcement represented a major escalation in the spy scandal and came at a time when ASIO is deeply concerned by the looming release of the terrorists whose sentences are up. ASIO fears the release of the militants – including some involved in the bomb attacks on Australians in Jakarta and Bali between 2002 and 2009 – will re-energise terror networks that had been largely defeated thanks to joint intelligence and police co-operation between Australia and Indonesia.

Australia has 30 Australian Federal Police officers based in Indonesia working with local authorities, mainly on anti-people-smuggling and counter terrorism operations. It is understood about a dozen of those officers work on people-smuggling, a relatively low-order issue for Jakarta and one where co-operation may be downgraded with little cost to Indonesia but considerable pain to Australia, which in the past two months has ramped up its efforts to disrupt smuggling ventures.

But insiders say there could not be a worse time to suspend intelligence co-operation between the two countries because it would limit the ability of Australian and Indonesian agencies to monitor those released prisoners, some of whom are likely to resume jihadist activities against their own citizens and Western tourists.

The joint counter-terror co-operation between the two countries, which has been the key to capturing the Bali bombers and dismantling the deadly Jeemah Islamiah terror network, appeared to be under threat last night after the chief of Indonesia’s national intelligence agency BIN, Marciano Norman, was called to the Presidential Palace to discuss the security co-operation ramifications of the Australian crisis.

Australian intelligence, including information gleaned by the Australian Signals Directorate, remains a key part of Indonesia’s war against Islamic extremism. One insider said yesterday Indonesia’s fight against Islamic extremism had always relied “enormously” on intelligence supplied by Australian agencies – including the ASD, the successor of the Defence Signals Directorate, which allegedly intercepted Dr Yudhoyono’s mobile phone.

“The arrest and prosecution of the original Bali bombers couldn’t have happened without Australian intelligence support,” The Australian was told. “When (then prime minister John) Howard went up three or four days after the bombing he took with them the heads of the intelligence agencies and said, ‘You’ve got carte blanche’.”

Others say that if this sort of co-operation was suspended as a result of the spy scandal, it would create a law enforcement vacuum and an opportunity for Islamic extremists to regroup and once again target Indonesians and Australians in Bali and Jakarta.

ASIO fears Indonesian terror groups, including JI, could become more active when about 300 out of 830 convicted and imprisoned terrorists are released over the next year having served their sentences for crimes carried out over the past decade. It is feared that many of terrorists are likely to resume extremist activities, especially because Indonesian prisons are considered to be hothouses for extremist teachings.

“The impending release of terrorist detainees from Indonesian prisons, a spike of which is expected to occur in 2014 is likely to increase this (terror) threat,” ASIO warned in its recently released annual report. “Many of the individuals scheduled to be released in this period have undertaken terrorist training or have been linked to, or involved in, bombings against either Western of local targets.

“Their release is likely to inject significant capability into extremist networks. The expertise and anti-Western credentials of some individuals have the potential to refocus and reinvigorate currently diffuse and relatively unsophisticated extremist networks.”

Greg Barton, an Indonesia expert at Melbourne’s Monash University, said the release of so many prisoners in one year was ‘a big concern”. “While we don’t have a clear picture of recidivism rates, it is safe to assume that some will still be quite sympathetic to (extremism) and that some will go back to operations,” Professor Barton told The Australian.

In recent years Jakarta’s counter-terrorism capacity had become more sophisticated and other countries, including the US, were beginning to play a greater role in assisting the Indonesians, reducing Jakarta’s dependence on Australian intelligence and expertise.

But Australia was still Indonesia’s main partner in the fight against local extremism. In addition to intelligence about extremists, Australia is understood to have gifted the Indonesians a raft of equipment, such as long-range surveillance microphones, cameras and night vision equipment. Australia also supplies technical expertise in areas such as computer exploitation, for example extracting information from laptops seized from extremists.

One wonders how well Indonesian intelligence will fare against extremists and terrorists without the reporting and technical assistance of the ASD. I’m afraid we’re going to find out the hard way. Let’s hope those 300 soon-to-be released Indonesian terrorists have spent their time in prison learning and embracing that “jihad is love” (as non-violent Salafis like to put it), because otherwise bad things seem sure to follow.

Syria’s Jihad Reaches Europe

Over the last two years, as Syria’s civil war has metastasized into a multi-sided fratricidal nightmare, the role of foreign fighters has grown increasingly troubling. Throughout the history of what Westerners loosely term Al-Qa’ida, foreigners who “join the caravan” and seek war (and often martyrdom) in jihads far from their homes have formed a consistent theme, and selling point, among Salafi extremists. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, as in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s, and in every subsequent major jihad, foreigners have played a role more important than their mere numbers would suggest.

Syria since 2011 has emerged as the greatest of all jihad contests for foreign fighters. Given its proximity to Europe, large numbers of Westerners have gone to fight in Syria, via Turkish “ratlines,” raising concerns among European security services about what these violent young men might do when they return home. Significant numbers of angry young mujahidin from Europe have joined the fight in Syria, on a scale never before seen in counterterrorism circles, leading to something approaching panic among Western intelligence agencies.

The Balkans have offered hundreds of volunteers for Syria, mainly from Bosnia and the Albanian lands. Recent reports have indicated that some 150 Albanians from Kosovo have gone to fight in Syria. This is particularly worrisome as, until recently, that overwhelmingly Muslim former Serbian province that was liberated by NATO in 1999 from Belgrade’s rule has been widely hailed as an oasis of moderation where extremism allegedly could find no purchase.

As ever, the truth is more complicated, and in recent years, as Kosovo has become mired in all-too-predictable crime, corruption, and poverty, Salafi preachers and rabble-rousers have done their usual work, and now Kosovo, too, has its share of fanatics bent on murder and mayhem. Many of them have decamped for Syria, and some are now returning home to bring the jihad to Europe.

This became clear last week when Kosovo authorities arrested six men on terrorism charges. Four of the six men were picked up by undercover police in the capital, Prishtina, when they sought to purchase illegal weapons, and two of them are veterans of the Syrian jihad. A seventh man remains on the loose, pursued by police. The seven men, identified as Genc Selimi, Nuredin Sylejmani, Valon Shala, Adrian Mehmeti, Musli Hyseni, Bekim Mulalli, and Fidan Demolli, are suspected by prosecutors of “preparing a terrorist act against the safety and constitutional order” in Kosovo.

According to Kosovo media, Genc Selimi, known in extremist circles as Abu Hafs al-Albani, is the ringleader and a veteran of the Syrian war, who had been monitored by Kosovo security officials since his recent return from the jihad against the Assad regime. The police were watching Selimi and his conspirators develop their terrorist plans in a secret operation the authorities termed HURRICANE. As the police reported after Selimi’s arrest, “The operation was conducted through the implementation of covert investigative measures and resulted in the arrest of six suspects,” two from Prishtina and four from the nearby town of Gjilan.

The amount of weaponry and gear brought in by Operation HURRICANE was impressive, including a sniper rifle, one carbine, one semi-automatic rifle, two handguns, a modified handgun, some 1,200 AK-47 rounds, 1,900 Euros, three cars (two BMWs and a Mercedes), plus C4 explosives. How the suspects paid for this equipment is not yet clear, though Kosovo authorities have explained some of them were affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and were plotting terrorism in Kosovo on someone’s dime. Two of the men are also wanted in connection with the recent beating of two U.S. citizens in Prishtina, both female Mormon (LDS) missionaries, on 3 November; it seems that the assault on the American women partly triggered the wider police action against the jihadist network.

This is hardly Kosovo’s first involvement with jihadist terrorism that has effected the United States. Four of the six terrorists behind the 2007 Fort Dix plot were Albanians from Kosovo or neighboring Macedonia, while the Kosovar Albanian Sami Osmakac was arrested in early 2012 for plotting bombings in the Tampa area, and Arid Uka, the murderer of two U.S. Air Force personnel at Frankfurt airport in 2011, hailed from Kosovo too.

On the positive side, it should be noted that Kosovo’s police and security forces seem to have done a commendable job of keeping would-be jihadists under surveillance and arresting them before anything truly awful happened. Additionally, Islamic authorities in Kosovo have responded to the arrests by condemning terrorism and urging local young men now fighting in Syria to come home at once and abandon extremism.

Although Kosovo authorities have been forced to acknowledge that extremism and terrorism are problems in the country, following years of low-balling and simply denying the problem, it seems that Prishtina’s official line that “Extremist groups in Kosovo do not act in such an organized way and, as such, they pose a low risk of terrorist attacks,” may be unduly optimistic in light of last week’s arrests.

Of the some 150 young men from Kosovo who are reported to have joined the Syrian jihad, to date only three have been identified as killed in action, which means that large numbers will be returning home before long to continue their jihad in Europe. Once that happens, the terrorism threat in Southeastern Europe will not remain low for long.

Understanding Iran’s new spy story

Today Ha’aretz has a detailed report on the recent roll-up of an Iranian intelligence operative who two weeks ago was unmasked and detained by Israeli counterintelligence. As this revelation comes just two days after President Obama’s historic phone call with President Rouhani, his Iranian counterpart, the timing appears significant. Skeptics are already noting that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is coming to Washington, DC, this week to talk with Obama, whom he clearly dislikes, must be savoring this. But the story is more complex, and interesting, than it appears.

The case reveals quite a bit about Iranian espionage tradecraft. The detained spy, Ali Mansouri, is an operative of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, Pasdaran to the Iranians), who was sent to Israel to conduct espionage and plot terrorism; significantly, he took a bunch of pictures of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv which, given the Revolutionary Guards’ extensive ties to terrorism, is worrisome. I’ve been tracking the Pasdaran for a long time, especially in the Balkans, and wherever they go, mayhem follows.

Significantly, Mansouri is reported to be an operative of the IRGC’s elite Qods (Jerusalem) Force, which is the formidable foreign intelligence and terrorism arm of the Iranian regime. Its leader, General Qassem Soleimani – who conveniently this week was profiled in a New Yorker piece that you shouldn’t miss – is arguably the most powerful man in Iran and is indisputably the spy-master of the Middle East.

Mansouri’s resume is interesting from an counterintelligence perspective. He left his native land in 1980, after the Iranian revolution, settling in Turkey, where he stayed for the next seventeen years. In 1997, he emigrated to Belgium, reinventing himself as “Alex Mans” and becoming a naturalized citizen before returning to Iran a decade later, marrying an Iranian woman. For the last several years Mansouri/Mans has traveled frequently between Iran, Turkey, and Belgium.

He visited Israel three times in little more than a year, in July 2012, January 2013, and again this month. He arrived in Israel on 6 September and was arrested by authorities as he was leaving the country five days later, on the 9/11 anniversary. These trips were taken on behalf of the Pasdaran, Mansouri/Mans told the Israeli Security Service (SHABAK), which recruited him in 2012 to establish front companies in Europe to obtain access to Israel. Given Israeli vigilance about any Iran-connected visitors to their country, his cover seems to have been flimsy (this is apparently one of the fronts Mansouri/Mans set up), but since SHABAK makes Israel pretty much a denied area for Iranian intelligence, any access, even if slight, beats no access from Tehran’s viewpoint.

To any counterintelligence officer, it’s obvious that Mansouri/Mans is no James Bond, rather an expendable access agent whose mission was establishing covers and making connections that would be valuable to the properly trained spies that the Qods Force possesses in considerable numbers.  Part of his task was assessing potential terrorism targets such as the U.S. Embassy, as well as Israeli security sites that SHABAK has not elaborated on. It’s safe to say that this mission was the probable precursor to some bad things.

There’s no doubt Netanyahu will mention this SHABAK success to his American counterparts this week,  probably with a sly smile. The case serves as a reminder that Iran remains a formidable espionage adversary and practitioner of state terrorism through the Pasdaran. One phone call, however historic, changes none of this.

Moreover, there’s little doubt that the Pasdaran is no fan of President Rouhani’s outreach to the “Great Satan,” and General Soleimani has tauntingly portrayed Obama’s sudden willingness to parley with Tehran as a sign of American weakness emanating from the “total failure” of U.S. policies in the Greater Middle East.

The larger point is that the United States and the West ought not deceive themselves about decison-making in Iran. President Rouhani is one actor among many in Tehran, and far from the most powerful one. Whatever the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) says, it must always be kept in mind that the IRGC, which is really a secret state within a state, is a mightier actor in the crafting of Iranian foreign policy than Tehran’s diplomats are. Attention ought to be paid to what Soleimani and his cadres say and do, rather than focusing solely on pleasant pronouncements from public faces of the revolutionary regime.

During the Cold War, most Western experts in government and academia focused heavily on what the Soviet MFA was up to, parsing the statements of even low-ranking diplomats for hidden meanings. Unfortunately for such analysis, the KGB was a far more important player in most Soviet foreign policy than the MFA ever was, as post-Cold War scholarship has conclusively demonstrated. As a result, most Sovietologists missed the boat on what really drove Moscow’s policies abroad. Let’s not repeat that mistake with Iran now.

Thinking strategically about Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wikileaks, Snowden, and the Belarus Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[N.B. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone.]

Going, going, gone … at last

Last week this blog reported the remarkable case of two Iranian spies in Sarajevo who had been ordered to leave Bosnia by the end of April yet who simply had not done as ordered by Bosnian authorities. My detailed post on the matter sparked some interest in the case and resulted in some laudable press coverage.

Bosnians – like many people – tend to take action when foreigners notice their shenanigans. My post called for Western assistance with this case and perhaps that helped too in the aftermath of some sunlight being cast on this revealing episode which Bosnia’s Islamists would prefer to stay in the shadows.

Therefore I am happy to report that the Bosnian Ministry of Security has announced that the two Iranian “diplomats” in question, Hamzeh Doolab Ahmad and Jadidi Sohrab, have now left the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Dnevni avaz, the Sarajevo daily that has reported on the case, today has pictures demonstrating that the Iranians have indeed left, as ordered, though the report does not provide much additional detail.

Being gone is enough. This was a rare and overdue loss for Iranian intelligence in the Balkans. Kudos to the Ministry of Security and its officers, some of whom I am proud to call friends, who made the politically tough call and did the right thing. Bosnia, a poor country with vast problems, has no need for spies from Tehran who foment terrorism and extremism across the region. Let’s hope this is the start of a trend.

The budding Spywar over Tamerlan Tsarnayev

Last week I did a long report on what Russian intelligence knew about Tamerlan Tsarnayev, based on Irina Gordiyenko’s report in Novaya Gazeta, which is pretty much Russia’s last investigative newspaper. Not surprisingly, Gordiyenko’s account, which derived heavily from Dagestan-based sources of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), was rather different than the version of Tamerlan’s activities that’s been given by US intelligence. Moscow has been at pains to make clear that they gave Washington, DC, two specific warnings about the increasingly radical young man, to no apparent avail.

This week Ms Gordiyenko has followed up with another report, again based heavily on FSB sources, which makes clearer that the FSB and US intelligence, especially the FBI, are engaged in mutual buck-passing in the Tsarnayev case. “Where’s the hotbed of terrorists?” demonstrates that Moscow is sticking hard to their version of events, that the FSB gave the Americans warnings about Tamerlan in early 2011 and again in mid-2012, significantly after Tamerlan had visited Dagestan for a half-year (and where, perhaps not coincidentally,  the visitor’s cousin is a prominent Islamist). While Washington, DC, has never denied that these messages were sent and received, the FBI has downplayed their significance and faulted their lack of actionable information. Which is just what I would expect them to say.

The FSB version of events, more or less channeled by Gordiyenko, has it that Tamerlan came to Dagestan to join the Islamist resistance there, in a manner whose details remains unclear but which were clearly linked to William Plotnikov, Tamerlan’s weird Canadian doppelganger: another young immigrant made-bad from Russia who, having failed to become a world-class boxer, turned to radical Islam and eventually jihad. After Plotnikov’s death in July 2012 at the hands of Russian security forces, Tamerlan’s doorway to the resistance closed and he quickly returned to the USA … and we know the rest.

The FSB believes that Tamerlan’s essential radicalization occurred in America, not Russia, and Russian security sources steadfastly maintain that they never uncovered any evidence that the young man underwent anything like bona fide terrorist training during his six months in Dagestan hanging around his dad’s apartment trolling jihadist websites. While the FSB may be wrong about this – and it surely fits their version better if Tamerlan became a murderous radical on someone else’s watch – it needs to be conceded that the FSB looked closer into the young man than the FBI ever did. The FSB’s counterterrorism center in Dagestan, which knows a thing or two about radicalization, did not find much evidence of ties to terrorism in Tamerlan by mid-2012: enough to be concerned about, hence the multiple warnings to US intelligence, not enough to do anything substantial about themselves. To be fair to the FSB, they have their hands full in Dagestan with many people who do a lot more than engage in web-based fantasy jihad.

That said, the FSB has not been as forthcoming about the Tsarnayevs as reporters would like, a point which Gordiyenko makes clearly. Per usual, they are feeding journalists their version of events … but so is the FBI. It’s what intelligence services do, particularly when they have a debacle on their hands. And it must be said that it would seem the FBI and US intelligence have more to hide than the FSB here, since the  catastrophe happened on US soil, on their watch. I suspect there’s more to the Russian version than we’re getting here, and I’m skeptical we may ever know the full story of what the FSB knew about Tamerlan. But it remains significant that US intelligence did so little effective in the wake of FSB warnings about a dangerous young man living in Cambridge, where he seems to have been getting more radical by the day, perfecting bomb-making in the kitchen.

More as it develops …

[As always, the author’s opinions are his alone and unrepresentative of any institution he has ever worked for.]