What If Everything You Know About Terrorism Is Wrong?

One of the points I consistently try to get across in my writings and talks is that international terrorism is a good deal more complicated than most portrayals of it would have you believe. In many movies — and official presentations too, since governments often leave interesting details out of what they tell the public — there’s a shadowy group of bad guys bent on blowing something up, and it’s up to the good guys (cops and/or spooks) to stop them before they kill. Sometimes the case really is as simple as the Official Narrative portrays it, but often it’s not.

A couple days ago I explained how a terrorist group in Turkey called Tawhid-Salam, which is behind several attacks and assassinations in recent years, is really a wholly owned subsidiary of Iranian intelligence. It serves as a cut-out for the notorious Pasdaran, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is recognized by the U.S. Government as a terrorist group. What makes this particularly troubling is that Tawhid-Salam has evaded close scrutiny for years because top Turkish officials are in bed with Tehran.

My piece was met with a certain degree of incredulity. Would revolutionary Shia Iran really support Sunni terrorists? Yes, Tehran certainly would — and does. The Pasdaran has been backing Sunni jihadists, including Al-Qa’ida (AQ), since at least the beginning of the 1990’s, as my writings on Bosnia, which are based on reliable intelligence, have demonstrated. Certainly there has been a detectable relationship between Tehran and “AQ Central” since 1996 at least, a fact which is well known to intelligence services worldwide.

Yet most journalists and a distressing number of “terrorism experts” ignore such matters. One happy by-product of the current American-led war on the Islamic State is that some people are now more willing to state that Iran does in fact possess ties to various terrorist groups, among them AQ and the Islamic State. Yet it’s still a struggle to get many people to see what’s obvious here.

Part of this willful disbelief is due to simple ignorance. Most “terrorism experts,” and virtually all of them possessing academic credentials, have exactly zero personal interaction with operational counterterrorism; therefore they are ignorant of the fact that many intelligence services — and all of them in the Middle East — play a wide range of operational games with terrorist groups, AQ very much included, encompassing everything from placing agents inside terror cells to actually creating terrorist fronts like Tawhid-Salam.

Yet much of their ignorance is intentional, since there is ample open-source information demonstrating that the actual backstory of many terrorist groups is murky and messy. The Official Narrative peddled by virtually every talking head on television or mainstream op-ed writer omits important details, particularly the clandestine interaction of states with terrorists. There is no “it’s complicated” button in counterterrorism studies, but there ought to be.

This dirty complexity deters most “terrorism experts,” since it quickly leads to awkward questions about what’s really going on behind news reports of bombings and murders. Academics especially like things to be simple and preferably numeric. Here the dominance of social scientists in terrorism studies has played a pernicious role, since they want clean numbers upon which to work their statistical magic. Big Data is all the rage among academics working in counterterrorism, yet it seems to never occur to what I term the Credulous Number-Crunching Brigade that their data may be junk.

I’ve taken Brigade members to task over this, but the plain truth is that most academics simply ignore things that may contradict their assumptions about the reality of international terrorism. I’m not talking about professors who play fast and loose with numbers — academia is as prone to fantasy fads as anywhere — but those who simply avert eyes when discussion of real-world provocation and what I’ve called Fake Terrorism comes up. They don’t want to know.

This is particularly troubling because many of these “terrorism experts” are taken seriously by governments and are treated like rock stars in the Pentagon and other halls of power, even when their work is deeply flawed by its omission of fundamental realities. This aversion to complex questions that may have messy answers does not serve the cause of defeating terrorism.

As a result, critical questions about which governments are secretly collaborating with AQ and Salafi jihadists, and to what degree, tend to never even get asked, much less answered. To even bring them up is to invite ridicule, amid whispers of “conspiracy theories.” This leads to a strange, faculty-lounge-friendly universe of imagination that bears little resemblance to what the problem of international terrorism actually is.

A classic example of this came a few years back when I was sitting through a presentation on Salafi jihadism by a noted expert, someone who has appeared regularly in the media. Let me state that he’s a smart guy who has crunched a great many numbers and much of his presentation was interesting and relevant. The jaw-dropper arrived when he put up a slide — counterterrorism is as fueled by PowerPoint as everything else that touches the Department of Defense or the Intelligence Community — showing 1995 as the year with the greatest number of AQ terrorist attacks on the West.

In a very technical sense, this was a true statement, since that year did indeed witness an unusually large number of attacks by AQ-linked terrorists in Europe; several bombings in Paris by Algerians of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) bolstered the numbers. However, the real story of the 1995 Paris bombings is one of the murkiest of all terrorism sagas in recent memory.

The Official Narrative is straightforward enough: GIA was using France, which has a large Algerian diaspora, as a major base for fund-raising and recruitment for their jihad against the Algerian regime, and a cell of operatives led by one Ali Touchent went off the rails and conducted seven bombings between late July and mid-October 1995, most famously attacking the Paris Metro, which altogether killed eight and wounded 157 civilians.

Paris was in panic mode after the bombings, and the terror cell was mostly rounded up by French authorities, being sentenced to long prison terms, save two members, one of whom went out in a blaze of glory. The other terrorist who evaded capture was Ali Touchent, the ringleader, who escaped the dragnet via GIA ratlines and apparently returned to Algeria. What became of this mystery man is difficult to answer with certainty — Algiers proclaimed his death more than once — but there is no doubt that Algerian intelligence, the military’s feared Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), missed several chances to arrest Touchent, which may have something to do with the fact that the terror mastermind turned out to have close family connections to the DRS.

Hence there is a real question of who actually bombed Paris in 1995. Senior Algerian officials have admitted personal knowledge that Touchent was really a DRS agent provocateur, while top French intelligence officials have stated the same — and that Paris knew at the time that Algiers was actually behind the terror wave. The DRS manipulated GIA terrorists to conduct a series of bombings in France, an operation led by Ali Touchent, known as Tarek in the jihadist underworld, and this is something that jihadists close to the bombings likewise figured out.

Why the Algerian junta would bomb Paris via jihadist cut-outs is debatable, although DRS officials have stated that Algiers was feeling diplomatic pressure from France to take part in negotiations to end the country’s ugly civil war, which was entering its bloodiest phase. Paris was aware of the extent to which its Algerian partner was employing mass violence to defeat the Islamists and was troubled by the bloodshed. But the powerful DRS, which serves as the backbone of the military regime in Algiers to this day, was in no mood to negotiate with terrorists and wanted Paris to back off. The bombings achieved this, and French intelligence officials got the message and dropped talk of a negotiated settlement of Algeria’s civil war, which the regime effectively won in the latter half of the 1990’s by crushing GIA.

In contrast, there is ample evidence that the DRS deeply manipulated GIA from the outset, employing a strategy of penetration and provocation that Algerian spies learned from KGB instructors, the Russians having invented and perfected this dark art. This approach, while morally repugnant, proved highly effective at defeating the jihadists. By encouraging GIA to employ repulsive methods, above all embracing a violent takfiri tendency that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Algerian civilians, the junta drove the jihadist movement into the ground and undermined the Islamist message.

GIA’s takfiri tactics, which included massacres of civilians by the hundreds, became so noxious that AQ broke ties with the group in 1997. Abu Musab al-Suri, perhaps the wisest strategist that the Salafi jihad movement has produced, worked closely with GIA and he realized that they had been deeply penetrated by Algerian intelligence, which was manipulating the group to murder innocents.

I have written about how the DRS defeated GIA with these ugly yet effective clandestine methods, making statements that are uncontroversial to most Algerians, who are well aware of how their country functions, only to meet skepticism from Western “terrorism experts,” who seem content to ignore mountains of evidence about what was really going on behind the scenes in Algeria’s civil war. Most academics will not acknowledge what Al-Qa’ida figured out about GIA almost twenty years ago.

At times, I have been tempted to conclude that fictional depictions of terrorism are sometimes more accurate than scholarly treatments of the problem. Yet, even then, many “experts” seem to miss the obvious. After 9/11, Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent enjoyed a brief fad as a “must-read” for insights into terrorism and the murderer’s mindset. No less than geo-strategy guru Robert Kaplan praised its “surgical insight into the mechanics of terrorism.” Conrad’s book can plausibly claim to be the first novel about terrorism (and one of the first spy novels), and I heartily endorse it.

However, those who encouraged everyone to pick up The Secret Agent to understand terrorism completely missed the point, as Conrad’s book is not about terrorism but fake terrorism. It’s unintentionally revealing that Western “terrorism experts” have plugged a novel that actually details how Russian intelligence used agents provocateurs masquerading as terrorists to discredit real terrorists over a century ago (which, in fact, the Tsar’s agents did frequently). Conrad, a Pole born Józef Korzeniowski in what is today Ukraine, was well acquainted with Russian secret methods, including what they call provokatsiya, his father having been imprisoned by the Tsar’s secret police for his Polish nationalist activism.

Really understanding terrorism is of more than academic interest as the West confronts a long-term war against Salafi jihadism. Obama came into office in no small part due to hopes from many Americans that the Bush-era Global War on Terrorism could be ended. But the enemy invariably gets a vote, and the rise of the Islamic State means that we face a protracted struggle against Salafi jihadism on many fronts. Even if Western governments, above all America’s, were to immediately embrace the unconventional strategy which I have proposed to defeat the enemy, lasting victory over the jihadists is decades, not years off.

But a necessary first step is acknowledging that international terrorism is a good deal more complex than talking heads would have you believe. “Terrorism experts” in the academy and think-tankdom are hardly unique in their myopia — as I’ve noted, quite a few bookish “experts” in other fields basically have no idea what they’re talking about — but their unwillingness to dig deeply into the influence of states and intelligence services on terrorist groups means that the public is being misinformed and governments are getting bad advice. We no longer have the luxury of averting eyes, as the Salafi jihadist threat to the West is real and rising.

The appearance of the Islamic State as a major force in Iraq and Syria, with threats of terrorist attacks on the West, has concentrated minds again to a degree. But unwillingness to ask difficult questions persists in many quarters. Despite the fact that we have more than circumstantial evidence that the Islamic State is being manipulated by Syrian intelligence, and Iran’s too, these notions are dismissed out of hand by too many Westerners who study terrorism. Yet if we want to defeat the Islamic State, it would be wise to actually understand it. That Washington, DC, continues its bipartisan blocking of release of the full 9/11 Commission Report, which includes troubling details of Saudi misconduct regarding Al-Qa’ida, is not an encouraging sign.

This week we have yet another appalling beheading by terrorists linked to the Islamic State, this time the victim was a French tourist in Algeria. Given that the Islamic State has been cast out of the Al-Qa’ida family for its takfiri ways, including mass murdering of civilians — just as GIA was in 1997 — any serious analyst should be asking questions about what is really going on here, particularly given Algeria’s murky counterterrorism track record. Don’t let the Credulous Number-Crunching Brigade win, the stakes are too high.

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.

Vienna Calling: How Austria Became a Hub of Global Jihad

The brutal murder this week of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) has focused Western minds, at long last, on the serious nature of the jihadist threat emanating from the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria. No longer are top officials mincing words. Yesterday U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dispensed with euphemism, describing IS as “whole new dynamic … as sophisticated and well-funded as any organization we’ve seen.” When asked if IS represents a “9/11-level threat” to America, Hagel explained that this group “is beyond anything we’ve seen.”

Westerners seem particularly concerned that the butcher of James Foley is a Briton named “John” who is part of a group of jihadists from the United Kingdom who are fighting for the IS, where they are termed “The Beatles” by fellow fighters. In truth, the British capital has been known as Londonistan for nearly twenty years among counterterrorism professionals, due to its notorious status as a major hub of the global jihad, thanks to lax British laws that have long permitted extremists to find sanctuary there. If the tragic murder of James Foley causes the Western public to finally wake up to the extent of the threat they face at home, which is growing acute thanks to the unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, his death may not have been in vain.

However, it is good to keep in mind that this problem is hardly confined to the United Kingdom. France and Germany in particular have serious troubles with extremists. While London deserves its reputation as a jihadist’s playground, Vienna is running in second place, and has been for some time, though this is seldom realized outside Central and Eastern Europe. For years, as I’ve written about extensively, Vienna has served as the de facto base for Islamist extremists from Southeastern Europe, a place to recruit, raise and hide funds, and radicalize, thanks to Austria’s permissive laws and weak enforcement mechanisms. It’s an exceptional terrorist or Salafi radical in Bosnia who has not spent some time in Austria. It says something that the most notorious Salafi mosque in Vienna is located directly across the street from a major military base.

Yet a series of arrests this week is causing a new look at this serious problem, which is long overdue. Two days ago, Austria police arrested nine Chechens, ranging in age from 17 to 32; eight men and one woman, all were in the country legally as refugees and asylum seekers. They were planning to wage jihad with IS in Syria but, as is rarely the case, were stopped by authorities before they left. Four suspects were arrested in Vienna, while the other five were picked up in Klagenfurt, the capital of the Alpine state of Carinthia. Yesterday the Vienna group was placed in pre-trial detention, due to flight risk, and proceedings were instituted to withdraw their asylum status; a similar decision is expected from a Klagenfurt court today.

As I reported last month, Austrian officials have been warning the public about the extent of the problem, with the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung – BVT for short), has grown unusually blunt by the standards of tight-lipped Viennese functionaries in its choice of words: 

Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism – above all of Islamic character – as well as Salafi-jihadi groups continue to present a great potential threat…The number of young radicalized followers of violent Salafism continues to rise. In this context, the conflict in Syria is of urgent relevance for Austria, since systematic efforts are being made within [Austria] to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria…The conflict in Syria has become very popular among violent extremist Salafis. The spectrum of recruits to the conflict in Syria is broadly ethnically diverse. The motivation, however, seems to be uniformly jihadi.

The BVT’s latest unclassifed terrorism assessment explicitly noted that people from the Western Balkans — especially Bosnia but also Kosovo, from families who came as refugees during the war-torn 1990s —  constitute a high percentage of Austria’s would-be jihadists. According to the BVT, about a quarter of the foreign fighters traveling from Austria to Syria hold Austrian citizenship: “their families come from Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans.” The BVT assesses that more than one hundred Muslims left Austria last year to go to Syria; about sixty of them are believed to be in the war zone now. The rough figure for Germany for the same period is estimated at 320 (which, given that Germany has ten times Austria’s population, indicates the gravity of the domestic extremism problem facing Vienna).

Moreover, a new report in the Viennese daily Der Standard clarifies why Austria is having such a difficult time getting a handle on this worrisome issue. In particular, the BVT faces tight legal restrictions on intelligence collection. The agency is not permitted to search profiles in social networks for clues, despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter are the most important source of information about what foreign fighters are doing: it may only do so based on a direct suspicion and with a court order. If the BVT finds nothing that would require further investigation, everything must be deleted after six months. “When someone blows himself up, then we are the ones to be blamed: we should have known,” rues an anonymous Austrian security official.

Determining what possible foreign fighters are doing is difficult and Turkey is easy to get to from Vienna, a short flight away. A holiday and a jihad mission to southeastern Turkey look similar in many cases. As Der Standard notes, “Occasionally, someone boasts on his Facebook profile, sometimes clues come from foreign intelligence services — but in many cases no one knows before.” Austrian laws define terrorism and the support of it very narrowly. In a typical case, a Turkish citizen who is said to have been the middleman for the arrested Chechens, a jihad facilitator who was helping them get to Turkey, has been reported to the police, but is still free.

There is a large Chechen community in Austria and more than half of the foreign fighters with an Austrian connection in Syria come from the Caucasus region, usually possessing legal residence in Austria; the rest of the jihadists are of Bosnian or Turkish origin.

Vienna’s biggest concern now is the challenge of returnees from Syria and Iraq. In the words of the BVT: “When fighters return from the crisis zone, their practical combat skills, traumatic experience, and behavioral changes plus, potentially, radicalization brought to perfection represent a considerable security risk for Austria” Although historically only five to ten percent of jihad returnees get directly involved in terrorism once they return home, many of them serve as proselytizers and founders of new radical centers. “Even a small number of fiercely determined former Syria fighters pose a risk,” says Gilles de Kechove, the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator. “Lone wolves” are a perennial concern, based on recent terrorist incidents in Europe, while the ominous threat of organized groups of experienced jihadists perpetrating terrorism worries the BVT and every security service in Western and Central Europe.

The report ends on a downbeat note, reflecting the reality that Austria remains far from entirely serious in its attitudes towards the rising radicalism in its midst:

Deradicalization strategies in Austria are anything but fully developed. A telephone hotline for dropouts and their relatives has long since been announced — and shelved. Apart from the prospects of success of such an idea — Islamism experts in Germany are critical of a similar project there — there are not enough civilian organizations that are able to carry out such an opt-out program together with the ministry.  Now, hopes are that the go-ahead will be given in the fall.

For decades, Austria has taken a laissez-faire attitude towards spying and worse conducted on its soil. Not for nothing has Vienna been regarded as the world capital of espionage, a status it retains with literally thousands of spies working in the city on the Danube. As long as such espionage is directed at third countries, i.e. not Austria, the BVT and other Austrian security agencies have tended to look the other way. Even Islamists have long had a surprisingly free hand in Austria, as long as their nefarious activities were directed elsewhere.

Now there are thousands of radicals in Austria, some of them extreme enough to wage jihad abroad, and possibly worse. What they will do when they return home is something that should cause deep concern in Vienna. The option of looking the other way and avoiding the issue, which has been the customary Austrian approach, is defunct. It would be wise of Austrian politicians to recognize this, as continuing to avoid it will only worsen this serious problem.

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.

Meet Russia’s New “International Brigades”

For months, the most prominent meme pushed by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin as it wages Special War against Ukraine has been that the country is a nest of fascist vipers, and that Jew-hating Neo-Nazis are in power in Kyiv. As such, Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is therefore defensive, indeed a replay of the Second World War, rather the Great Patriotic War that Russia continues to misrepresent for current political purposes. Just today, according to Interfax, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law, stated that the problems of Nazism and anti-Semitism are “the most pressing ones” in Ukraine now. This meme has become pervasive among many in the West too, despite its fraudulence. A good guide to judging how close a person is to the Kremlin position on Ukraine is how often and how loudly s/he informs you that “fascists” are running that country.

In keeping with the Ukraine-Is-Fascist theme, we have an interesting new piece of propaganda from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Russian far-right think-tank established in 2005 which is prone to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which explicitly compares the war being waged in eastern Ukraine today with Spain in the 1930s. “The International Brigades in the Donbas: Like Spain in 1936 – only volunteers!” is authored by Nikolay Malishevsky, a Belarusian who is a frequent contributor to SCF and possesses the ultra-nationalist views fused with Orthodox spirituality that are all the rage in the Kremlin these days. The article itself is pure agitprop, complete with vintage propaganda images from the Spanish Civil War – it should be noted that SCF has been warning about rising “fascism” in Ukraine long before the current war started – but it reveals several things about the not-so-secret secret war being waged by Russian intelligence in eastern Ukraine.

According to Malishevsky, the self-proclaimed Donbas People’s Republic has hailed the the establishment of new International Brigades to defend its territory against Ukrainian “aggression,” and its “Prime Minister” Aleksandr Boroday has said that the parallels with Spain in the 1930s are “obvious” and his government is “ready to accept the service of volunteers from all countries, without exception, in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.”

This, Malishevsky makes clear, is a deeply inclusive appeal to: “Men and women. Natives of Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. Socialists and conservatives. Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims … all united in military brotherhood and the desire to stop the brown plague of the 21st century.” He is at pains to note that volunteers are not coming solely from Orthodox countries like Russia, Belarus, and Serbia, but from many places.

The reader is shown a purported picture of an unnamed Czech volunteer, while Malishevsky claims that a unit of Poles showed up to defend “Russian Donbas” in late May, led by one Bartosz Becker, a group of “free Polish people who object to the basing of NATO terrorists in Poland.”  The author asserts that among the “antifascist volunteers” there is a Hungarian unit calling itself the “Legion of Saint Stephen,” made up of ethnic Hungarians and “traditionalists” who are fighting for “a New Europe, in which Hungary could become a key partner for Russia and Poland.” Given known ties between Russian intelligence and Hungary’s far-right, this is an interesting statement, if true. Malishevsky claims that some “antifascist” Italians are supporting the Donbas People’s Republic with humanitarian aid, but not (yet) with fighters.

There is allegedly also a unit of twenty Israelis serving with local Donbas militia in the “Aliya” Battalion, veterans of the Israeli and Soviet militaries, while there is a unit of German volunteers serving in Novorossiya calling itself the Ernst Thälmann Battalion (which, not coincidentally, was the name of the German unit in the International Brigades in Spain, circa 1936-39). Its leader is Alexander Kiefel, said to be a veteran of East German special forces, including a tour in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and according to Malishevsky the Germans are there as volunteers, not mercenaries, and more are coming to defend “free” Ukraine. There is also a unit of Serbs commanded by one Bratislav Živković.

According to Malishevsky, these volunteers are fighting under the command of the Donbas mystery man and “Defense Minister” Igor Strelkov, who is known to be an an officer of Russian military intelligence (GRU). The author waxes romantically about recreating the International Brigades of “heroes like Hemingway” in Spain, adding that soon there will be more volunteers  – “Russians, Serbs, Belarusians, Poles, Israelis, Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Canadians and many others.”

In truth, these new International Brigades seem to have hardly more than a handful of fighters of dubious provenance. But you can expect to hear more about them and their struggle against “fascism” in Ukraine in the days ahead. So far, the only obvious similarity between this effort and the iconic International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s is that both are the creation of the Kremlin’s intelligence apparatus, and fully under its control.

28 June 1914: Uncovering the Sarajevo Assassination

One hundred years ago, the most consequential assassination in modern times occurred. It was the most famous too, since the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo set off a chain of events that led, a month later, to the start of the Great War, a catastrophe that took ten million lives and pretty much destroyed European civilization. The effects of that live on today, in many places: in Iraq, jihadists right now are tearing up the borders of their country that were drawn up by the victors of the Great War, from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire, which suffered its final defeat in 1918.

Despite its infamy, the Sarajevo assassination remains shrouded in some mystery, and that’s what I seek to cut through today. But first, the personal tragedy. It is easy to forget that, behind all the conspiracy and resulting diplomacy and war-making, there is a murdered married couple at the center of this event, gunned down in broad daylight. Three children, aged ten to twelve, were left orphaned. Franz Ferdinand possessed a hard edge with some gruffness, and a bloodlust that was confined to killing animals – he took a staggering 275,000 trophies in his very active hunting career – but he was touchingly devoted to his children and his wife, the former Sophie Chotek, the Duchess of Hohenlohe. As heir to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand was expected to marry only high nobility, and on matters of protocol his uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was a stickler. Inconveniently, the Archduke, who had been heir to the throne since 1889, when Crown Prince Rudolf, Franz Joseph’s troubled son, died in a bizarre murder-suicide pact with his teenaged mistress, fell deeply in love with a “mere” countess. The price of this match, concluded at the altar after several years of secret courtship,  was Sophie’s suffering countless indignities at court – they were forbidden from appearing together at most public events – and their children were not in line for the throne of Austria-Hungary. They died next to each other; Franz Ferdinand’s last words, seeing his wife too had been shot, were: “Sopherl – Don’t die, live for our children.”

They were murdered by a misguided teenager who really was no more interesting or compelling than young spree killers are today. Had Gavrilo Princip been blessed with the Internet, one suspects that he would left us semi-coherent screeds explaining that this was all necessary to validate himself to a cruel world that somehow had failed to misunderstand his cosmic importance. Princip, a Serb, was a maladjusted yet fanatic nineteen year-old from a poor, one-horse town in western Bosnia, which had been a province of Austria-Hungary since 1878. He was radicalized into hatred of the Habsburgs during high school, and he drifted into a circle of radical young Bosnians, mainly but not exclusively Serbs, devoted to overthrowing Austro-Hungarian rule in their country. Their ideology was an amalgam of anarchism and South Slav nationalism, mixed with adolescent angst and anger.

This youthful yet ardent gang was under the influence, and eventually direction, of Serbian military intelligence, whose chief,  Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, colloquially known as Apis (The Bull), was a violent conspirator with impressive credentials even by high regional standards. He had played a key role in Belgrade’s 1903 palace coup, which saw the king and queen not merely murdered, but butchered with body parts cast onto the street below. Serbia thus earned a reputation as what would latterly be called a “rogue state,” and Apis was at the center of the secret cabal that actually ran things at the top of Serbia’s power structure. The members, mostly army officers, masked many of their activities through a front organization called the Black Hand. Dimitrijević ran extensive agent networks inside Habsburg territory, mainly Serbs – there were more Serbs living in Austria-Hungary in 1914 than actually in Serbia – who were used for espionage, subversion, and sometimes terrorism. Under Apis, Belgrade was waging its own version of Special War in Bosnia, which Serbian nationalists hoped to liberate from Habsburg rule.

To help bring that about, Princip and his motley gang received training and weapons from Apis’s men, including hand grenades and pistols direct from Serbian military stocks, bearing the stamp of the Kragujevac arsenal: there was little effort made to cover tracks. They infiltrated Bosnia in late May, crossing the Drina river with the help of the Serbian military, and made their way to Sarajevo, to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Their target selection ranks as one of the worst failures of intelligence analysis in all history. Apis and his staff assessed that the Archduke was the head of the “war party” in Vienna that was itching to invade Serbia. The opposite was true. There indeed was such a group and its leader was General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austria-Hungary’s top general since 1906, a hothead who had repeatedly counseled war on Serbia (and Italy) as salve for the multinational monarchy’s many ills. Conrad’s main opponent here was Franz Ferdinand, a confirmed reactionary who detested war, which he saw as ruinous of the traditional European order. The heir viewed the Austro-Hungarian Army primarily as a bulwark of domestic stability, while Conrad wanted to make it ready for a general European war.

Austro-Hungarian intelligence was aware of the state of ferment in Bosnia, having arrested several of Apis’s agents in recent years, and knew that terrorism emanating from Belgrade was a possibility, but there was no real “actionable intelligence” to speak of when Franz Ferdinand and his retinue set out for Sarajevo. Besides, the reputation of Habsburg spies was at a low ebb since the exposure in May 1913 of Colonel Alfred Redl, the most promising intelligence officer of his generation on the powerful General Staff in Vienna, as a traitor who had been selling all the secrets he could get his hands on to Russia (and, it turned out, Italy and France too) for years. In such a climate of mistrust, it seems doubtful that warnings from the intelligencers would have made much difference anyway.

Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo at the end of June to show off Habsburg power in the restless former Ottoman province, which Vienna had formally annexed only in 1908. The trip was pushed hard by Oskar Potiorek, the top general in Sarajevo and the province’s governor, who had excellent ties at court and expected this high-profile royal visit to boost his career and end his Balkan exile. Vain and restless, Potiorek felt he was robbed when Conrad was made General Staff chief since 1906 – the men had been rivals for decades – and in the embarrassing Redl debacle, Potiorek saw his chance at last to bump his nemesis from the army’s top job and take his place. His aide and factotum, Lieutenant Colonel Erik von Merizzi, played down the need for extra security for the trip, claiming this would be an insult to loyal Bosnians, an astonishing claim given that Potiorek’s predecessor in Sarajevo, General Marijan Varešaninhad nearly been assassinated four years before by a Black Hand assassin. Such blindness seems mostly attributable to the fact that Potiorek and Merizzi, who were inseparable, lived in the Konak, their Sarajevo headquarters, seemingly disconnected from reality – one general compared the isolated governor to the Dalai Lama – and unwilling to listen to contrary views. The Archduke’s visit had to be a success for Potiorek’s career to relaunch, therefore it would be, facts be damned.

Perhaps most seriously, the visit included observing  major military maneuvers by XV Corps outside Sarajevo on June 26-27, followed by a royal visit to the city on June 28. That stopover was chosen by Franz Ferdinand’s military chancery, not by Potiorek’s staff, a fateful choice given that it was St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan), the holiest day in the Serbian nationalist pantheon that celebrated Serbia’s defeat in Kosovo in 1389, though there is no evidence that anyone in Sarajevo pushed back against something that hardline Serbs would inevitably see as a Habsburg provocation.

The actual story of how the assassination unfolded is tragicomic and riddled with so many absurdities that, were it presented as fiction, it would hardly seem plausible. As it was a long weekend, with the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul falling the next day, much of the court as well as many General Staff officers in Vienna had headed to the Alps on holiday. There was no special intelligence effort to support the visit. It made no difference anyway, as due to lax security in Sarajevo the assassins had no trouble getting close to their quarry. Fresh from observing two days of military exercises, the royal entourage set out from the nearby spa town of Ilidža, where they were lodging, and headed into the city. Franz Ferdinand was in good spirits throughout his Bosnian sojourn, and even Conrad found his interactions with the archduke more pleasant than usual during the maneuvers. The General Staff chief had headed to Zagreb the previous evening, to prepare for a staff ride, and was not present for the fateful visit to Sarajevo.

Although there were six would-be killers in position downtown that morning, the first two failed to act when the three-car motorcade drove right past them at no great speed. The third young assassin, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw a grenade at Franz Ferdinand’s car, but it bounced off and exploded under the following vehicle, wounding twenty bystanders but in no way harming the archduke. Čabrinović equally failed with his suicide attempt, his cyanide pill inducing vomiting rather than death, and his jump into the Miljacka river proved anticlimactic as the stream was only a few inches deep in summer. He was beaten by the crowd and saved by the police, who promptly arrested him; embarrassingly, Čabrinović’s father was a Sarajevo police official.

Leaving the damaged car behind, the convoy sped up to reach City Hall, where the next event was planned. As the two cars drove past them, with Franz Ferdinand in plain sight, the three remaining assassins, including nineteen year-old Gavrilo Princip, failed to react. Yet Čabrinović’s grenade had impact, as among the wounded was Erik von Merizzi, who was riding in the damaged car and had been taken to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. While Potiorek advocated a quick run to the security of the Konak after the archduke’s speech at City Hall, Franz Ferdinand wished to check on the wounded adjutant and, without guidance from Merizzi – who was the action officer for the entourage – the heir to the throne’s driver took a wrong turn on the way to the hospital. Correcting his error, he placed Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, directly in front of Princip, who was despondent about missing his chance to make history. With his quarry suddenly before him, the terrified teenager closed his eyes and fired two shots with his Browning 9 mm pistol: both fatal, one felled Franz Ferdinand while the other killed Sophie. Oskar Potiorek, from the car’s front seat, watched it all, helplessly. Within minutes both victims were dead. Princip was grabbed by police immediately, while five of the six assassins were in custody within hours. It made no difference now.

Conrad, who was on a train when the assassination happened, was informed of the news upon his arrival around 2:00 pm when he reached Zagreb. His assessment was a common one in Habsburg power circles: “the murder in Sarajevo was the last link in a long chain. It was not the deed of an individual fanatic…it was the declaration of war of Serbia against Austria-Hungary.” Conrad accepted that war with a surprising degree of resignation, given the many times as General Staff chief that he had enthusiastically counseled war on Serbia. Only hours after the assassination, he confided his deepest thoughts, as was his custom, in a letter to his mistress. There can be little doubt that Conrad’s judgment had become increasingly clouded by this long-term affair, with a married woman half his age to whom he constantly wrote anguished letters. He was filled with pessimism, seeing Russia, together with Serbia and Romania, attacking Austria-Hungary now: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so ancient a Monarchy and so glorious an Army cannot perish ingloriously,” he wrote to his beloved Gina.

And indeed it would be. The double murder resulted in the famous July Crisis, the end of which would see most of Europe engulfed in the bloodiest conflagration the world had ever seen. By the close of the first week of July, once Vienna had received its “blank check” from Berlin giving Germany’s support for Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia, which was sure to drag in Russia too, Europe was going to war. Even the cautious old Emperor Franz Joseph had had enough of the Serbs and was willing to fight, while virtually the whole military and diplomatic leadership of the Dual Monarchy wanted revenge on the “murder boys” in Belgrade. The lone skeptic, Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza, relented once it was clear they had firm German backing.

However, it was not until July 23 that slow-moving Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia demanding a thorough  investigation of the roots of the assassination. Within two days of its receipt, Serbia rejected the ultimatum, as Vienna had anticipated, and Habsburg generals itching for war desperately hoped. There was never any chance that Belgrade, which understood some of its culpability in the assassination, would agree to all Vienna’s demands, especially the requirement that Habsburg investigators have a free hand to pursue leads in Serbia regarding the assassination plot.

Indeed, the question of who exactly stood behind the plot remains somewhat murky a century later. Little new has emerged in recent decades to flesh out the background to the Sarajevo assassination, mostly because relevant paperwork on the Serbian side, if it ever existed, was long ago destroyed. What is not in doubt is that Apis and his staffers were the drivers of the plot, making the assassination an unambiguous case of state-sponsored terrorism. Myths about alleged specific warnings given by Belgrade to Vienna, yet misplaced, have been debunked long ago, but significant questions remain about major aspects of the conspiracy.

While it has long been apparent that senior members of Serbia’s civilian government had foreknowledge of the plot, and the matter was discussed in some fashion en cabinet before Franz Ferdinand set out for Sarajevo, details are sparse, though it is evident that Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and Stojan Protić, his interior minister, were aware of Apis’s machinations by mid-June, yet they demurred from taking on the fierce colonel, who after all had overseen the brutal murder of Serbia’s king and queen a decade before. Civil-military relations in Serbia were marked by strong fears of mad colonels, and not wanting to know.

Less defined and more sensational still is the matter of Russian involvement. While none have questioned that Apis had a close relationship with Colonel Viktor Artamonov, the Russian military attaché in Belgrade, accessible records do not explain what role, if any, Artamonov had in the plot. To make matters murkier still, just before his execution by his own government at Salonika in June 1917, after being accused of involvement in yet another plot, this time against his own leaders, Dimitrijević boasted in writing of his role behind the Sarajevo plot and admitted that Artamonov funded the terrorist operation, something that Yugoslavia’s Communists revealed in 1953 to discredit the royal regime that preceded them in power in Belgrade. As Artamonov died in exile in 1942 without fully explaining his role in the assassination, the matter is likely to remain unresolved in perpetuity, especially the tantalizing question of whether Artamonov’s support to the plot was his own initiative or something undertaken by direction from St. Petersburg.

Given that Russian radio intelligence was able to read Austro-Hungarian diplomatic ciphers before the war, it seems likely that St. Petersburg was aware of what Vienna’s probable reaction to the assassination would be and, as Sean McMeekin has recently observed, the Russians subsequently acted as if they have something to hide: “gaps in the record strongly suggest a good deal of purging took place after 1914,” to cover whatever tracks Artamonov left behind. The attaché conveniently managed to be out of Belgrade on the day of the assassination, yet it was well known in Serbian military circles that, in the weeks before the assassination, he and Apis saw each other almost daily. A Serbian colonel who was close to Apis conceded that Artamonov had encouraged the plot: “Just go ahead! If you are attacked you will not stand alone!” While the colonel later retracted his statement, it seems very likely that St. Petersburg knew more about the plot that it later proved politic to admit.

Given the sometimes discombobulated nature of the Imperial Russian system, with their penchant for obfuscation and provocation even inside their own government, it cannot be ruled out that spies and generals took it upon themselves to help their “brother Serbs” with financing the assassination plot without authorization from “the top.” Given the lack of evidence, there is room for speculation, but there is no serious doubt that Apis was behind the conspiracy and the Russians funded it. A century later, however, there is no reason to think the complete story will ever emerge.

Remembering the murders and their consequences remains freighted with historical baggage down to the present day. Gavrilo Princip died of tuberculosis in a Habsburg jail in Bohemia in April 1918. He did not get the death penalty, despite his obvious guilt, since “oppressive” Austria-Hungary that he so hated would not execute a teenager, the assassin having been a month shy of his twentieth birthday when he killed Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. The Habsburg Empire, whose destruction he sought, would outlive Princip by only half a year.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie lie buried together at Schloss Artstetten, about an hour west of Vienna, not with the rest of the Habsburgs in Vienna’s famous Capuchin Crypt. In Austria, they are remembered as the first victims of the Great War, while Vienna’s grand Military History Museum has a room devoted to the assassination, including the royal limousine (complete with bullet hole), Princip’s pistol, Franz Ferdinand’s torn and blood-stained tunic, plus the couch where he was pronounced dead (which Potiorek, whose reputation never recovered from the events of June 28, 1914, strangely kept as a prized possession until his own death in 1931).

In his native land, the memory of their murderer is deeply conflicted. There is no shared history of this event, nor practically any others in Bosnia’s recent past. To Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats, Princip is simply a terrorist who heralded war, chaos, and decades of Serbian hegemony. Yugoslav Communists long lauded him as a revolutionary icon, and the place where Princip stood as he fired the fatal shots was commemorated with two bronze footprints. In 1992, when Bosnia was again plunged into war, locals tore them out of the concrete. Today, there is a small museum located where the cafe was where Princip was waiting, despondently, until his moment appeared.

For many Serbs, however, the assassin remains a hero who sacrificed for Serbdom. His defenders cite regicide as legitimate; on the killing of Sophie they have less to say. “Gavrilo Princip’s shot was a shot for freedom,” explained a top Bosnian Serb politician for the unveiling of a statue of the killer, just in time for the hundredth anniversary. While poor and decrepit Bosnia has more serious problems than this one, the hailing of Princip as an icon cannot be regarded as a sign of political health in that sad country, which has been deeply troubled, to one degree or another, for a century now.

[This article is derived from my forthcoming book The Fall of the Double Eagle, which has full source citations. Read it if you want the full sordid story of how the Sarajevo assassinations led to World War — and Austria-Hungary’s demise.]

“Slovyansk is the Center of the Bermuda Triangle”

The crisis in Eastern Ukraine has reached a new and dangerous phase this weekend. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has reported that the capture of OSCE observers in Slovyansk – three Germans plus one German interpreter, a Czech, a Dane, a Pole and a Swede – is the work of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Today, the SBU proclaimed that this abduction has been orchestrated by the Kremlin – it named the GRU Colonel Igor Strelkov as the boss of this operation – with the intent of using the OSCE observers as “human shields.”

Colonel Strelkov has been fingered by Kyiv as the eminence grise of much of the nefarious activity going on recently in and around Slovyansk, which is the epicenter of Russia’s stage-managed “rebellion” in Eastern Ukraine. A few days ago, the SBU released a videotape that implicates Colonel Strelkov, as well as GRU Lieutenant Colonel Igor Beltzer plus Slovyansk’s self-proclaimed “mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, as the culprits behind the 17 April abduction and subsequent murder of Volodymyr Rybak, a local lawmaker who was loyal to Ukraine.

What is happening around Slovyansk is the next stage of Vladimir Putin’s multi-stage campaign to assert Kremlin authority over increasing parts of Ukraine – in other words, the pursuit of the Special War that I’ve talked about a lot. Russia’s moves are based on provocation – nobody does provokatsiya better than the Kremlin – and for now Kyiv is powerless to reassert its authority in Eastern Ukraine, which de facto is now under Kremlin control. As I’ve made clear, Ukraine’s first step must be taking the offensive in counterintelligence, so SBU public statements now about the large role of GRU behind the crisis and violence is a much needed move in the right direction.

Yet detailed information about what’s really going on in Slovyansk is hard to come by, not least because Russian-backed militants capture and kill people they don’t like. Fortunately, there’s a fascinating new interview in the daily Ukrayinska Pravda with the Belarusian opposition journalist Dzmitry Halko, who writes for Novy Chasa weekly paper that is one of the very few independent outlets in Lukashenka’s repressive Belarus. This Russian-language interview, entitled “Ten Hours in Slavyansk,” recounts his strange experiences during a recent visit to GRU-occupied territory. It’s filled with important details about what’s really going on in Eastern Ukraine today, so I’m passing on the whole interview, beginning with Halko’s introduction:

Slavyansk is the center of the Bermuda Triangle, which is now located in the Donbas. We arrived there from Donetsk at somewhere around eight a.m. At this hour, the city looked like a ghost town, rather scary: There was no one on the streets, the streets were completely empty, just some people or other at the roadblocks.

Q: What kind of people?

A: It depends which ones you are talking about. They were all different; whether or not they were locals is unclear. They were dressed variously and armed with various weapons. Some with clubs of some kind, others with catapults, and others still with knives. And there were genuine military formations, military groups.

Q: Supporting Ukraine?

A: No, no, nothing at all remains of Ukraine in Slavyansk apart from a Ukrainian flag on the building of Donetsk Pedagogical University. There are no Ukrainian police there at all.

There has been some kind of MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] statement that there are no witnesses to our arrest or witnesses to our presence in Slavyansk. This is altogether strange for me to hear, because no one from the law enforcement organs has contacted us, and there were no police at all there in Slavyansk. Accordingly, there can have been no proceedings, no investigation, or anything else.

Q: You spoke about military personnel, did they have marks of identification?

A; Of course, I cannot claim with absolute certainty that they are Russian military. But there were situations when there was an opportunity to exchange a couple of words with these people, and we asked: “And where are you from anyway, guys?” What is wrong with this? you might think. But not one person said that he was from Slavyansk. Only one person replied that he was from the Donbas; well, of course, the Donbas is a big place.

In addition, the local inhabitants, literally all of them, spoke about these people as having arrived from somewhere or other, of having turned up out of the blue. But not as being their fellow townsfolk.

Q: Tell me about your arrival in Slavyansk in a little more detail…

A: There was nobody by city hall, it was barricaded, and it was impossible to get in. We went to the SBU building. There was an impressive barricade there, guarded by one person wearing camouflage and carrying a Kalashnikov, and a person in ordinary dress, a bearded man wearing an orange t-shirt. We addressed ourselves to him and asked whether we could come in. He took passports from the foreign journalists and said that he would go and see the commander and find out what he could do.

Incidentally, this bearded man in the t-shirt said that his mom lives in Rome, that they are in touch, and that he was here in support of Russia. So he went off to see his commander and returned with him half an hour later.

The commander, in my view, was a Russian, both in speech and in appearance. For about 20 or 30 minutes, he took us around the site. They have armed vehicles that had been seized or handed over without a fight – I don’t know. The commander showed them to us with great pride and said that these vehicles would force a passage across the Dnieper in order to break Kyiv.

Q: What kind of armored vehicles, and how many?

A: In my opinion, there were four infantry fighting vehicles. At that moment, only two vehicles were manned. At the entrance to the SBU building, people dressed in black with modern weapons went past under a Russian flag. The commander categorically forbade us to photograph these people, saying that if we did so, they would begin to shoot.

Q: Black uniforms? Like Alfa [FSB special operations forces]?

A: Yes, the uniform of some kind of special unit. The commander took us around for half an hour, then said that the audience was over and told us to go on our way. He looked like an important officer, almost a general. And I asked whether he could give us permission for us to go peacefully around the town and take pictures. He replied that he could not, that he was commander only in this small area, and that his command did not extend to all the other places.

An interesting observation: The people stationed there, from whom we simply wanted to find out who they were and why they were there, answered in military fashion: “We are not authorized…” 

In Kyiv, it was possible to talk with anyone who was in the mood to converse, and not once did anyone reply: “I am not authorized.” Everyone came to the Maydan, with some kind of truth and idea of his own, but here people responded purely in military style.

These people are copying the Maydan in its entirety. Even their barricades are the same as on the Maydan. And they try to serve you tea and some kind of food in exactly the same way.

There were women here who, learning that we were foreign journalists, began to chase away the drunks. There are a fairly large number of drunks there. They began to hiss at them, to drive them away – go away, they said, don’t spoil the picture! They served us tea and coffee, and we had a good sit down and relaxed completely. Very much mistakenly, as it turned out.

After this, we wanted to get to a district densely inhabited by Roma. We wanted to know whether there had really been any pogroms. We traveled for a long time on foot, speaking with people whom we met along the way. When we crossed the big bridge in Slavyansk, we took photographs of a plate with the inscription: “Mines.” We did not photograph anything else, even the roadblock through which we had passed.

But suddenly, people wearing camouflage appeared. I would describe them as “amateurs.” They were not military personnel. One was armed with either a musket or a sawed-off shotgun. Another was armed with a knife. A third with – I don’t remember with what.

They came up to us and said that we were spying, that we were carrying out some kind of secret filming. I replied that we were doing nothing of the sort. I invited them to look at the photographs. But nevertheless, they replied that we should wait, that a vehicle was coming — there would be an investigation.

The vehicle arrived, we were squeezed onto the back seat and taken away to a third roadblock.

Q: And who was with you?

A: Italian photographer Cosimo Attanasio and French journalist and photo-correspondent Paul Gogo – both freelancers.

They brought us in, and there the vehicle was surrounded by a group of ten people who literally thrust their mask-covered heads into the windows. They asked who we were, what we are doing, demanded that we hand over our cameras, and threatened to take them and smash them. In short, they behaved very unpleasantly. The guys were really frightened, and I was too.

Q: And the guys do not speak Russian? You translated for them?

A: No, they do not speak Russian at all, I was also their translator.

They took our passports and cameras from us to check them. They hauled us out, without documents and equipment: “Stand here.” They themselves gathered at about fifteen meters from us. This was a group of people dressed in military camouflage -not like the “amateurs”; they were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, to all appearances, but of a new model. I am not very well versed in these matters, but Cosimo said that they were not ordinary AK-47’s, but some kind of new model of Kalashnikov that is only in the inventory of the Russian Army.

Incidentally, when the atmosphere had become a little less tense, we asked what kind of weapons they were. They said that they had been issued for temporary use, but gave no further details.

At some moment or other, as if at someone’s command, they abruptly changed their attitude toward us. It was as though someone had given an order, or as though they had found out that this was the policy of behaving with foreign journalists – in short, they suddenly became concerned about their image. And they decided to show what white and fluffy bunnies they were: “Please excuse us, you understand, martial law and all that.” Then they released us.

Q: Did they give you back your passports and cameras?

A: Yes, everything was returned. And thinking that now everything was in order, we set off along the same route – across the bridge. But we were stopped at another roadblock on the other side.

This cannot be described as an arrest, they simply caught us, and we showed them the photos that we had taken at the third roadblock. We said that we had been seen, checked out, and authorized to go on our way. And we received the answer: “We do not know who checked you out. We will do so for ourselves. If you do not have permission from our authorities – take a hike! Or go and get it from the city council!”

Regarding the city council: I had heard from many journalists, including from Paul Gogo, who had tried to get into the building three days before this, but had been unable to so, that it was impossible to obtain permission. During the same attempt, a Moscow Times journalist, Oleg Sukhov, was arrested as a member of Right Sector. He was even taken into some kind of room where opposite him sat, evidently, Serhiy Lefter [Ukrainian journalist previously arrested]; his hands were bound to the chair, and he was guarded by a ‘little green man’ with an assault rifle. Therefore we naturally did not go to seek some kind of bogus accreditation. This is laughable – there is no authority there, but who knows what.

Also, when we had turned around and were walking back from the second roadblock near the bridge, a jeep painted in the colors of the Russian flag pulled up alongside us on the road. In the jeep sat people in a brand new military uniform, wearing masks and carrying weapons, and, let us put it like this, they looked at us very sternly. This was the last straw, we decided to get out of there while we were still in one piece.

Q: And were the jeep’s license plates Russian or Ukrainian?

A: I think that this jeep had no license plates at all, but I could be wrong. But it was painted all over in the colors of the Russian flag.

Incidentally, about the license plates. Not far from the SBU building I saw a vehicle with battered license plates, but with some kind of Russian decal on the window – a proof of vehicle inspection, I think. A piece of paper with the Russian flag on it was stuck to the glass. Moreover, not a sticker, but something official. And in the city I noticed several police vehicles, apparently Ukrainian ones, in which armed people wearing this same camouflage were sitting.

That is to say, they are in complete control of the city; Slavyansk is occupied.

Q: And what do they call themselves, these armed men?

A: They do not introduce themselves. They have signs everywhere saying “Donbas People’s Militia.” But no one introduced himself to us. No one said anything about himself.

The only person who spoke to us was a civilian who was standing at these roadblocks with a ribbon of St. George [symbol of loyalty to Russia] and without a mask. Some kind of hardcore Orthodox fundamentalist. Only with him was it clear who he was, that he was a local; he even showed his passport – he has retained a Soviet passport in which there was a column for nationality; in it was written: “Russian.” He is proud of this. And he says that we are all Orthodox Russians here. That means, we do not want this “European plague.”

Only he spoke with us in a normal way, and told us about his motives at least. Incidentally, among these people there are many with beards, but not because they have not shaved for many days, but really long beards, as if they were some kind of Orthodox brotherhood. Many say they are from Slavyansk, I do not know.

There are very many people of a frankly antisocial appearance – drunks, criminal elements. This is the second group.

And the third group are military persons. The usual military types. With the military bearing and all the other attributes.

Q: So this is the Russian Army on Ukrainian territory?

A: Yes, I think so. I am afraid so, yes. If they had wanted to refute this, they would have told us this. But they say nothing about themselves, they do not show their passports, and they do not introduce themselves. They cannot even bring themselves to say that they are from Slavyansk.

What is one to think in that case?! Only one conclusion remains. Especially seeing that the local inhabitants do not regard them as fellow countrymen.

Q: But do they support them?

A: You know, their attitude to the occupiers is as if to some kind of bad weather. Look – a thunderstorm, a tempest, or a gale has hit: What can you do about it?! They do not support this, they simply have to resign themselves to it.

I heard various people utter the phrase: “Everything was okay before their arrival.” In a certain sense, this can be assessed as support for Ukraine. Naturally, it is weak. A person will probably not fight for this, and will even submit if the territory is occupied.

But nevertheless, I did not meet a single person who said: “Yes, they are my protectors, they are standing up for us here. And just you get out of here, European villains!”

Not one person said this.

Q: Were there any other encounters?

A: We crossed the bridge without problems, took a taxi, went to the station, and there, completely by chance, we met the last Roma left in Slavyansk.

This person was terribly scared. He had come back to fetch some children’s things or other, and was in a state of genuine terror. I stopped him and asked him to tell me what was going on.

It turned out that, a day before this, the entire Roma community had left the town en masse. Because, in his words, their homes had been fired on from the street. And all representatives of the community had received threats that they would be destroyed en masse, including the children, unless they fled.

This man said that the armed men want only Russians to remain in the city.

This has affected not only the Roma. For example, he cited the example of his neighbors, who speak Ukrainian in everyday usage; they too have received similar threats.

The person from the Roma community asked us to help him to somehow get to see Rinat Akhmetov [Ukrainian oligarch]; he wanted to talk to him, he said.

That is to say, Rinat Akhmetov is perceived here as some kind of arbiter and de facto ruler. Although, for example, the separatists in the Donetsk Oblast Administration regarded the fact that at the last Dinamo-Shakhtar [football] match there were Ukrainian flags in the stand of the Shakhtar fans. They believe that in this way Akhmetov betrayed them. But nevertheless, they see him as tsar, as a prince.

So we missed the train, took a taxi, and went to Kramatorsk. En route, at some roadblock on a country road there was a group of frankly marginal types who said that we were spies for the European Union and found fault with the passports of the Italian and the Frenchman, even though it was the first time that they had seen what an Italian or a French passport look like.

And later, sixteen kilometers from Donetsk, I saw a very strange roadblock at which seemingly Ukrainian military persons were standing under a Russian flag and a flag of St. George along with so-called volunteer militiamen.

Q: I want to clarify one thing about the military: Did they have marks of identification?

A: Yes, yes, they had Ukrainian insignia. This is simply amazing. What kind of antiterrorism operation is it possible to speak of..?!

This is a Bermuda Triangle – Slavyansk is unraveling on all sides. And it is necessary do to something abut this urgently; otherwise things will be bad.

Q: How long were you in Slavyansk?

A: In total, we spent around ten hours in Slavyansk. And we were detained for not longer than two hours.

Q: Were you beaten?

A: No, at first they grabbed us by the arm, but things went no further than that.

Q: Have you been in Ukraine for long?

A: I have been in Ukraine since 8 March. First Kharkiv, then Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kherson, Zhytomyr Oblast, Novohrad-Volnynskiy, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, a kind of circle.

Q: And have you been in the Crimea?

A: After a “conversation” with the SBU in Donetsk at the beginning of March, I understood for myself that I occupy a very pro-Ukrainian position, a very clear position, despite the fact that I am a journalist. Therefore I understood that it was better for me not to poke my head in the Crimea. Especially seeing that I had met guys who had been held in captivity for two weeks in the Crimea, and who had remained in Kherson for operations.

In Donetsk an episode happened to me – I was detained by the SBU. I lived in the same room as a GRU agent; at that time it was still Ukraine here. And this detention at the hands of the SBU – well, I do not know, it was on the whole a nice affair, I was actually reassured that some kind of services were working here, that they were exposing some people, detecting some kind of bombs.

But what is there now, it is difficult for me to say.

There you have it: provocations, intimidation, ethnic cleansing among a freak-show of alcoholics, gangsters, Orthodox “warriors,” and GRU operatives, amidst lots of innocent people trapped with nowhere to escape … some great insights there into what de facto Russian rule in Eastern Ukraine actually looks like. As I write, Slovyansk “militants” have stated they will only free their OSCE captives in exchange for prisoners held by Kyiv. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, watch this space …

“Special War” Goes Mainstream

One of the main missions of this blog is spreading the idea that intelligence matters in the real world, and that a lot of important activities involve covert action that is anything but transparent; many media types, unacquainted with such dark arts, are skeptical of these notions, however, and sometimes this is a hard sell. One upside to the Ukraine crisis is that it’s brought some of these usually secret shenanigans into a bit of sunlight before the world.

For months I’ve been explaining that this all amounts to what I term Special War, and it’s something important that the Russians excel at across the board; regrettably, the United States does not. Ukraine is a realtime laboratory for the whole range of Moscow’s Special War activities, especially provocation. Slowly, the Mainstream Media is starting to notice.

Today’s New York Times has a good article explaining how Russian intelligence, specifically GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, is pulling the strings in Eastern Ukraine, employing special operators to cause mayhem and weaken Kyiv’s already flagging grip on the region. Of course, I’ve been telling you this for weeks, but it’s nice to see the MSM take notice, particluarly when they cite….me:

But masking the identity of its forces, and clouding the possibilities for international denunciation, is a central part of the Russian strategy, developed over years of conflict in the former Soviet sphere, Ukrainian and American officials say.

John R. Schindler, a former National Security Agency counterintelligence officer who now teaches at the Naval War College, calls it “special war”: “an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense.”

And one country, Mr. Schindler noted in an article last year in which he coined the term, that particularly excels at special war is Russia, which carried out its first post-Soviet war to regain control of rebellious Chechnya back in 1994 by sending in a column of armored vehicles filled with Russian soldiers masquerading as pro-Moscow Chechens.

That’s good to see. As Ron Burgundy might say: “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” Hey, it’s a start. We can’t have a real public debate about Ukraine – and Putin’s nefarious actions more generally – until people understand what’s actually happening. I’ll be reporting on the next stages of the Kremlin’s Special War for Ukraine as they unfold…watch this space.

The Coming Age of Special War

The last couple weeks have witnessed one of the most significant periods in decades in the annals of diplomatic history. Having deeply mishandled the domestic side of the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration proceeded to worsen matters by, in effect, outsourcing the problem to Vladimir Putin. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m pessimistic about any Moscow-brokered WMD deal having the effects that the West desires. That said, much remains to be seen, as this issue is really only in the first chapter of diplomatic resolution.

However, I’m confident in stating that the United States backing off from overt military intervention in Syria’s civil war has important implications, already visible, for the U.S. military. That diplomats, not generals and admirals, were walking point in the White House on this issue has been widely noted, as has a budding civil-military conundrum that will very likely get worse in the years ahead.

Looming over all this, though, is the reality that the U.S. military may have simply priced itself out of the market. After the thrashing of Saddam’s forces in early 1991 by a U.S.-led coalition in Operation DESERT STORM, it was evident to nearly everyone that facing America’s military in a stand-up fight was a losing proposition. Our technological lead, coupled with superb command-and-control (C2), gave the United States a remarkable competitive edge in the tactical-to-operational realm of warfare. Strategy, however, would prove a much tougher nut for the Pentagon to crack. Even Saddam, in the years after his 1991 defeat, never seriously planned for conventional resistance against any future U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which even the man from Tikrit realized was a fool’s errand.

In the heady time of Blitzkrieg triumphs early in World War II, Hitler famously proclaimed “nothing is impossible for the German soldier” (dem deutschen Soldaten ist nichts unmöglich) and in the salad days of U.S. hegemony after 1991 that Nazi mirage seemed to have been realized, at last, by the Americans. Yet tactical awesomeness does not equal strategic competence, and any serious analysis of U.S. military performance since 9/11, in the era of the Global War on Terror, must conclude that Americans arms failed to deliver promised political outcomes in either Iraq or Afghanistan. While there is much blame for this to be laid at the feet of barmy politicos, U.S. top military leadership is equally culpable for the strategic setbacks. History will not be kind to the likes of Generals Tommy Franks and Ricardo Sanchez, to cite only two particularly egregious examples, and any attempt to dodge this truth can fester into a kind of “stab in the back legend” (to allow a second Germanism in one paragraph), a fate to be avoided at all costs.

Above all, the U.S. is broke. This week, while addressing the baleful impact of sequestration on the Pentagon, three of our four service chiefs bluntly informed Congress, in open session, that they could not execute even one Major Theater War under current financial conditions. Since the end of the Cold War, the MTW has been the military’s gold standard. Down to 9/11, the Pentagon’s positions was that it could fight two MTWs simultaneously; now, with readiness in trouble due to wars and empty coffers, the reality has set in that the Pentagon is facing a crisis. The post-modern American war of warfare, which very few if any countries could hope to match in complexity and cost, is now so expensive that even Americans can no longer afford it. The strategic impact of this realization promises to be vast and far-reaching.

Conflict, though, shows no signs of evaporating. We can expect a gradual move away from the high-intensity warfare that the U.S. has perfected in the tactical-operational realm. Which may be just as well, given the current state of the U.S. military, particularly our ground forces, which are tired after 12 years of counterinsurgency in CENTCOM. Although the possibility of force-on-force conflict with China seems plausible, particularly given rising tensions in East Asian waters, the rest of the world appears uninterested in fighting the United States the way the U.S. likes to fight.

This, paradoxically, may not actually be good news in the long run, as the United States is seriously unready for other forms of conflict. Worse, the U.S. Government has persuaded itself that it is more ready for lower-intensity forms of conflict than it actually is. To be fair, in recent years the Pentagon, in collaboration with the Intelligence Community, has made UAVs a serious threat to terrorists around the world, while DoD’s Special Operations Forces – as large as the entire militaries of many Western countries – are the envy of the world in terms of their size, budgets, and capabilities. Yet all these are really just somewhat more subtle forms of traditional military applications of force.

What is needed instead is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war,” an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I’m afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.

The apparently total inability of the U.S. Government to keep secrets these days indicates a basic unreadiness for special war. Just as serious an obstacle is the mindset of most U.S. warfighters, which remains vividly conventional and unimaginative. No less, the risk aversion that characterizes too many American military and intelligence operations, caused by having lawyers oversee everything the Pentagon and the IC do, will have to be dispensed with if America wants to develop any real capabilities in special war.

There are templates to follow. Britain and France are more proficient in aspects of special war than we are, in part due to a legacy of colonial-era operations that lingers in London and Paris. Israel in particular is comfortable with the nuts and bolts of special war – aggressive espionage, subversion of hostile foreign factions, and even assassinations  – but the Israeli model has its limits. In the first place, it’s questionable how much a system developed for a small state with a defined set of foes can be expanded to meet the needs of a huge global power. Moreover, Israeli political culture is tolerant of special war, including the mistakes that inevitably accompany it, showing a degree of public maturity about such messy matters that seems seriously lacking in the United States.

Unfortunately there is one country that excels at special war, and that’s Russia. Moscow’s proficiency in these dark arts goes back to the late Tsarist period, when the regime’s solution to a rising terrorism problem was to penetrate terrorist groups while creating some of their own: a politically tricky strategy that worked nearly perfectly, as long as one is willing to close one’s eyes at key moments. Proficiency in espionage, subversion, and terrorism was perfected under the Soviets, yet the skills of Russian intelligence in this domain have, if anything, increased under the rule of President Putin who, by virtue of being a onetime KGB counterintelligence officer, fully comprehends the power of special war.

Putin’s years in power have witnessed a blossoming of special war in Chechnya, where intelligence-led counterinsurgency has worked where blunter military methods failed to subdue the rebellion; in the Baltic states, where Russian intelligence successfully influences and intimdates these small NATO countries; and especially in Georgia, where the full range of Russian secret tricks has been employed intensely. The August 2008 Russian military intervention got the world’s attention, while the day-in, day-out activities waged by Moscow against Tbilisi, encompassing a rough form of spywar, get little press outside the region. The lead-up to the Obama administration’s agreement to a Russian offer to settle the Syrian WMD issue is a classic case of Moscow’s active measures – a key aspect of special war – setting the field for a big Russian diplomatic win.

Special war works when competently handled. It’s very cheap compared to any conventional military operations, and if executed properly it offers states a degree of plausible deniability while achieving state interests without fighting. The United States at present is not ready – organizationally, legally, politically, or culturally – to compete in special war. But getting proficient in special war will soon not be a choice, but a necessity. We’re already losing at it, whether we realize it or not, and the current trajectory is worrying. Over 2,500 years ago Sun Tzu, an early advocate of special war, argued that the acme of skill is not winning battles, rather subduing your enemy without actually fighting. It’s about time the Pentagon caught on.

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.