May 29, 2010

Memorial Day - 2010

I wrote this in 2007 while still a military analyst at NBC News. I think it still holds true today.

This article appeared on

'On behalf of a grateful nation'
Let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women
By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst - MSNBC

Lt. Gen. Ed Soriano, left, presents Jessica Hebert, sister of Spc. Justin Hebert who was killed in Kirkuk, Iraq, with an American flag during his military funeral (AP Photo/The Herald, Meggan Booker). Comment - Ed Soriano and I served together in Desert Storm - this must be his hardest duty.

Memorial Day weekend – most people associate that with the start of the “summer driving season.” The constant news coverage of record high gasoline prices tends to overshadow the real meaning of the holiday. It’s not about driving or shopping – it’s about remembering the men and women who died while in military service. It is important that we not forget the reason for this holiday – we are at war and lose some our finest young men and women every day.

Yes, we are at war. No one knows this more than the families of those who have fallen on battlefields far from home with names most of us cannot pronounce. Unlike most of the wars America has fought in the past, we are fighting with an all volunteer force – there has been no draft since 1973. Less than one-half of one percent of our people will serve in uniform (in World War II, it was over 12 percent) at any one time.

In the draft era, a much higher percent of the population entered the service, creating a large pool of veterans. Veterans understand the unique demands of military service, the separation from loved ones, the dangers of combat. With far fewer veterans or a veteran in the family, community and government, it is easy to lose sight of the demands military service requires of our men and women in uniform – all volunteers – and to forget too quickly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Sometimes one could get the feeling that foreign countries – especially those that have been liberated by American forces – pay more tribute to our fallen troops than we do. I will never forget standing in a church in rural France – not a fancy cathedral, not a tourist spot, nothing architecturally significant, just a village church. I would not have paid much attention until I spotted a well-maintained corner with a small American flag and a plaque.

I walked over and read the simple but powerful words in French and English, “In gratitude to the United States of America and in remembrance of her 56,681 sons that now and forever sleep in French soil.” A elderly parishioner sitting in a pew nearby saw me reading the inscription and asked if I was an American. I said that I was – she slowly rose, nodded at the memorial and said, “You are welcome in France.”

Over the years, over a million Americans have died in military service. Each fallen warrior is afforded a military funeral. Military funerals symbolize respect for the fallen and their families. Anyone who has attended a military funeral will never forget it – the flag on the coffin, the honor guard in full dress uniform, the crack of the rifles firing three volleys as Taps is played on the bugle, the snap of the flag as it is folded into the familiar triangle of blue, the reverence of fellow warriors.

Before his final salute, the officer in charge presents that folded flag to, in most cases, a young widow. He makes that presentation “on behalf of a grateful nation.”

At some point on this day, let us make sure that we do not forget our fallen men and women, and that we are in fact a grateful nation.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

May 19, 2010

Qatar revamps curriculum - indoctrination to education

The State of Qatar has implemented a program to revamp its education system.  It is one of the few countries in the Arab Middle East that is trying to modernize its curriculum and remove some of the more controversial elements from its schools.  The old system emphasized religion and memorization rather than knowledge and thought. Since 2004, the Qatari curriculum includes more math, science, computer skills and language training.

Changing the focus of education from religious indoctrination to useful skills and college preparation is a difficult process in conservative Muslim countries. Older members of the religious establishment are loathe to introduce anything considered to be "un-Islamic." Only because of the direction of the country's ruler Shaykh Hamid bin Khalifah Al Thani has it even been remotely successful.

There has been a similar effort ongoing in Qatar's larger neighbor to the west, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis began their curriculum change just last year. As in Qatar, this type of change requires direction from the highest level - the king.

Saudi King 'Abdallah named his son-in-law Prince Faysal bin 'Abdallah bin Muhammad Al Sa'ud as education minister. The king also appointed a woman to be Prince Faysal's deputy minister for girls' education. Remember, this is a country where women still cannot drive automobiles. She is the first woman to be appointed to a post this high in the Saudi government.

The Saudi education system has been an issue between the United States and the kingdom for years. Since 15 of the 19 hijackers that perpetrated the September 11, 2001 attacks were products of the Saudi education system, Americans have demanded reforms in the anti-Western, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian curriculum.

To be fair, the curriculum also targets many non-Wahhabi Muslim sects as well. With the expansion of the religious leadership council and the appointment of Prince Faysal as education minister, there may be hope for change.

The U.S. State Department has been working since at least 2003 with the Saudi Ministry of Education to alter the curriculum. Although Saudi Arabia has claimed it has changed the textbooks by editing out the more offensive sections, studies over the last three years show that is not entirely the case.

Qatar may be an easier case. The curriculum was certainly heavily Islamic, but not nearly as full of vitriol as the Saudi system. There was, however, real contention over the teaching of music. The government did back down on the integration issue - schools are still segregated by gender, and there is an agreement to emphasize Islamic and Arab history.

Qatar has begun to bring its school system much more in line with international standards of education. It is a good start - in fact, they are significantly ahead of the Saudis in this regard.  As an American ally in the Gulf, it is good news.

Brennan wants to "build up moderate elements" of Hizballah?

It is reminiscent of President Obama's earlier proposal to reach out to so-called "moderate elements" of the Taliban (Obama's outreach to the Taliban - a victory for the terrorists) - and just as bright. John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, proposes that the United States "build up moderate elements" within Hizballah.

Yes, Hizballah, the same Iranian-created and backed Lebanese jihadist militia designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization, the same Hizballah responsible for the murders of 241 U.S. Marines in Beriut in 1983. The list of Hizballah attacks is long and lethal. Yet, Brennan hopes to "diminish the influence of hard-liners" in the organization. John - they're all hardliners - that's why they are members of Hizballah. You know that, you speak fair Arabic - it is hizb allah - the Party of God.

Why does this guy still have a job? This proposal comes on the heels of Brennan's ridiculous media appearance in which he described our counterterrorism efforts as "we're not lucky, we're good" in the aftermath of the failure of a bomb to detonate in New York City's Times Square.

A terrorist who was trained in Pakistan constructed a car bomb here, drove it to Times Square and tried to detonate it - the only reason there are not hundreds of dead and maimed Americans is that the bomb failed to properly explode - it has nothing to do with our obviously flawed homeland security system. More on that at
Holder and Brennan - the "no-clue two".

Now Brennan wants to "build up" elements of a terrorist organization? According to Brennan, "Hizballah is a very interesting organization" that now has members within the parliament and the cabinet. So what - they're still representatives of a terrorist organization.

Okay, John, please take a look at the above photographs and let me know which of those are the moderate elements that you think we should be "building up." This is as bad as those people who think they can support Hizballah causes and at the same time not support the terrorism associated with the group. (See my earlier "But I only support the charitable branch of Hamas....")

John, rather than looking for terrorists to make nice with, why don't you focus on fixing the broken homeland security system that failed to detect at least two attacks, attacks that thankfully failed - the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas 2009 and the Times Square attempt earlier this month? We were lucky, not good.

Rather than "building up" so-called "moderate elements" of Hizballah, why not work toward the organization's elimination? Lebanon and the region would be better off without them - your remarks only legitimize them and complicate the situation.

May 17, 2010

Iranian nuclear deal - real or a delaying tactic?

The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey along with the Foreign Minister and President of Brazil are seen with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Reuters)

According to the Turks and Brazilians, Iran has agreed to send its uranium abroad in a deal reminiscent of - but much weaker than - the proposed arrangement between Iran and the P5+1 (five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). That agreement, much heralded and also agreed to by the Iranians at one point, failed last November. This new proposed deal falls far short of that earlier proposal.

Under the new proposal, Iran agrees to ship about half of its low-enriched uranium, referred to as LEU, to Turkey, where it will remain, but under Iranian ownership. The IAEA will monitor the stockpile. In return, the IAEA will deliver fuel to Tehran for Iran's research reactor.

What the deal fails to address is the fact that the amount to be delivered is now much less quantity percentage-wise than earlier, since Iran has not only continued to enrich uranium but increased production. It will also require some further deals with another country because neither Turkey nor Brazil can fabricate the fuel rods called for in the agreement. Iran also can demand the "immediate and unconditional" return of the LEU in Turkey.

Probably most significantly, Iran remains free to continue to enrich uranium to LEU and higher levels without restriction.

This is hardly the type of deal that will satisfy those who believe Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. It does not go far enough to prevent Iran from continuing progress towards a weapons capability.

Of course, the timing is also noteworthy. The United Nations is moving, albeit glacially, towards a fourth sanctions protocol against Iran. The two main holdouts, China and Russia, are permanent members of the Security Council and thus either one can stop the sanctions with their veto. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has lobbied hard to secure Chinese and Russian agreement, and despite her claims, are not imminent.

Russia and China also have extensive commercial dealings with Iran and are looking for any reason not to support sanctions - this "deal" might just be that excuse, an excuse at the eleventh hour. It is interesting also that both Brazil and Turkey are currently serving in rotating positions on the Council and will have a vote on any sanctions regime.

Iran has successfully outmaneuvered the United States and the West for years. The West threatens sanctions, Iran enriches uranium. If the Chinese and Russians use this "deal" to withdraw their support for sanctions, the Iranians will have been successful once again.

Watch the Chinese and Russians.

Saudi frustrations with Obama's foreign policy failures

In a rather blunt assessment of President Barack Obama's foreign policy performance over the last 16 months, former Saudi intelligence chief and former ambassador in London and Washington Prince Turki al-Faysal criticized the President's efforts in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and the Middle East peace process.

According to Prince Turki (and as I have complaned about before), Obama is pursuing an "inept" strategy in Afghanistan. Prince Turki decries Obama's nation-building in Afghanistan when he should have American forces hunting down the terrorists on both side of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Obama's claims that American troops are in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qa'idah are ludicrous.

On the Iranian nuclear issue, the Saudi prince blamed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for making the situation worse. I assume he is referring to the failure of the Obama Administration's policy of "engagement" with the regime in Tehran, followed by the Mrs. Clinton's failure to secure sanctions in the United Nations. The Iranians have outmaneuvered this White House at every turn.

The situation in Iran is of major concern to the Saudis - they are regional rivals in the Persian Gulf. Riyadh is watching the Iranians successfully evade sanctions while undoubtedly developing nuclear weapons and more capable ballistic missiles. Obama and Clinton have been claiming sanctions on Iran are imminent for months - we are no closer now than when Obama took office. The Saudis are frustrated that their primary ally - the United States - seems to be losing it position as key power broker in the region.

Likewise, on the peace process, the Saudis have yet to see any progress. While Obama's somewhat hostile attitude toward Israel might meet with Saudi approval on one level, they are disappointed that it has achieved virtually nothing. Despite trying to "engage" Syria, the parties are no closer now than when Obama took office.

Turki was fairly terse in his advice, "I (will) ask President Obama to do the morally decent gesture and recognize the Palestinian state that he so ardently wishes to exist. He can then pack up and leave us in peace and let the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese negotiate directly with the Israelis. No more platitudes and good wishes and visions, please."

On Iraq, Turki is concerned about a dramatic rise in violence after American forces pull out on the Obama-announced timetable. Since the groups know exactly when American forces will depart, they know when to plan to again resort to violence to achieve their aims. This is the fallacy of time-certain withdrawals. Of course, Saudi Arabia is concerned with instability on its northern border. Here, I will take issue with the Saudis - they refused to help after the U.S. invasion in 2003, and did little to stop the influx of Saudi and foreign jihadists into Iraq through the Kingdom.

Prince Turki is no longer an official of the Saudi government, but he remains one of the most influential members of the royal family. If he is publicly voicing criticism of, and frustration with, the Obama Administration, you can safely assume this is what the senior Saudi leadership - read: the King - thinks.

Although I have had my differences with Prince Turki in the past, mostly when he was the director general of Saudi intelligence, I think he's pretty much on target here.

May 13, 2010

Did I miss the "crippling" sanctions on Iran?

Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability. Whether they are merely acquiring the capability to develop a nuclear weapon at will or actually building one is up for debate. I don't put much stock in the distinction, although some of the members of the current administration think it is significant. It is like having an unassembled shotgun. Until you put the barrel assembly onto the chamber mechanism, it's not a fireable weapon. To me, it is still possessing a shotgun.

Even the President now concedes that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, despite over one year of attempting to "engage" the regime in Tehran. The effort has been either outright rebuffed or deftly deflected, but the bottom line is that the Iranians have been more successful at their foreign policy than we have. It has been over eighteen months (November 10, 2008) since then President-elect Obama said, "Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable and we have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening."

So began the "engagement" of Iran. During that so-called "engagement," no meaningful sanctions have been applied - Iran still continues to enrich uranium above the levels it needs for peaceful purposes, and continues to expand its nuclear research and development facilities.

A year after that statement in November 2008, it became apparent to even the Obama Administration that Iran has no intentions of compromising on its nuclear ambitions, despite numerous overtures from the rest of the world. On November 19, 2009, President Obama said a new package of punitive steps will likely be developed "over the next several weeks." That was six months ago - I am not sure of the administration's definition of "several weeks."

Obviously the President is concerned - he keeps talking about sanctions in the next few weeks. On February 9, he said the new push for sanctions on Iran was "moving along fairly quickly" and should be completed in the next few weeks. He reiterated that seven weeks later, saying on March 30, "My hope is that we are going to get this done this spring. So I'm not interested in waiting months for a sanctions regime to be in place. I'm interested in seeing that regime in place in weeks. "

Obama's statements in April echo the determined rhetoric. On April 8, he said, "We’re going to start seeing some ramped-up negotiations taking place in New York in the coming weeks, and my expectation is that we are going to be able to secure strong, tough sanctions on Iran this spring." That was followed a few days later with, "I want to see us move forward boldly and quickly, to send the kind of message that will allow Iran to make a different calculation," he said.

I'm sorry, Mr. President, Iran has made the right calculations all along - they have taken stock of your willingness (or lack of) to take effective actions, be that sanctions, an embargo, a blockade or a military strike, and found that all you have are words. They don't think you have what it takes to marshal the foreign policy tools available to the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief of the U.S. armed forces. Unfortunately, I have to agree with them.

It does not appear that the promised "biting" and "crippling" sanctions are likely. Assuming there is a fourth United Nations sanctions protocol, it will be so watered down that it will have more of the same effect the first three rounds have had - none. The problem is that your Secretary of State cannot deliver the Russians or the Chinese - being permanent members of the UN Security Council, either can veto sanctions.

This failure despite Mrs. Clinton's embarrassing attempt to present her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, with a "reset" button. I hope that disaster is not indicative of the caliber of diplomats we have at the State Department - it is obvious their linguists could use a refresher course or two.

Instead of effective, hard-nosed diplomacy, what we see the administration doing is trying to work
backroom deals which exempt Chinese and Russian companies from any unilateral American sanctions. They hope to get a resolution with the appearance of sanctions through the UN - any sanctions, just so the White House can say, "Yes, we can."

The biggest issue is Chinese reluctance to anger their Iranian oil suppliers by supporting effective sanctions. We still see the optimistic - and misleading - rhetoric. On April 22, Vice President Biden said that China will sign on to new United Nations sanctions. Just yesterday, the Secretary of State announced "good progress" in gaining Chinese support for sanctions. I suspect all the Chinese are doing is agreeing to talk. I think the Iranians may have learned that tactic from the Chinese.

It gets better. Mrs. Clinton's "reset" buddy, Foreign Minister Lavrov, just warned the European Union and the United States that unilateral sanctions are contrary to United Nations policy. This comes at the same time the Russians, not content with supplying a nuclear reactor to Iran, are negotiating the sale of reactors to Syria and Turkey.

Where's that reset button again - and how's that Iran engagement policy working out so far?

May 10, 2010

Syrian Nuclear Reactor and Military Attachés

Some comments on a recent article in the Washington Post.

Jeff Stein, who writes on intelligence matters in a column titled
Spy Talk, made some comments about the Syrian covert nuclear reactor that was destroyed by the Israelis in September 2007. His article describes the CIA's desire for ground photography of the facility after the Israeli raid, and the role of the French military attaché in Damascus in obtaining that photography. Read The French spy, the CIA, and the Syrian reactor.

Rick and his Russian counterpart in Damascus - 1994

I have some minor issues with the article, and want to address them. First, by way of disclosure, Jeff Stein and I are friends and colleagues. Jeff wrote a book in 2000 about Iraq's nuclear weapons program called Saddam's Bombmaker. In that book, Jeff basically "outed" my operations in northern Iraq in the mid-1990's while assigned to CIA's Iraq Operations Group. The book details my role in the covert extraction of Khidhir Hamza's family from Baghdad to northern Iraq and on the United States.

Here are excerpts of that section. Some of it is factually incorrect, at CIA request. For example, there was no helicopter, we were on the ground, and we weren't late. Doctor Hamza was not aware of all the other things that were going on in the area when we brought the family out. That was not our real mission - we happened to be in northern Iraq and were given the extractions as an additional mission.

Dr. Hamza: The helicopter landed on a hilltop in Salahiddin, one of a regular shuttle in and out of the Kurdish north. Out popped Rick Francona, a dark-haired, boyish-looking air force intelligence officer assigned to the CIA. Francona, fluent in Arabic, had spent many years in the Middle East, including an assignment as interpreter for General Norman Schwarzkopf at the cease-fire talks with the Iraqis at the end of Desert Storm. Now, he and other CIA agents were assigned to bring my family in.

And they were late.

Souham and the boys had been stranded in the swamp on the border for more than an hour, hiding on the floors of the Land Cruiser as best as they could. The sun was rising over the hills and they were easy pickings for an Iraqi patrol. Another hour passed. Finally, a squad of armed Kurdish rebels showed up on the distant shore, riding a tractor.

In what seemed like endless slow motion, they waded across the muck toward them, coming to the Toyota's rescue. Eventually a thick rope was hitched to the Land Cruiser and the rebels pulled it forward.

"Welcome to America!" the Kurds laughed when they had them on shore.

But the Americans weren't there. After some animated discussion among the Kurds, the family was piled back into the Toyota and driven an hour north to a safe house operated by one of the rebel groups. They were put inside. The door was locked. Another night of cold, hungry, anxious waiting began.

In recent months the CIA had been struggling to unite the fractious Kurds and plotting with Saddam's top military officers to topple the regime from the inside. Neither effort was showing much promise. The Kurds had too long shown a proclivity to plot against each other in secret league with Saddam. Now the Kurds began arguing over what to do with Souham and the boys, who were not, after all, their responsibility. Night fell.

Finally, the door swung open. In walked Francona and his sidekick, a tall blond CIA man, as if they were dropping in for a beer. Firas jumped up in glee.

"Who are you guys?" he asked.

The CIA man smiled. "We're not from around here," he cracked.

Their troubles were over, we thought. We were wrong. The road trip through Turkey and the flight to Germany were happy, even joyous. Francona and his CIA team couldn't have made it smoother. My family couldn't have felt more secure or welcome.

Back to the recent article. According to what Jeff has been told, the CIA wanted ground level photography of the bombed out reactor at al-Kibar - the article calls it al-Tibnah, which is the closest village - it is truly in the middle of nowhere, as any of the attachés in Damascus can tell you.

As Jeff relates, the story is that the French attaché "jumped in his car" and drove to the site. First of all, al-Kibar/al-Tibnah is about 225 miles northeast of Damascus, not 30 miles south. The facility to the south is the declared research reactor at Dayr al-Hajr is out by the airport. The drive to the covert facility takes about seven hours over mediocre roads - I've driven it.

Second, as an attaché in Syria, you are restricted to travel within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of Damascus, unless you file a travel request. If you file a travel request, you are guaranteed to be followed by a white Peugeot with two Syrian military intelligence goons "for your security." Since the French attaché says he was followed and being that far from Damascus, I assume he filed a travel request. If you are going to visit a sensitive location, the last thing you do is file a travel request. You do what you have to do....

Then there is the "dissing" of attachés by supposed other intelligence "professionals" - claiming that the "French photos were nothing more than an unexpected extra...the overhead [satellite] was far better. Much ado about nothing. Military attachés everywhere love to do ground-level photography, pretending like they’re James Bonds or something."

I served for year as an attaché in several countries, most of them not friendly. If what we do is not significant - at personal risk; we have lost fine officers in this line of duty - then we would not have them assigned to virtually every American embassy around the world.

May 7, 2010

Biden Barks - Tehran Trembles?

While on a European tour, Vice President Joe Biden this week warned Iran about its nuclear program. He said, "Iran's nuclear program violates its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and risks sparking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Tehran faces a stark choice, abide by international rules and rejoin the community of responsible nations, which we hope for, or face further consequences and increasing isolation."

Two questions immediately come to mind. Does anyone take Biden seriously? It appears that even the Obama Administration (the VP insists on calling it the Obama-Biden Administration) has marginalized him, like sending him off to Europe where hopefully in an Obama-friendly environment his gift for gaffe won't cause too much damage.

The second question, and by far the more important of the two - does anyone think that the Iranians take American threats seriously? Words like "further consequences" are laughable. The word "further" indicates that there are existing consequences - in reality there have been none. The Iranians have pursued nuclear technology and a nuclear weapons capability unimpeded despite this Administration's outreach program and when that failed, what were supposed to be "biting" and "crippling" sanctions.

The sanctions are a joke. This is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, who so far has failed to get anything resembling meaningful sanctions through the United Nations. A successful fourth sanctions protocol (the first three have been grossly ineffective) requires the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of the five permanent members of the Security Council. While the United Kingdom and France stand with the United States, the Russians and Chinese are reluctant to hurt Iran, a major trading partner of both nations.

There have been claims by the Administration, both the President and Secretary of State, that the Russians and Chinese will support sanctions. At the same time, we read statements by representatives of those countries that they want to give diplomacy another chance, that incremental sanctions might be better - anything but the "biting" and "crippling" sanctions we were led to expect.

Then we hear that the White House has asked Congress to exempt Chinese and Russian companies from a sanctions bill being debated now. This is, as I have said earlier, the
epitome of sleaze. I suspect that exemption is the quid pro quo for Chinese and Russian support for what will be another round of ineffective, meaningless sanctions on Iran. As they say in the Middle East, hibr 'ala waraq (ink on paper).

Of course, Biden could not help to appease his audience with the reiteration of the Obama Administration's - pardon me, the Obama-Biden Administration's - goals to end aggressive interrogations and to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. While this is a great sound bite - especially in Europe - it falls on deaf ears at home in the wake the Christmas airline and Times Square bombing attempts. Most Americans would probably endorse water boarding these perpetrators, or in the case of Shahzad, a traitor.

Mr. Vice President, I know it's nice to travel in Europe. Please spend hundreds of thousands of dollars that we can ill afford, but do not insult my intelligence that you think you are delivering a threat to the Iranians. They have seen you for what you and the "Obama-Biden Administration" are, to coin a phrase from an earlier era, "all hat and no cattle." Your - yes, the Obama-Biden Administration - policies, the outreach, the engagement, the claimed "biting" and "crippling" sanctions are merely a talking point.

The Iranians judge you on your actions, which to date are nothing. You can bark all you want, but no one in Tehran is taking you seriously. You articulate a failed policy; all the while they enrich uranium and plan on their nuclear arsenal.

Fort Hood, Detroit, Times Square - more to come

I fear that the three recent attacks on the United States by al-Qa'idah or al-Qa'idah affiliated organizations are part of a new trend. It is al-Qa'idah's reaction to the past eight and a half years of being hunted down and decimated - many of its leaders have been either captured or killed, not to mention the hundreds of dead and others who are residents of Guantanamo. They have been driven from Afghanistan (despite the President's insistence that we are there to defeat al-Qa'idah...), almost defeated in Iraq, driven from Saudi Arabia, and are under pressure in both Yemen and Pakistan.

Given those setbacks, it was not feasible for the organization to plan and organize large-scale complex operations like it carried out on September 11, 2001. American intelligence capabilities had increased - the long planning times, frequent communications, movement of funds, training and logistics preparations made them vulnerable to detection. At some point, the leadership likely realized that a change in tactics was necessary. To survive and continue to mount attacks meant adapting to a new situation.

Before I continue, in the last paragraph I carefully chose the words "had increased" when referring to American intelligence capabilities. There are reports just beginning to surface that Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad had previously come to the attention of the intelligence and law enforcement communities, but that surveillance had to be curtailed because of new limitations imposed by the Obama Administration. If that is true, this Administration needs to be held accountable.

It appears that al-Qa'idah has lowered its expectations and decided to mount smaller, harder-to-detect operations. Although these smaller operations will likely cause fewer casualties than something on the scale of September 11, the psychological impact of a car bomb detonating in Times Square will achieve the objectives of terrifying the civilian population, demonstrating to the world that al-Qa'idah is still a viable organization, and that the American government cannot protect its people. They came very close to that in both the Christmas airliner bombing attempt and in Times Square. As a member of Congress stated, "Luck is not an effective strategy for fighting terrorism."

The shootings at Fort Hood, the "Underwear Bomber" attempt to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit from overseas, and the Times Square car bombing attempt are symptomatic of what we can expect in the future.

The Department of Homeland Security needs to get its act together. Yes, the same people that brought you the Transportation Security Administration which allowed Faisal Shahzad to almost leave the country - had it not been for a few diligent Custom and Border Protection officers, he would be free in Pakistan right now. DHS should focus on these real and demonstrated threats, not on imagined threats from veterans and other groups as it warned in its Rightwing Extremism assessment.

The intelligence community and law enforcement agencies need to be able to monitor anyone who poses a threat. That includes using wiretaps formerly permitted using the FISA courts but not under severe limits. Is it going to take hundreds of dead Americans - again - to make that point?

There are more Hasans, Abdulmutallabs and Shahzads out there. We need to be able to find them BEFORE they act, not after they walk unimpeded past the TSA....

May 5, 2010

Faisal Shahzad - a Taliban throwaway?

Hakimullah Mehsud

The Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, is appearing more and more to be a patsy for Hakimullah Mehsud, a senior leader of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban Movement).

Let's take a look at the relationship between Hakimullah Mehsud and Faisal Shahzad. Hakimullah Mehsud is the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in the South Waziristan area. His father, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed in a CIA drone-launched missile strike in August 2009. Baitullah was responsible for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, among other vicious attacks in the country. No tears should be shed for Baitullah Mehsud.

Enter Faisal Shahzad. Shahzad, a radical Islamist (we do not know yet how or when he became radicalized) is seeking to become a jihadist. On one of his 13 trips to Pakistan, he met up with Taliban members. Here is Mehsud's opportunity for revenge for the death of his father at the hands of the CIA. He plans to use Shahzad - an American citizen, of course, with an American passport - to mount a lethal attack in New York City.

Surely, Mehsud reasons, such an attack will cause public opinion to demand that President Obama call off the drones. Shahzad pretty much confirmed this when he claimed that his motivation for the attempted attack in Times Square was retaliation for the CIA missile attacks.

No one has ever accused the Taliban (Pakistani or Afghan), nor Mehsud, of being strategic thinkers. If they hoped that an attack on American soil will end the strikes, I hope they are mistaken. There is no way that President Obama can lessen the frequency of the missile strikes after this attack attempt - its failure has no bearing - without appearing to give in to the terrorists.

I say I hope because this Administration's warfighting strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq has not been inspirational - the CIA missile strikes are a welcome exception. The Administration's seemingly reticence to use American military power may have encouraged Mehsud to create what we in the intelligence world call a "significant emotional event."

Ironically, the tactic that the terrorists thought would cause the United States to reassess its missile strike operations in Pakistan almost guarantees that the attacks will continue. It has also taken away any option the President has to change the missile strike program. If he changes the program, he will be - rightly - excoriated for being weak in the face of terrorism.

Is Shahzad a patsy, a throwaway for the Taliban?

You might think so, given the sloppy nature of this operation. Shahzad was given what must have been given only rudimentary bombmaking training. The Taliban know how to construct explosive devices, but the bomb made by Shahzad was not up to their standards. Then there is the issue of his escape - if in fact he was supposed to escape. I suspect he was supposed to be killed in a suicide operation. Otherwise, he would not have done virtually everything wrong: purchasing a one-way ticket with cash at the counter on day of flight, no luggage, use of real name, no fake documents, etc. Either this was poor planning, or an amateur trying to escape when he was supposed to be dead.

In any case, the Pakistani Taliban have raised the ante. The President needs to call their bet. He needs to call it with a devastating shower of Hellfire missiles - soon.

May 4, 2010

Times Square and the Pakistan connection

Faisal Shahzad is now in federal custody after a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) that he built and parked in New York City's Times Square failed to detonate.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that this attempt to create a mass casualty event was not "thwarted," despite claims by President Obama and Attorney General Holder - it simply failed. When a VBIED is parked in a crowded public place in the heart of New York City, the driver walks away and the bomb begins to detonate and then fails to explode, that is not thwarting, it is reacting.

Along that same line, it is not helpful when senior administration officials explain in detail what component of the explosive device failed. In the last several failed attempts, the weak link has been identified as the detonators. Thanks to these officials wanting to impress the media, the perpetrators now know they need to perfect their detonator design, or increase their training on that portion of the device.

What we have here is a combination of an intelligence failure on our part, incompetence on Shahzad's part, followed by what appears to be excellent police work by the NYPD and the FBI. That said, the clock almost ran out - Shahzad was already on board a jetliner bound for the Middle East en route Pakistan.

Why Pakistan?

Not only is Pakistan Shahzad's native country, it is also the place he visited last year for five months, part of that time spent at a jihadist training camp in the lawless Waziristan tribal area along the Afghanistan border. It was here he learned how to make the device that he assembled in the vehicle. This area of Pakistan is what Afghanistan was prior to the American invasion of the that country after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Since Afghanistan is no longer a viable training ground, the jihadists - be they al-Qa'idah, the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani), or the various other Pakistani Islamist groups - have set up shop in the fiercely independent tribal areas virtually out of the reach of the government in Islamabad. Al-Qa'idah has also moved some of its training to Yemen, as well.

A Pakistani man associated with Shahzad was arrested in Karachi. Karachi is a hotbed of fundamentalist jihadist activity, where many al-Qa'idah, Taliban and other groups maintain a covert presence. It is also Shahzad's original home before he emigrated to the United States and became an American citizen. There is also an al-Qa'idah and Taliban presence in other Pakistani cities - Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Quetta to name a few.

Shahzad's background is interesting. He comes from a prominent family - this is not a disaffected impoverished youth lashing out at the excesses of the West. His father is a retired Air Vice Marshal (U.S. major general equivalent) in the Pakistan Air Force, and his uncle was the chief of Pakistan's civil aviation authority. Shahzad holds an MBA from the University of Bridgeport. It will be interesting to discover his motivation to attempt mass murder. It will also be interesting to know if his acquisition of American citizenship was a pre-planned part of the operation. Al-Qa'idah has for years attempted to recruit American passport holders since they can leave and enter the United States at will.

More and more, Pakistan seems to be the common thread in a series of terrorist attacks around the globe. The British subway bombers were trained in Pakistan, as were the Mumbai hotel killers. American John Walker Lindh received his initial weapons training in Pakistan in 2000.

Pakistan is now the primary site for al-Qa'idah and Taliban training, not Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we have decided to embark on a nation-building exercise in Afghanistan while terrorist training goes on just across the border. We should be taking on the terrorists who threaten us, not propping up a corrupt government in a country that no longer poses or harbors a threat.

The Obama Administration needs to demand that the Pakistanis police their own house in both North Waziristan and South Waziristan. If they can't, then we should. The CIA drone strikes are a start, but obviously are not solving the entire problem. If you believe some of the Taliban announcements, this action was in retaliation for those very drone strikes. It takes more to root out these vermin.

We have been lucky twice - on Christmas Day (the so-called "underwear bomber"), and again this last weekend. We will not continue to be so lucky - we must break this Pakistan connection.