March 30, 2020

Miniseries Review: "Caliphate" (Netflix - 2020)


The Netflix series Caliphate is centered around an operation by the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen, SÄPO) to uncover and hopefully disrupt a coordinated terrorist attack being planned by members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The targets are in Sweden; the planning is being done mostly in al-Raqqah, Syria.

Obviously set in either 2016 or 2017 before the anti-ISIS coalition assault on ISIS's self-proclaimed capital, the story tends to validate U.S. and most coalition partner fears that attacks against the West were actively being planned in al-Raqqah. It was this assessment that drove the timeline for the coalition's decision to use the Syrian Democratic Forces to lead the assault on al-Raqqah over strident (not to mention unhelpful, unnecessary, and counterproductive) Turkish objections over using the SDF to liberate al-Raqqah.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan objected to the mere existence of the SDF because its key component was the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units, known more commonly by the initials YPG. The Turks regard the YPG as nothing more than an extension of the Turkish Kurdish separatist group People's Workers' Party, or PKK.

The United States and some of its allies have designated the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), mostly as a courtesy to a fellow, albeit nominal, NATO ally. I have been vocal in my criticism of Turkey and Erdoğan and their disastrous policies in Syria and half-hearted fight against ISIS. See my latest on this subject, Syria and Turkey - the NATO realities.

In the series, the two lead characters are a SÄPO case officer (they use the term handler) named Fatima Zukić in Stockholm and a Turkish-Swede ISIS bride named Pervin trapped in al-Raqqah. Fatima is herself a Bosnian-born Muslim, although that facet of her character is only marginally explored.

The story is about the attack plot and Fatima's handling of Pervin, but it also touches on the tension between Sweden's ethnic Scandinavians and the Muslims who have resettled there from Iraq, Syria, Bosnia, etc. There is also a sizable Kurdish population in the country - all this thanks to Sweden's policy of allowing large numbers of refugees into the country.

Once getting her hands on a contraband cell phone in al-Raqqah, Pervin contacts a former teacher in Stockholm. The teacher contacts Fatima, hoping that the Swedish service can assist the trapped wife and her daughter return to Sweden. Once Fatima and Pervin are in contact, Pervin provides information that her husband's ISIS cell is actively planning a spectacular attack in Sweden. Of course, that sets in motion an intelligence-driven counter-terrorism operation to uncover and stop the attack.

As a case officer, I was intrigued at the thought of running an intelligence operation by phone. Running an asset requires trust and the ability to assess and vet the subject - both are difficult over a phone. Pervin was basically the electronic equivalent of a "walk in," someone who volunteers to become an asset, usually in return for something.

In this case, Pervin wanted to get herself and her daughter out of Syria and back to Sweden. My case officer mind immediately thought - she may be making this up (it's called "fabrication" in the vernacular) to get what she wants. I felt vindicated when Fatima's supervisor said the exact same thing. Walk ins can be the real thing, but mostly they are not.

In covering Pervin's story of coming from Sweden to Syria so her husband could join the fight as a member of ISIS, the series uncovers the deceit, radicalization, and treachery involved in the recruiting of not only fighters for ISIS, but also young women to become ISIS brides.

We do observe the movement of a group of young women to Syria via the Turkish city of Gaziantep. I've driven almost the entire Syrian-Turkish border (on both sides). It's about a seven-hour drive from Ankara to Gaziantep, which is a fairly nice city - good food, great sights. From Gaziantep, the major hub for moving ISIS fighters and brides into Syria, there are a few ways to go, depending on who controls what parts of northern Syria. I'd probably go further east, then two hours south to the border, then another five hours to al-Raqqah.

It is an arduous trip. As I said, I've been on both sides of that border. I would not attempt to cross it going either direction unless I had "hired a guide." It's heavily guarded, fortified, and in places, mined. I still believe that there was some collusion between ISIS (and other Islamist groups in Syria) and the Turkish government to let the crossings happen, if not actually facilitating them - that is just my opinion.

Without spoiling the story, there were some facets that strained the necessary "suspension of disbelief" required in most fictional accounts. In some places, there is too much coincidence, and of course, since it's fiction, everything falls nicely into place. In the real world of intelligence, it usually doesn't work that way. There is a lot more guesswork and estimation - we like to call it "analysis."

There was one phrase that sticks with me. One of the ISIS recruiters described al-Raqqah to potential recruits as "a magical place." I've been to al-Raqqah - it was okay before the war, right on the Euphrates River, but I have never heard it described as magical. Imagine it under ISIS rule.

Watch it, enjoy it. It is well written and well produced. With only a few minor glitches in the Arabic translations, it's solid entertainment.

There is to be a Season 2, to be released in early 2021. You can watch Season 1 here.




March 25, 2020

Movie Review: "Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears" (Acorn TV - 2020)


When I saw the announcement that there was going to be a movie featuring the Australian lady detective character Phryne Fisher, the lead in the very popular television series Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, I was looking forward to the release.

It came out on Acorn TV this week - Essie Davis is a fine actress and usually brings her characters to life - but I have to say that I was severely disappointed.

Before I get further into this review, a few words about Essie Davis. She is excellent in the Australian period piece Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries set in 1920's Melbourne. It is a captivating series, or what I might call "mindless entertainment."

While I am going to call this movie a miss, I highly recommend Miss Davis's performance in the BBC miniseries The Last Post, about the British experience in Aden (‘Adan) in the mid-1960’s - it is directly applicable to the situation the United States finds itself in today in several areas. Read my review at Miniseries Review: "The Last Post" (Amazon Prime - 2017).

Now, to this production. Perhaps the production crew who created the three series of the Melbourne-centric of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries should have stuck with a proven formula - I watched all three and thoroughly enjoyed them. The character development and story lines were believable; what we have seen in this movie is not.

I will not go into detail about all of the issues with the Middle East in the production. Let's just say that whoever did the Middle East production should have known tat the deserts of Morocco - overplayed in my opinion - do not resemble those of the Negev. I've been to both - they are not even close.

Okay - bottom line

We are all essentially prisoners in our homes for the time it takes to flatten the curve of the Coronavirus. If you have the ability to ingest a large dose of what fiction authors label the "suspension of disbelief," this could be an hour and 45 minutes of entertainment.

If you are a Middle East specialist, you might want to pass.





March 4, 2020

Department of Defense Linguist Charged with Espionage – A Spy Story

Special Operations Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve

A civilian Arabic linguist working as a contractor for the Department of Defense at a Special Operations Task Force facility in Irbil, northern Iraq, was arrested and charged with espionage.

Miriam Taha Thompson, 61, is accused of transmitting highly sensitive classified national defense information to a foreign national with apparent connections to the Lebanese terrorist group Hizballah.

For the legal types, the specific charge is Delivering Defense Information to Aid a Foreign Government in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 794(a) and conspiring to do so in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 794(c).

The Department of Justice press release includes links to the criminal complaint and an affidavit detailing Thompson’s alleged activities. I am surprised at the level of detail in the affidavit – at times, it appears to be divulging what many of us intelligence professionals would consider sensitive information.

My compliments to FBI Special Agent Danielle Ray for her excellent recap of this alleged crime. She comments that the affidavit only includes enough information to support probable cause for Thompson’s arrest and that there is more information. As if this isn’t bad enough….

Thompson was arrested on February 27 in Irbil, Iraq. She held a Top Secret security clearance with access to Sensitive Compartmented Information as well as access to sensitive information on the true identity of human sources providing intelligence to American intelligence officers.

Thompson provided the names of a least four of these American intelligence sources to a Lebanese national with ties to Hizballah, as well as a warning to the individual about U.S. intelligence operations targeting Hizballah and the Amal Movement. Both Hizballah and Amal are Lebanese Shi’a groups designated by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations.

I have read the affidavit and will detail some of the more pertinent information that shows how much damage a well-placed spy can do in a short period of time. It appears that Thompson committed these crimes between December 30, 2019 and February 19, 2020. It is interesting that she began these activities almost immediately after her arrival in Irbil in mid-December.

I will try to break this down into a more readable narrative, based on my analysis of the affidavit, press release, and media accounts. It reads like a spy novel. Granted, some of this is speculation, but I used to do this for a living.

Miriam Taha (a very Lebanese name) was either born in an Arabic-speaking country, or grew up in the United States the daughter of immigrants in an Arabic-speaking household. In any case, she possessed a useful and marketable skill – the ability to speak and understand Arabic at the native level.

Apparently, Miriam Taha married and became know by her husband’s surname, Thompson (we are unaware of her marital status). She took a job as an Arabic linguist for a government contractor. As part of her employment, she obtained a Top Secret clearance and was granted access to Special Compartmented Information, and operational intelligence information on human intelligence sources. This is among the most sensitive information in the intelligence community.

At some point, Thompson became romantically involved with a Lebanese national with ties to the Amal Movement. Amal is a Lebanese Shi’a organization at times affiliated with Lebanese Hizballah – both groups have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

I suspect that her romantic involvement was a targeted recruitment by this Lebanese national, identified in the affidavit as “Co-conspirator.” This individual is what we in the intelligence community call a case officer – he was Thompson’s handler, and she was his asset. She admitted to her interrogators that “Co-conspirator” had a nephew working in the Lebanese Ministry of the Interior. Speaking as a professional, this was a well planned and executed recruitment.

The timing of what exactly happened leading up to the actual criminal activity is difficult to determine. We know that sometime around December 30, 2019, Thompson, now working at the Special Operations Task Force in the Kurdish city of Irbil in northern Iraq, began accessing files relating to American intelligence operations, specifically human intelligence penetrations, targeting both the Amal and Hizballah groups in Lebanon.

Evidently, this search of data bases for information outside the scope of Thompson’s need to know triggered some sort of alert or alarm. Although she was ultimately detected and stopped, she was able to do severe damage in the six weeks she was conducting this operation. Thompson compromised extremely sensitive information, including the identity of four American assets operating in Lebanon to the very people those assets were targeting.

Thompson, in essence, hit the jackpot. Her searches of the classified data bases at the Irbil facility – which may have been linked to centralized intelligence community data bases – yielded 57 files on the desired operations in Lebanon. Shockingly, these files contained the true names, background information, and even photographs of eight human sources working for U.S. intelligence.

Take a minute and think about that. “Eight human sources” translates to eight people who had agreed to work with/for U.S. intelligence officers for whatever reason – patriotism, greed, revenge, who knows? Exposure of these assets in a country like Lebanon would mean arrest, aggressive interrogation (read: torture), and either incarceration or more likely, an ugly death. It is believed that four identities were compromised to her case officer.

No matter how naïve Thompson tries to appear, her own words transmitted to her case officer indicate her level of involvement. She warned her case officer that at least four of these U.S. assets were operating in Lebanon, targeting the Amal organization among others, and suggesting that the assets’ telephones be tapped. That’s not just providing information, that’s actively participating in an operation of a hostile intelligence service against the United States.

Although she expressed her hatred for both Hizballah and Amal, she never explained her rationale for providing information on American intelligence operations against these designated terrorist groups.

As a former case officer, I am always interested in the why. Why did she agree to do this? What did she get out of it? She claims to hate the two groups she likely helped, but did it anyway, in fact, taking an interest in warning the targets of American intelligence operations. I guess she did it for her lover.

We still don’t know the results of Thompson’s treason. I suspect that if the four human assets were discovered and arrested, she may be responsible for their deaths. Unfortunately, the law limits her punishment to life imprisonment.

My question for the U.S. intelligence community writ large, and specifically the Special Operations Task Force in Irbil – why was this relatively low-level contract employee capable of gaining access to human source true identification data?

Inexcusable. Someone should be held accountable for that, but will they?




March 3, 2020

Comments on the U.S. - Taliban agreement on Afghanistan

My former colleague Zalmay Khalilzad signs the agreement with the Taliban

I was interviewed by an Azerbaijani press outlet about the U.S.-Taliban agreement on Afghanistan. Since it is unlikely that many of my normal readers and followers monitor the media in Azerbaijan, I have provided a copy of my responses.


Q. On Saturday, February 29, representatives of the United States and the Taliban inked a peace agreement in Doha to end the 18–year–long war. That agreement would see the U.S. withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in return for security guaranties by the Taliban. That also paved the way for intra-Afghan talks. At the first, how can you assess the importance of that deal?

A. An agreement to end the longest war in American history is an important deal – the question is, is it a good deal? In my opinion, it’s a mechanism for the United States to withdraw its forces and close the chapter on 18 years of wasted effort.

Let’s look at the history of why American forces are there. Following the al-Qa’idah attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, American forces invaded Afghanistan, launching Operation Enduring Freedom. In a rather quick operation, the Taliban government was removed and al-Qa’idah fighters pushed towards the Pakistan border.

Once Usamah bin Ladin and his fighters were holed up in the Tora Bora mountains, there was a foolhardy agreement with the Afghan Northern Alliance that they would broker the surrender of bin Ladin. Any experienced observer of events in this region realized that this was never going to happen. Who knows exactly what happened – money changed hands, tribal and factional loyalties came into play, Pakistani intelligence – whatever. The bottom line was that bin Ladin escaped across the frontier.

At that point, the goals of the American invasion had either been met, or were no longer achievable. Al-Qa’idah was no longer present in the country, and at the time, the Taliban did not present a threat to the United States.

In my assessment, it was the time to withdraw. But no, we have to start “nation building.” I am not sure the reason, but it was a mistake. I bristle at comparisons of our misguided efforts in Afghanistan to the rebuilding of Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan. That effort was to restore European democracies, while the effort in Afghanistan was to create a democracy where it does not seem to fit.


Q. The United States has fought Taliban militants in Afghanistan since the invasion after the September 11 attacks. But now the U.S. has signed an agreement with the Taliban following the long–term successful diplomatic negotiations with it. From your viewpoint, what happened for Washington to take this step?

A. As I see it, the Trump Administration is following a campaign promise to end “unending wars.” The United States is weary of Afghanistan. Despite our best efforts to create some form of representative government, it just has not worked. Perhaps we have finally come to the realization that creation of these types of government must come from within, not without.

Are we abandoning the peoples of Afghanistan to their own devices? I say “peoples” since Afghanistan is not an ethnicity, but merely a geographic designation of an area that contains Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Sayyids, Turkmen, Baluchis, etc.

Unfortunately, I suspect that in a few short years, there will be a Taliban-dominated government again, after a hiatus of two decades.


Q. In your opinion, does the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan pave the way for regional powers to enter the country?

A. Possibly. There are economic interests in the country that China and Pakistan may try to consolidate. I assume that there will be attempts by Iran and Pakistan to exert political influence in the country, hoping to shape whatever new government emerges – and it will, the current government is doomed to fail.

Washington’s position? As long as whatever leadership exists or emerges does not pose a threat to the United States, Americans do not care. However, should a group like al-Qa’idah or the nascent ISIS presence there, appear to be a threat to the United States, there may a revisit – short, swift, and vicious – of U.S. military action.


Q. At a press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that enduring peace in Afghanistan would not be possible unless Taliban militants break ties with Al-Qa'idah and other terrorist groups, and sit down for intra-Afghan talks with the Kabul government. Do you think that this agreement can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan?

A. I don’t. The Taliban signed an agreement that ends the fighting with the United States. The United States is withdrawing its forces – that is what the Taliban want. Once that happens, I see no reason for them to honor any agreement. I fully expect that once American forces are gone, there may be a “decent interval” in which they pay lip service to inter-Afghan talks, but in the end, they will exercise their military capabilities and move against anyone that resists what they believe is their inevitable rise to power.

Peace and stability, maybe. At what price? It will truly become what its official name implies – the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.




February 28, 2020

Russian airstrike on Turkish troops in Syria - predictable and avoidable. Now what?

Turkish military convoy in northwestern Syria

An airstrike by Russian Air Force fighter-bombers on a Turkish supply convoy in Syria's Idlib governorate on February 27 resulted in the deaths of 33 Turkish troops, and the wounding of at least 30 others. This represents a major escalation in the confrontation between Russian forces supporting Syrian troops attempting to re-establish Syrian government control over the area held by primarily Islamist opposition forces - those forces are backed by Turkey. In recent weeks, Turkish support has escalated from logistics and supplies to air, artillery, and special operations forces support.

I will leave the blow-by-blow coverage of the actual operation to the media. Suffice it to say, the Russian Air Force has determined that it will no longer tolerate Turkish or Turkish-backed opposition groups firing man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) at their aircraft operating in support of Syrian troops. There has been a marked increase in the use of these systems, forcing Russian pilots to alter their tactics, to include the use of flares and other countermeasures, and flying at higher altitudes.

Although there have been tensions between the Russians and Turks in the past in northwestern Syria, including the shootdown of a Russian SU-24 fighter-bomber in November 2015, and smaller exchanges of artillery fire between Syrian and proxy forces and the Turks and Turkish-backed forces in the past, this airstrike is a major escalation of tensions that have been brewing for years.

The obvious questions - why are the Turks and Russians in Syria?

The short answers: the Russians have been in Syria since September 2015 when it became obvious to Moscow that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad was incapable of surviving the threats posed by either the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the various opposition groups, including al-Qa'idah affiliated or other Islamist groups supported by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Were the Russians "true believers" in the Ba'ath Party ideology of the Syrian regime? No - the Russians were there for much more pragmatic reasons. Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to reassert Russian influence in the Middle East, influence that had been lacking since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The obvious choice of venue was Syria - the country was wracked by civil war, and in need of help beyond that offered by the bevy of Iranian-supported militias from Lebanon, Iraq, and even Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The prize for the Russians? Re-entry to the Mediterranean in the form of access to Syrain military facilities - Humaymim (often incorrectly rendered as Khmeimim) air base on the northwest coast near the port city of Latakia, and the former Soviet naval facility at the port of Tartus. Putin was able to secure renewable 49-year leases on both facilities, creating a permanent Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Russians claim they deployed military forces to Syria to combat ISIS, but their actions showed they they were there for one reason - the survival of the al-Asad regime. The vast majority of the airstrikes and operations were focused on opposition forces, not ISIS.

The Russian vision of a permanent presence in the eastern Mediterranean depends on a government in Syria that the Russians can influence, if not outright control. Watching how Putin treats al-Asad in both Syria and Russia lend me to believe it is the latter, not the former. When the civil war eventually ends, the key power broker in Syria will be the Russians and Vladimir Putin.

Why are the Turks in Syria? That is a really good question, for which there are plenty of answers, just not good ones.

The Turks became nominal members of the US-led coalition formed to defeat ISIS, but were never really committed to the fight. It took years before Erdoğan allowed the coalition to fully use the Incirlik air base just north of Syria to conduct offensive operations against ISIS. It was not until ISIS launched lethal attacks inside Turkey that the Turks relented.

Two curious things here - it was always suspected that the Turks were supporters of many of the Islamist groups that were part of the anti-al-Asad alliance under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. That support at times probably included ISIS. Of course, the primary route for the thousands of Middle Eastern and European jihadis that came to Syria to fight for ISIS came via Turkey. I have spent a lot of time on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border - I would never attempt to cross the mined, fenced, and heavily-guarded frontier without the acquiescence or support of Turkish officials.

Turkey's role in the coalition continued to be obstructionist and unhelpful. As the US-led coalition armed and trained the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to be the "boots on the ground" to fight ISIS, the Turks vehemently objected to the presence of the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG, believing them to be nothing more than an extension of the Turkish PKK separatist group, a designated terrorist group. As the coalition began the fight against ISIS, the Turks often obstructed SDF movements, even to the point of armed confrontation. Despite this, the SDF was successful, pushing ISIS back to its self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah.

As part of Turkey's "contribution" to the anti-ISIS effort, it invaded northern Syria in two operations and two locations. Operation Euphrates Shield moved into the are northeast of Aleppo, mostly in support of the Islamist and opposition elements which had relocated there following successful Syrian (albeit Russian and Iranian backed) military operations as the Syrians began to retake those areas that had previously fallen to the opposition.

Operation Olive Branch moved against Kurdish elements in the 'Afrin area of northwest Syria. As in Euphrates Shield, much of the fighting was done by Turkish proxy forces.

At this point, Erdoğan demanded that the coalition allow Turkish troops to liberate al-Raqqah. This was a ridiculous demand - Turkish troops were over 100 miles from al-Raqqah. To liberate al-Raqqah would have required the Turks to traverse SDF-controlled territory, something the Kurds in the coalition found unacceptable, given Turkey's recent obstruction of the fight against ISIS.

After the successful SDF liberation of al-Raqqah and the almost complete expulsion of ISIS fighters from Syria, Erdoğan then demanded that the coalition agree to a "security zone" almost 20 miles deep all along the Syrian border with Turkey. To the Turks, security zone is a euphemism for a Kurdish-free zone. Inexplicably, the United States went along with Erdoğan's petulance and basically created a small security zone in previously Arab areas along the border.

As the Syrian government continued to recover more of its territory, opposition elements were removed to opposition-controlled areas, culminating in the creation of a large enclave of the remaining Islamist and opposition groups in Idlib governorate, setting up the final battle between these elements and the Syrian regime.

Fearing that his allies were about to be soundly defeated, Erdoğan moved Turkish troops into Idlib, ostensibly to provide safe areas to prevent civilian casualties. In my opinion, Turkey's commitment to prevent civilian casualties in Idlib was about as sincere as Russian efforts to combat ISIS.

Although there was a face-saving agreement - the Astana agreement - between the Turks and the Russians to legitimize the presence of Turkish "observation posts" in Idlib, this was merely setting up the inevitable clash between the the foreign powers.

The battle of Idlib is in full swing. Backed by overwhelming Russian airpower, the Syrians are steadily progressing against the Turkish-backed militias. The Turks have responded by providing weapons and fire support to the Islamist and opposition groups, striking not only Iranian-backed militias, but Syrian regime forces as well. Of course, as is the nature of combat, the fighting has spilled over, directly involving the Turks and Russians.

Now we have the Russians and Turks engaging each other. Despite the claims by the Russians that since the Turks have provided armored vehicles and other weapons to the opposition, it is impossible for them to distinguish between the Turkish-supported groups and the Turks themselves. I don't get the impressions the Russians really care.

Now we come to nascent East-West crisis brewing in northern Syria.

Now that Erdoğan's Ottoman revanchism has backed Turkey into a corner in which it is suffering serious casualties - which will not play well at home - the Turkish leader wants to play the NATO card. He wants to rely on the alliance he has basically turned his back on over the last year to bail him out.

Ironically, his first request was to the United States to deploy Patriot air defense systems to Turkey to defend his forces and facilities from potential Russian or Syrian attacks. This is the same system he refused to buy in favor of the Russian S-400. This move resulted in the United States removing Turkey from the F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter program. It appeared that Turkey was drifting more towards the Russians to replace aging Turkish military equipment.

The NATO charter has two articles that might apply here - Article 4 and Article 5. Article 4 can be invoked by any member state "whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." This has happened numerous times in the past, including several requests from Turkey. It does not trigger a NATO military response.

Article 5 is the key to the alliance. The key passage: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all...." What has happened does not meet the threshold of Article 5 - the Russians or Syrians would have to launch an attack on Turkish territory. The Russians are well aware of the NATO charter and Article 5 - they have lived with it for decades. Conversely, if the Turks launch attacks on Russian forces in Syria from Turkish soil, will this trigger a Russian response against targets in Turkey?

This is where Erdoğan's adventurism, always dangerous and unnecessary, risks expanding the crisis in Syria into an East-West confrontation neither side wants or needs.



February 17, 2020

UPDATE: Miniseries Review: "Fauda" (Netflix 2017- )


THIS IS AN UPDATE TO MY JANUARY 1, 2019 REVIEW OF THE NETFLIX MINISERIES FAUDA.


You can read the Israeli media story below - bottom line: We in the States can expect to see Season 3 in the spring, and be pleased that there will be a Season 4!

i24 News: Season 3 English premier of global TV hit 'Fauda' screens in Tel Aviv


Original article:



We just finished watching the first two seasons of the Israeli-produced mini-series Fauda. Fauda (or more properly fawda) is the Arabic word for chaos, which is used by the Israeli military special operations team as a distress call.

Here is the Wikipedia description: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fauda

We would recommend it for those interested in the chaotic (pun intended) situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, administered by the Palestinian Authority. The antagonists are the Israel military versus the Palestinian Islamist group HAMAS (an acronym for al-harakat al-muqawamat al-islamiyah, the Islamic Resistance Movement), in season one, and in season two, HAMAS and a nascent ISIS cell.

Most of the action takes place in and around the city of Nablus. I recognized many of the locations from trips to the West Bank - I have often used the checkpoint at Qalqiliyah shown repeatedly in the show. It is the best route from Israel proper to Nablus.

In addition to our general recommendation, we would especially recommend the series for Arabic linguists. The two languages spoken by the characters are, of course, Hebrew and Arabic. The Hebrew dialog is dubbed (quite well) into English, so when you hear English spoken, remember that it is actually in Hebrew.

The Arabic is subtitled. The subtitles are accurate, but are more interpretation than a direct translation. If you are going to try to understand the Arabic dialog, one caveat: it is West Bank accented Palestinian Arabic. It took our Syrian/Damascene-tuned ears a few episodes to adapt to the dialect.

For the Arabic linguist geeks among you, I would describe it as Levantine Arabic with the Egyptian use of the letter shin attached to the verb for the negative. It makes for some interesting sounds. For example, in one scene, a Palestinian woman is being taken away by the team, screaming “I didn’t do anything.” In the local dialect, it becomes, ma ‘amalt-shi shi. Yeah, I know, too far down in the weeds….

Anyway, watch it. Season 3 will be shown in 2020.

POSTSCRIPT: I am told by a linguistics scholar that the dialect spoken in Nablus is actually called Southern Levantine Arabic.



February 12, 2020

Swiss cryptographic firm was an American and German intelligence front

Crypto AG radio encryption devices

Any country that was using Crypto AG products to provide secure communications stopped using them today.

In what most intelligence and many national security professionals regard as a bombshell report, the Washington Post, the German television network ZDF, and the Swiss television channel SRF revealed that what appeared to be a Swiss commercial cryptographic company was actually jointly owned by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Germany's Foreign Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) from 1970 until 2018. The reporting is based on a leaked CIA report. If true (and it seems to be), it is a major counterintelligence problem.

Crypto AG was a major supplier of communications encryption and cipher machines. The company AG was a common and respected name in the cryptographic community. For almost five decades, Crypto AG supplied cryptographic equipment to more than 120 countries, mostly in nations without the technological or financial resources to develop advanced secure communications capabilities of their own.

Unbeknownst to these countries, the cryptographic devices provided were modified to provide "back door" access for the American National Security Agency (NSA) to enable its analysts to read the "secure" communications from these countries. According to the reporting, almost 40 percent of the foreign communications processed by NSA in the 1980s had been derived from Crypto AG machines.

As a former signals intelligence officer with years of service at NSA and its field collection activities, that seems to be an inflated number, but any penetration of a foreign government's internal communications would be an intelligence coup.

As any intelligence officer will tell you, access to a foreign government's communications is a high priority collection requirement. Access to foreign government communications can be gained by acquiring that government's cryptographic codes and the machines used to transmit the communications - having that access is priceless. That is exactly what is being claimed here.

Intelligence derived from access to a foreign government's internal diplomatic and military communications is regarded as among the most useful and sensitive information that can be provided by an intelligence service. It is almost always highly classified and its distribution tightly restricted. That is because revelations such as this cause governments to immediately change their communications procedures, change codes, change machines, etc., denying continued exploitation to real or potential adversaries.

Was it useful to the United States intelligence community? In the words of former director of NSA and deputy director of CIA Admiral Bobby Inman, “It was a very valuable source of communications on significantly large parts of the world important to U.S. policymakers.”

So why did these countries buy cryptographic machines from Crypto AG?

Crypto AG was a Swiss company - many foreign governments believed that a major commercial company of an erstwhile fabled neutral country would be above the antagonism of foreign intrigue and would provide a reliable, secure cryptographic capability.

The assets and much of the intellectual property of the Swiss firm Crypto AG have been acquired by the Crypto International Group of Sweden. They deny any previous or current association with the CIA or BND.

Interestingly, both Russia and China believed that placing their most sensitive communications at the mercy of a company of a foreign, albeit neutral, country was a dangerous practice and thus elected to develop their own internal cryptographic systems.

Revelations such as this will cause many/most countries to reassess their cryptographic procedures. We have to assume that any country using Crypto AG (or now Crypto International Group) devices will at a minimum stop using their machines, or completely overhaul their "secure" communications protocols.

Neither of these are good for our ability to collect intelligence on these governments. Recall that in 1988, a former CIA official revealed that NSA had successfully accessed the phone calls of al-Qa'idah chief Usamah bin Ladin. That source of information dried up immediately after the revelation.

While this is a good story about a significant success by the intelligence community, the publicity inevitably leads to its demise. As I said, anyone who was using a Crypto AG products is not using it anymore - I wouldn't.




January 28, 2020

Miniseries Review: "Rise of Empires: Ottoman" (Netflix - 2020)

Netflix poster for Rise of Empires: Ottoman

The year was 1453, almost 40 years before the initial Christopher Columbus voyage to the new world. The Ottoman Empire has a new ruler, Sultan Mehmed* II, who assumed the position in 1451 upon the death of his father, Sultan Murad II.

Sultan Mehmed II (1432-1481), also commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror (in Turkey, you will see it written as Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and you will see it on a lot of things), was the seventh Ottoman sultan. Technically, he ruled twice, first when he was 12 years of age for two years before his father Murad realized he was not ready and re-assumed the position himself, and again at age 19 when his father died. He remained the sultan until his death in May 1481.

This six-episode (4.5 hours) docudrama series begins with the death of Murad II and the uneasy transition of power to Mehmed II. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Mehmed's youth and formative years, and the attachments with his step-mother Mara Branković- a Serbian princess admitted to his father's harem - and Grand Vizier Çandarlı Halil Pasha, who also served Mehmed II until his execution on the orders of the sultan following the fall of Constantinople. These two people were very influential in Mehmed's early life.

As Mehmed assumed and consolidated power, he remained focused on his childhood dream of seizing the city of Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire (also called the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium). At the time of Mehmed's assumption of power, Constantinople was ruled by Emperor Constantine XI.



The sultan was also concerned with the presence of the city of Galata, located north of Constantinople on the opposite side of the Golden Horn. Galata was a colony of the Republic of Genoa.

Mehmed believed that these lands properly belonged to the Ottoman Empire. For the most part, it appears Mehmed was willing to allow the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians to live in the areas, but under the auspices of the Ottoman sultan.

Most people believe the Ottomans approached and assaulted Constantinople (located in Thrakia, on the European side) from Anatolia, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Actually, the capital of the Ottoman Empire was also on the European side, in Edirne. Edirne is located 150 miles northwest of what is now Istanbul, in present-day Turkey - the producers could have been a bit clearer on the geography and included more maps.

If you were not familiar with the history, you would come away with the impression that the seige was launched from Anatolia, across the Bosphorus, then southwest along the shore. While the Ottomans did build a fortress (Rumelihisarı, which has been restored and a tourist attraction today) in 1451 on the strait to block Christian reinforcements coming from the Black Sea towards Constantinople, the action took place almost exclusively on the European side.

Since there are four and a half hours, the series was able to devote sufficient time to discuss the military aspects of the campaign. One of the interesting topics that covered included the use of large-caliber artillery to attack fortifications. The walls of Constantinople were reputed to be among the strongest in the world - construction started in the 4th Century, and improvement were continuous.

A Hungarian engineer named Orban offered his cannon-making skills first to Emperor Constantine, and when the emperor declined because of the expense, to Sultan Mehmed. Mehmed funded the construction of a huge cannon that required 60 oxen to move. I suspect that when Constantine watched the walls of the city being reduced to rubble, he second guessed that fateful decision.

On the other side, the series documented the fighting skills of the Genoese mercenaries hired by Constantine to defend the city. Although they extracted a price from the Ottomans - and there were times the battle could have gone either way - in the end, the overwhelming numbers and some daring decisions on the part of Sultan Mehmed led to an Ottoman victory.

Those decisions included the use of Serbian miners to tunnel under the walls in an effort to weaken them, the use of a naval blockade to prevent Genoese reinforcements and resupply (they got through), and transporting dozens of Ottoman navy ships overland to circumvent the iron chain blockade of the entrance to the Golden Horn. Attrition and treachery from the Galatans gave the Ottomans the upper hand.

The only hope for the besieged city would be the arrival of the Venetian fleet, which never came. The Ottomans launched the final assault on the city, and took it, on May 29, 1453.

The city became the empire's fourth and final capital, lasting until the end of the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate (which had existed since 1299) on November 1, 1922. On November 11 of that year, Ankara was named as the capital of the new Republic of Turkey. At the same time, the name of Constantinople was officially changed to Istanbul.

For anyone who has visited Istanbul, this docudrama is a fascinating history - the graphics are well-done and are easily recognizable to what the city looks like today. The mix of reenactment and scholarly comment is well-done. A few years ago, I was able to walk the walls and venues of much of the fighting of the final battles in Istanbul - this series puts it into great perspective. I wish I had been able to watch this before walking the terrain; it would have been more understandable.

I highly recommend it, but suggest keeping your internet search engine of choice handy to clarify things that might not be well-known to people who do not have a background in Middle East history.

Here is the link to the Netflix series.

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* Mehmed is the Turkish rendition of Muhammad.




January 15, 2020

Middle East oil pumping stations and military air bases

Tiyas Air Base, also known as T-4, located east of Hims, Syria© Google Earth

Over the last year, there have been a series of confrontations between the Israelis on one side, and the Iranians and their Syrian allies on the other, at an airbase in western Syria. The air base is located between the Syrian cities of Hims (Homs) and Tadmur (Palmyra). The base has been identified as both Tiyas, and as T-4, depending on the media outlet doing the reporting.

In the above image, the Arabic descriptions give both names. Which is correct? Actually, both are.

The name Tiyas comes from the name of the closest village. It is customary in the Syrian Air Force to name bases and installations for the nearest city, town, or village. However, the base is not just close to the village of Tiyas, it is also close to the location of an oil pumping station in Tiyas designated as T-4. The T-4 designator goes back to the early days of oil exploration and transport in Iraq as far back as the 1930s.

This map shows the oil pipelines used to move oil from the Kirkuk oilfields in Iraq to Mediterranean ports - Haifa, (now in Israel but then in British-mandated Palestine) and Tarablus al-Sham (Tripoli, in French-mandated Lebanon).


The K-prefix indicates pumping stations on the Kirkuk pipeline, which transported the oil from Kirkuk to a station near the city of al-Hadithah. At Hadithah, the oil was routed into the Tripoli triple pipeline or the Haifa double pipeline. Pumping stations on the Tripoli pipeline are designated with a T prefix, while the Haifa pipeline stations are designated with an H prefix.

Not only were the pipelines accessible by the series of roads paralleling the lines, the Iraq Petroleum Company constructed private airstrips to move men, supplies, parts, etc. between stations and facilities. Many of the airstrips still exist in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Many of them were converted into civil airports, some into military air bases, and some into shared civil/military facilities. K-1, K-3, T-3, T-4, H-2, H-3, H-5 all were/are major air bases. The current T-4 air base is about four miles west of the original Iraq Petroleum Company airstrip.

Tiyas was the location of the fourth pumping station on the al-Hadithah-Tripoli pipeline. There are three such stations in Syria, all in use today. T-2 is located just inside the Syrian border near the city of Albu Kamal, the site of a large Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base populated by both IRGC personnel as well as Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militia groups.

The station at T-3 is now the shared military air base and civilian airport in the city of Tadmur (also known as Palmyra, site of ancient Aramean, Arabic, and Roman ruins).

The air base at T-4 is used by not only the Syrian Air Force, but by Russian forces in Syria, and elements of the IRGC. Having been there a few times, I can vouch for the description as being "in the middle of nowhere."



Note: Given the political situation following the 1948 creation of Israel, and later political turmoil in both Syria and Lebanon, the Iraqis constructed an alternate pipeline from al-Hadithah to Faysh Khabur on the Turkish border, then west to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. It is still in use today.







January 5, 2020

Fallout from the killing of Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani

Iran-backed militia members outside US Embassy in Baghdad
Note red boxes contain names of Kata'ib al-Imam 'Ali (left) and Kata'ib Hizballah (right)

These are my responses to an interview request from Eurasia Diary. I will post a link to the actual article once it is published.


Q. Colonel Francona, attacks organized by radical Shi’a groups on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad protesting U.S. airstrikes against Iran-backed militia Kata’ib Hizballah on the last day of 2019. As a result, the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered the deployment of additional troops to the region. An American drone strike killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Do you think that such actions could ignite a war between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, in Iraq, or elsewhere in the region?

A. I have no doubt there will be reactions, both by Iraqi Shi’a groups/militias, and possibly even the Iranians directly. While in the past, we have seen the Iranians conducting their operations in the region via their Iraqi, Lebanese, even Afghan and Pakistani proxies, the U.S. killing of Qasem Soleimani may cause a direct Iranian response on an American target. I suspect it will be against an American target in the region, possibly the Persian Gulf.

A quick word on the killing of Soleimani. There has been speculation in some media that the intelligence used to support the decision to kill Soleimani and Kata’ib Hizballah leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was not as definitive as portrayed by U.S. Administration officials.

My response is that there has been sufficient cause for years to eliminate Soleimani. It was Soleimani who was behind proxy Iraqi Shi’a militias which caused the death of over 600 American troops, and the wounding of hundreds more. That alone, to me, is enough reason to kill him. Killing al-Muhandis? A bonus.

It appears that Iran’s initial response, other than the almost elevation of Soleimani to sainthood in the Shi’a- controlled media in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, has been a non-binding resolution in the Iraqi majlis an-nuwab (Council of Representatives, or Parliament) to expel “foreign” forces from the country.

Note that this was what we in the United States would call a “party line” vote – the Shi’a representatives, to no one’s surprise, overwhelming followed Tehran’s urging to demand the removal of coalition – but aimed at the United States – forces from the country. I suspect this was for domestic consumption and an attempt by Shi’a lawmakers to appease their masters in Tehran.

The Iraqi majlis should be careful what they wish for. There is little support in the United States for continued American presence in Iraq. Most Americans understand the need to continue the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but are weary of the actions of the Iranians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, etc.

I have even heard what I believe is a short-sighted claim that since we (the United States) no longer are dependent on any foreign oil or gas, we should not be putting our troops at risk in the Middle East.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the calls for the removal of American and coalition forces becomes actual legislation in Iraq – I don’t think it will but let’s examine that possibility. Are the Iraqis – even with their Iranian masters’ support – capable of defeating the remaining ISIS presence in the country? A look at Iraqi operations would tell you it’s not likely. The Iraqis still rely heavily on U.S. intelligence and airstrikes to take the fight to ISIS.

In the unlikely event there is actual legislation to expel U.S. forces, it will be 2011 all over again.


Q. About 2011, you have repeatedly said that it was major mistake for the U.S. to leave Iraq in 2011, in essence leaving it to Iran. Do you still believe this?

A. I do. I had to laugh when I read the comments of one of the Shi’a legislators today – it may have even been the prime minister, who is essentially an Iranian puppet. He said (and this is my interpretation of his remarks in Arabic) that there were no foreign forces in Iraq from 2011 to 2014, and that they did just fine.

Seriously? Let’s remember what actually happened. With no residual U.S. troops in the country (thanks to the decision of President Obama to not push for a new Status of Forces Agreement), the Shi’a proved themselves incapable of resisting the bribery, graft, and corruption that effectively hollowed out the Iraqi Army, a once-proud army that collapsed in the face of an inferior ISIS force.

Are the Iranians going to be able to replicate the capabilities of the anti-ISIS coalition? I doubt it – the Iranians are not in Iraq for the Iraqis, they are in it for the Iranians. As the self-appointed guardians and leaders of all things Shi’a, the Iranians believe they are destined to be the key power broker in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and as much of Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Azerbaijan as they can.


Q. After the killing of Soleimani, what are the next steps likely to be taken by Washington in Iraq?

A. Good question. I hope that after the initial anger wears off, cooler heads will prevail and the two sides can continue to work towards the elimination of ISIS, and the eventual development of Iraq as secular republic.

Do I think those things will happen? Yes and no. On one hand, the Iraqis will realize that to defeat ISIS completely, they need U.S. support.

On the other hand, the killing of Soleimani was a serious and visceral blow to the pro-Iranian groups – the Shi’a proxies if you will – which rely on Tehran for leadership and funding, by what they believe is “the Great Satan” in Iranian parlance. They regard this as just the latest attack on the Islamic Republic by the United States.

We’ve been tap-dancing around a major confrontation between the United States and Iran since 1979. This event may bring the animosity between the two governments to a head. If there is a lethal Iranian attack on an American facility, I think we have to assume that there will be an American response – I believe there will have to be. Anyone who is watching the region cannot help but notice the buildup of American military capabilities. The Iranians should be very circumspect in their next moves.

One last comment – unless something changes in Iraq, it will continue to be a failed state. The government and its institutions do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people. I think the Iraqi people are beginning to realize that they are in effect a vassal state of Iran. The recent spate of protests against Iranian influence indicate that awakening.