June 26, 2020

Movie Review: Wasp Network (Netflix - 2019)


Penelope Cruz and the movie poster

The Wasp Network (known in Spanish as La Red Avispa), released by Netflix in the United States last week, depicts a fairly successful Cuban intelligence operation conducted in the Miami area in the 1990s. The effort was focused on collecting intelligence on Cuban exile groups who were planning and conducting operations against the Castro regime. 


Many of us remember the 1996 shoot down of two Cessna 337 Skymaster aircraft belonging to an exile group named the Brothers to the Rescue (Hermanos al Rescate). The group conducted surveillance flights over the waters between Cuba and Florida, providing humanitarian assistance to people fleeing Cuba by sea. Cuba claims that the aircraft at times violated Cuban airspace (with some validity) to drop anti-Castro leaflets over cities on the island. 


The Cuban Air Force was directed to intercept and shoot down the group’s aircraft if they violated Cuban airspace again. The Castro-approved mission was codenamed Operation Scorpion. The intelligence needed to execute the operation – dates, times, and locations of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft – was to be provided by the Wasp Network. 


It was. On February 24, 1996, a Cuban Air Force MiG-29 (NATO: Fulcrum) successfully intercepted and shot down two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft in international airspace. Despite Cuban claims to the contrary, it was later proven that the aircraft were truly in international airspace. If you are familiar with Soviet/Russian aircraft, you will note that the jets used in the movie were in fact MiG-21 (NATO: Fishbed) fighters – one unarmed. Okay, it’s a movie – we get the idea: jet fighter shoots down unarmed civilian planes. 


Over the years of its existence, the network provided a steady stream of intelligence to Cuban intelligence. They continued to operate until the network was rolled up (that’s the vernacular in the intelligence business) in 1998. 


I will not reveal any more about the movie so as not to spoil it. However, I will offer some comments on the production itself. 


It is very well acted – the cast includes known and talented actors. I like the performances of Édgar Ramírez as René González, Gael García Bernal as Gerardo Hernández/Manuel Viramontez, and of course, Penélope Cruz as René’s wife Olga (and for just being Penélope Cruz). 


This is the story of an intelligence operation, yet there was virtually no tradecraft presented. We caught only glimpses of the training of Gerardo Hernández and his mastery of his legend. The reference to shortwave radio communications between Hernández and his superiors in Havana could have been explored. 


The covert communications system, using numbers stations, is fascinating. Read more about numbers stations – read the link to the Cuban Five – they were part of this network. Note the entry of a transmission from Havana to Hernández that “under no circumstances” were network members to fly on Brothers to the Rescue aircraft on February 24 (day of the shoot down). 


The Cubans have been running intelligence operations in the United States for decades – this is their primary method of communications. (We used to use it as well – virtually all intelligence services did. Why? It works.) 


So how did the group get caught – the 10 remaining in the United States? At least one other member had already re-“defected” back to Cuba and admitted his role in the operation. Another had been arrested for an ill-advised bombing campaign against several hotels in Havana – he remains in a Cuban prison. It was Cuba’s reaction to this bombing operation that led to the exposure of the Wasp Network. 


The Cuban government provided hundreds of pages of evidence about the bombings and the bombers, hoping that the FBI would use the materials to arrest the perpetrators. Much to my satisfaction, they instead used to the materials to determine how the Cubans had obtained the evidence, their sources and methods – which turned out to be the Wasp Network. Good work – that would have been a nice addition to the movie. 


There is so much that happened during the existence of the Wasp Network. It could have made a six hour miniseries. In this format, too much is missing. 


I would recommend it for those interested in intelligence operations, Cuban exile groups, or simply to enjoy the excellent performances of Édgar Ramírez, Gael García Bernal, and of course, Penélope Cruz. Otherwise, it can be a bit tedious and convoluted. 


Watch the trailer (YouTube) here.  Watch the movie (Netflix) here



June 18, 2020

Movie Review: The Siege of Jadotville (Netflix - 2016)





The Siege of Jadotville is a true story of an Irish Army company's combat action in the Congo in 1961. The film is based on Declan Power's book, The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army's Forgotten Battle.


The film begins with the assassination of Congo's Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and the outbreak of civil war. The mineral-rich state of Katanga then mounted a succession effort, raising tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union - both coveted the minerals in the state, including uranium needed for nuclear weapons. United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld sent an Irish diplomat to the Congo to attempt to mediate and de-scalate the situation. A year earlier, the UN had established a peacekeeping force - United Nations Operation in the Congo (Opération des Nations Unies au Congo, or ONUC).


Part of the the ONUC force was the 35th Battalion of the Irish Army. The film is focused on a battle between A Company and Katangese Gendarmerie troops loyal to the self-proclaimed Katangese prime minister Moïse Tshombe - Tshombe's troops were led and supported by foreign mercenaries (mostly former French Foreign Legionnaires, at the behest of our favorite French leader, Charles De Gaulle).


The lightly armed 150 Irish soldiers, commanded by Commandant (US major equivalent) Patrick Quinlan, under siege in the town of Jadotville, held off the Katangese assaults for five days as a relief force of Irish, Indian and Swedish troops unsuccessfully tried to reach the Irish company.


The outnumbered Irish company was eventually forced to surrender after ammunition and supplies were exhausted, but not before inflicting heavy casualties on the Katangese troops and their mercenaries. The Irish troops suffered wounds, but none died in the fighting. They were released after a month in a prisoner exchange and returned to Ireland.


The movie addresses quite well the incidents in other parts of the Congo that led to the assault on the Irish troops. It highlights the ineptitude of the UN diplomatic effort and a failure to understand the consequences of deploying "peacekeepers" when there is no peace to keep. What they needed was an intervention force.


The tactical efforts by the Irish, led by Quinlan and Company Sergeant Jack Prendergast, in the defense of their outpost is fascinating to watch - it allowed a force of 150 soldiers to hold off over 3,000 opposing troops. No Irish troops were killed in the fighting, yet they were able to kill over 300 and wound over 1,000 of the enemy.


Recommendation: for most viewers, a good story. For military viewers, an education in leadership and small-unit tactics.


Watch it on Netflix: https://www.netflix.com/watch/80041653





May 9, 2020

"Iran is the main obstacle" - my interview in Eurasia Diary


I was interviewed by Eurasia Diary's Ulvi Ahmedli on U.S.-Iraq relations. (Read it on their website.)

'Iran is main obstacle' - American military analyst explains US-Iraq relations

2020 started with the reigniting of conflicts in the Middle East and followed global pandemics. The Middle East became burning pot again by the murdering of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. Following the death of prominent Iranian General operating in the region, COVID-19 pandemics gave opportune situation for the reactivation of ISIS and attacks of militants against US bases.

Lt. Gen. Pat White, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve said that ISIS claimed 152 attacks in 2019 and there were 151 claimed attacks in 2020 and according to CNN this year attacks occurred in recent weeks. These occasions left Iraq’s security fragile and urge strategic relations with neighbors and the US. The State Department of the United States offered strategic dialogue with the Iraqi government. The new government of Iraq under Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seems positive on the relations with the US. Mike Pompeo was among the first politicians who send congratulations to him.

On the analyzing of the tight situation in Iraq and the relations with the US, EDNews.net took the interview with retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona who was involved in several missions in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

- The US and Iraq have common security interests in the fight against ISIS. Why can’t these two states defeat such a terrorist organization? What are the main obstacles?

- Great question. The problem is multifaceted. ISIS is enjoying a resurgence in the Sunni areas of the county, taking advantage of the world’s focus on COVID-19, while the Iranian-backed PMU militias (hashd) are more intent on attacking American forces in the country at the behest of their masters in Tehran than actually fighting ISIS.

The fight against ISIS is further exacerbated by the volatile internal political situation in Iraq as the Iraqis struggle to find a government that is acceptable to all parties. Iranian influencers have permeated virtually every state institution. The result is a government that is (correctly) viewed by the Sunnis an Iranian-controlled Shi’a cabal that does not represent their interests. It is no wonder that ISIS is finding willing supporters.

So, if the fight against ISIS is not going to involve regular Iraqi military units and the counterterrorism forces, but rely on the PMU militias, they will have no access to U.S. intelligence, and more importantly, U.S./Coalition air support. Without it, they PMU will continue to lose fighters to ISIS.

As long as the Iraqi government is controlled by the Iranians, it is doubtful real progress will be made in the effort to eliminate ISIS once and for all. The main obstacle is Iran.

- The US seems to have failed in institution-building, enhancing the government in Iraq, which also affects insecurity in the region. What are your views about this? Why it is hard to build a sustainable government in Iraq?

- True enough – America has failed at its attempts at “nation-building” in Iraq. Why? Detractors often cite the successful Marshall Plan following World War II in which America helped rebuild Europe, but have failed to do so in the Middle East.

I argue that this is not a valid comparison. Rebuilding Europe was about restoring democracies that had existed prior to the Nazis, while the effort in Iraq was about creating a democracy and functioning state institutions in an area where they had never truly existed.

I am not sure there will ever be a sustainable government in Iraq until all of the people, all of the religious and ethnic groups, have actual input to the composition and functioning of that government.

As long as the Iranians continue to push their Shi’a agenda and virtually control the government in Baghdad, there will not be a participatory government. The Sunnis and non-Arab ethnic groups will continue to feel marginalized.

- What kind of Iraq does the US want in the Middle East?

- I hate to keep focusing on the Iranian regime, but it is the main obstacle to most of the problems in Iraq. The United States wants a united Iraq with a government that represents and serves all of its citizens with no outside interference. Ideally, it would become a partner in regional security initiatives, which, in the American lexicon, is to counter Iranian malign behavior in the region.

I don’t see it any time soon.

- Currently, what are US interests in Iraq? Because the Trump Administration is going to withdraw troops from the country, could we understand this move as the reduction of US interests in Iraq?

- The reason the United States has had its forces in Iraq since 2014 is to continue the fight against ISIS. As the threat of ISIS diminished, the need for American forces decreased.

Of course, the resurgence of ISIS following the loss of its territory and the inability of the Iraqi security forces to defeat the organization has required a continued American presence. Despite the efforts of the PMUs – which seem to have been given the mission by the Iraqi government – ISIS has not only survived but has become an even greater threat. As long as the Iranians are more focused on the American presence than defeating ISIS, the situation will not improve.

- The unilateral approach of Iran to the region is also another problem for US interests. Do you believe in that the US and Iran could reach a common agreement on the security of the region? Which situation is needed for forming this agreement?

- No, I don’t, and I hope the Trump Administration does not believe that any accommodation with the Islamic Republic can work. Just look at the disastrous JCPOA “nuclear deal” – the regime cannot be trusted.

If the Iranians want an end to the tensions in the Gulf, all they have to do is stop causing them.




April 25, 2020

Miniseries Review: "Fauda - Season 3" (Netflix 2020)


Finally, Season 3 of Fauda is available on Netflix. The series tells the stories of an Israel Defense Forces Mista'arvim (undercover counter-terrorism units) team as they pursue Hamas terrorists. See my review of seasons 1 and 2.

This season, the area of operations shifts to the south. Seasons 1 and 2 occurred in the Palestinian Authority area on the West Bank around Nablus (Shechem), north of Jerusalem (al-Quds). In Season 3, the action begins in the southern portion of the West Bank to the Hebron (al-Khalil) area. By episode 6, the operation moves to the Gaza Strip. I have not been to the Gaza Strip in a long time - it was pretty bad then, and if this is an accurate depiction, it appears to have gotten worse. It is a Hamas* terrorist breeding ground.

Normally, I would advise viewers to watch Seasons 1 and 2 first, but since this story is in a different venue, the terrorist targets do not seem to be related, and there are only limited references to things from the previous seasons, so you could just watch this season.

One of my concerns with many of these shows is the lack of maps. Yes, I know these are fictional stories, but when we are talking about Israel and the Palestinians, be it the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, geography – locations, distances, and terrain – become very important.

I have taken the liberty of creating a map of the operations area. I have labeled the major places - those with red dots are either locations in which there is action in the series, or is mentioned in the series. Click for a larger view.



Note: I have tried not to provide spoilers to the story line, but only make comments on things that you might find interesting as you watch.

The initial action takes place in the city of Dhahiriya ( الظاهرية‎ – the correct transliteration using the U.S government approved system would be al-Zahiryah). Dhahiriya is located in the Hebron Governorate, 14.3 miles southwest of the city of Hebron (الخليل – al-Khalil in Arabic) in the southern West Bank, with a population of almost 40,000.

The story addresses Palestinian tunnels that allow surreptitious passage from inside the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip under the border and into Israel proper, into an area the Israelis call “the Gaza Envelope.” This refers to the populated areas of Israel within seven kilometers of the Gaza Strip, in other words, areas that are in range of mortars and Qassam rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from inside the Gaza Strip.

The tunnels have been in the news lately as the Israelis try to find and destroy them, as they pose a significant threat. These well-engineered tunnels can reach over a mile into Israel, allowing terrorists to launch attacks behind Israeli military posts. It is a real concern to Israeli security officials.

The tunnel in the story reaches just into Israel near the city of Sderot, located just opposite the northeast corner of the Gaza Strip. Sderot is also known as "rocket city" because of the huge number of al-Qassam rocket attacks fired by Hamas's military wing - the 'Izz-al-Din Qassam Brigades - or Islamic Jihad. I visited Sderot after the Israeli-Hamas conflict of 2008-2009 - read my article on Sderot.

Once the tunnel depicted in the story is utilized in the reverse direction, Sderot to Jabaliya, the operation shifts to Gaza.

Some things about the names of the characters in the story. You will hear actual first names, and you will hear people referred to as "Abu xxxx" (father of xxxx) and "Um xxxx" (mother of xxxx). These are what linguists call a teknonym, or in Arabic, a kunyah. A teknonym is the nickname of an adult derived from the name of his/her eldest child. For example, my son's name is Michael, I would be known to my friends as "Abu Mishal."

There is a variation of the kunyah used by Islamist fighters - they normally take a descriptive word, like "war" (harb) and add a last name of their origin - Abu Harb al-Tunisi would be "Father of War, the Tunisian."

So, to uncomplicate matters, here is a scorecard of the major players in Season 3.

Jihad Hamdan - Abu Bashar - recently released Hamas official, jailed for 20 years
Bashar Hamdan is a championship boxer

Nassar Hamdan - Abu Fawzi - Jihad's brother, father of Hamas fighter Fawzi Hamdan

Hani al-Jabari - Abu Muhammad - senior Hamas military commander

For my Arabic linguist colleagues:

One of the pleasures of watching this series is the ability to listen to the Arabic dialogue. Remember, when you hear English (dubbed), the characters are speaking Hebrew.

The subtitles are, overall, excellent – as you would expect. That said, I wish the interpretation was a closer to a translation of the actual Arabic text. The interpreters have taken a lot of literary license in the choice of the words. It really is a minor issue, but for someone who understands the Arabic, it can be a little disappointing.

As for the dialect, it has not changed – they are still speaking the West Bank version of Levantine, which linguistics specialists tell me is called Southern Levantine Arabic. To me, who has listened to hundreds of thousands of hours of various dialects, it differs slightly from what I am most familiar with - the Northern Levantine Arabic spoken in Syria and Lebanon.

My non-technical, non-linguistic explanation – this South Levantine dialect is spoken mainly in the Palestinian areas of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, as well as a small part of Jordan.

To me, it sounds like a mixture of Syrian and Egyptian, but definitely more Syrian. What is obvious it the influence of the Egyptian syntax and the use of the appended Arabic letter shin (ش) to indicate a negative, usually without the preceding negative ma or la. It leads to some humorous sounds, especially when a negative precedes shi, the colloquial word for thing or something. My favorite: "My wife does not know anything." Marti t’arufshi shi.

As the operation shifts to Gaza, we hear more Egyptian influence. The Levantine hawn (here) becomes hina, and ma’ (water) becomes maya – things like that.

Okay, that’s probably too far down in the weeds for most readers....

Overall assessment - a tight, well-told story, focused on one major case. I couldn't stop watching, so plan enough time to binge it in one sitting. Watch it here.

Good news – Fauda co-creator Avi Issacharoff announced that the cast and crew was “working right now” on developing Season 4 of the show.

____________
* Hamas is an acronym of the Arabic phrase حركة المقاومة الاسلامية (al-harakat al-muqawamat al-islamiyah), meaning "Islamic Resistance Movement." The Arabic word 'hamas' (حماس) means enthusiasm or impassioned, although the Hamas charter interprets it to mean strength and bravery. The US State Department designated Hamas a foreign terrorist organization in 1997.




April 22, 2020

Syria resumes sanctioned flights from Iran that US says are carrying weapons


Note: I provided much of the information in this article by journalist Albin Szakola for The National, a leading English-language news service based in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Syria resumes sanctioned flights from Iran that US says are carrying weapons

- Damascus-owned cargo jet fleet paused operations because of Covid-19

Albin Szakola - April 21, 2020

A Syrian-government operated cargo jet fleet that the United States says is carrying weapons from Iran has resumed deliveries after a pause caused by the outbreak of Covid-19.

On Monday afternoon Ilyushin IL-76 jet, registered as YK-ATA, flew to Latakia from Tehran Mehrabad International Airport, which is used by Iran's air force, aviation data portal FlightRadar24 said.

The flight was the first in more than a month from Iran by a fleet of cargo jets ostensibly operated by Syria Airlines, the country's civilian flag carrier, the website said.

On March 12, another Ilyushin IL-76 jet, registered as YK-ATB, flew from Tehran to Damascus, the day after YK-ATA flew the same route. Damascus International Airport announced it was not accepting international commercial traffic 10 days later.

Hours after YK-ATA touched down in Latakia, Syria's Transport Ministry said Syrian Airlines was resuming international cargo flights into and out of the country. The U.S. sanctioned Syrian Airlines and its fleet of cargo planes in 2013 for allegedly ferrying cargo on behalf of the Iran's elite Qods Force, the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Hizballah helped to organize the flights, which were taking mortars, small arms, rockets and light anti-aircraft guns to Syria at the time, the U.S. Department of Treasury said.

Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer (and former air attache at the American Embassy in Damascus) who closely follows Iranian flights to Syria, said the jets "belong to the Syrian Air Force 585th Transport Squadron of the 29th Air Brigade."

"The Syrians try to maintain the fiction that all of the 29th Brigade's aircraft are civilian airliners," Colonel Francona said.

The jets are mainly used in an air bridge to al-Qamishly, where the Syrian government has an enclave in the largely Kurdish controlled north-east of the country, he said. They also take military equipment into Syria to support IRGC operations, Colonel Francona said.

He believed the YK-ATA flight on Monday "was a resumption of the past IRGC resupply flights."

Unlike Monday's flight to Latakia International Airport, which shares its facilities with Russia's Humaymim military airbase, past flights by Syria's cargo fleet have normally landed in Damascus.

"It will be interesting to see if Latakia/Humaymim becomes the newest stopover point for the flights," Colonel Francona said.

He said the base was safe from Israeli air strikes.

Israel has carried out strikes on Syrian airports, including Damascus International Airport, in recent years.

State media reported that Syrian air defenses intercepted an Israeli attack near the eastern Homs province city of Palmyra on Monday evening and shot down "hostile targets."

On March 31, Syria said it had intercepted an Israeli strike in the country's central Homs province, state news agency Sana reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain said Israel attacked Al Sha'yrat airbase after a cargo plane flew out.

Monday's flight from Iran comes soon after a similar flight by an Iranian cargo plane. An Ilyushin IL-76 Pouya Air jet flew into Latakia on Saturday afternoon, FlightRadar24 data showed. The US sanctioned Pouya Air in 2014 for working on behalf of the Qods Force to take illicit cargo, including weapons, to Syria.

Iranian Foreign minister Javad Zarif this week visited Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

(Updated: April 22, 2020 2:02am)

Read the original article on The National website.



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.