April 26, 2006

The Az-Zarqawi and Bin Ladin Tapes

Recently we were treated to almost simultaneous releases of videotapes from two of the world's most wanted men - Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi and Usamah Bin Ladin.

Bin Ladin's tape was strange - no mention of Iraq or Az-Zarqawi. I would guess that he is a bit perturbed at being upstaged by someone who is actually appearing to fight the Americans while he himself is holed up in a cave and can't get much accomplished. That's how I would define "containment."

Then Az-Zarqawi sends out a videotape in which he appears - a
first for him. In addition to the verbal declaration of allegiance to Usamah, there are three things that are symbolic in the frame above - and these guys are big on symbolism:

  • He is seen with an AKSU-74, the exact same weapon Bin Ladin is seen with in his videos. The new "preferred weapon of your enemies?
  • The new logo and title Shura Al-Mujahdin - the Mujahidin Council. This is the new name of the umbrella insurgent organization in Iraq that was announced about three weeks ago. I can't make out the script on the flag - maybe someone with a better monitor can. See also my earlier piece: Az-Zarqawi Demoted by Al-Qa'idah?
  • He is wearing a black headdress - to the Shi'a this would be insulting, especially to Muqtada As-Sadr. The black headgear is reserved for direct descendants of the Prophet. As-Sadr is; Az-Zarqawi is not.

I had to laugh at Colonel Dave Hunt's remarks - Dave is a fellow military analyst but at Fox News. He referred to As-Sadr as "that little fat guy who should be dead." I agree - I have no idea why this guy ever saw New Years Day 2004.

Syria: Has Assad Dodged a Bullet?

Esther Pan of the Council on Foreign Relations writes often about Syria, and sometimes interviews me because of my tour as the air attache there. Here is here latest piece (in which I am quoted), published April 26.

Syria: Has Assad Dodged a Bullet?
Esther Pan, Staff Writer
April 26, 2006


Last fall, the weight of international pressure fell hard on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. A subsequent UN investigation into the assassination implicated senior intelligence figures of Assad's regime, and sanctions seemed about to be imposed on an uncooperative Damascus. But now, with the United States mired in Iraq and the international community preoccupied with Iran's nuclear threat, Assad appears to have escaped the heat, and is acting tough and consolidating his power.

What is the current political situation in Damascus?

Assad's government is cracking down on dissent, jailing activists, stifling critics, and forbidding opposition figures to travel to international conferences or meet exiles overseas. "The government's in the middle of a fairly intense crackdown," says Mona Yacoubian, a Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace. She says it's unclear if the repression is a result of Assad's regime feeling threatened, or conversely, emboldened to act because the international pressure is off his government. Rick Francona, a former U.S. military attaché in Damascus and Middle East military analyst for NBC News, says the attention of world powers is focused elsewhere. "The Iran threat has made life easier for the Syrians and given Bashar the freedom to crack down," Francona says.

What explains the reduction of pressure on Syria?

In the fall of 2005, Assad's regime seemed threatened after it was linked to the assassination of Hariri the previous February in Beirut. Pressure from France, the United States, and other nations forced Syria to withdraw its occupying troops from Lebanon in April 2005 after nearly thirty years. A UN investigation implicated high-level Syrian officials in the Hariri assassination, and the UN Security Council threatened sanctions. "In December [2005], Assad was on the ropes," Francona says. "It wasn't a question of when he would be deposed, but who would depose him."

But then international events intruded. "The whole policy approach the Syrian regime took in the wake of the Hariri assassination was to play for time," says Edward Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel. He says Damascus' strategy worked: Iraq continued to disintegrate into violent chaos, and Iran escalated its rhetoric and defiance over its nuclear program. Both situations pushed Syria down the list of international priorities. "The Syrian government made a fairly astute calculation that with Iran on top of the international agenda and the United States mired in Iraq, the chances of coordinated international action against Syria are quite small," Yacoubian says. "Bashar should send [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad a thank-you note," Francona says. However, "although the decline in pressure is quite obvious, the situation in Syria remains quite uneasy," says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

How stable is Bashar al-Assad’s regime?

It appeared shaky through much of 2005, but has since stabilized, experts say. "The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could have constituted a serious blow to the regime's hold on power," Yacoubian says. But, Murphy says, "The sky didn't fall in. It was a public humiliation, but they've managed to maintain their position in Lebanon [and avoid] any uproar in Syria." Syria maintains intelligence operatives in Lebanon and continues to be a prime backer of Hezbollah activities there. Assad was able to step back from the threats to his regime and, at the Baath Party Congress in June 2005, he consolidated his power by moving allies into critical positions and demoting those considered threats—including Abdel Halim Khaddam, a former vice president who was driven into foreign exile.

Experts say the country's citizens, seeing the crisis of Iraq next door, would rather have Assad's authoritarianism than the upheaval of regime change. "At least this is the dictator you know," Francona says. "Whether you like the regime or not, at least there's some semblance of stability." And while Syrians may oppose Assad, few are willing to speak out. "The Syrian public is cowed into submission," Yacoubian says.

How strong is the internal opposition?

Human rights groups and non-governmental organizations exist, but they have little influence. "The opposition groups are weak and poorly organized," Djerejian says. "There's no imminent threat from any group that would come in and take power. In addition, "the Syrian security forces are very effective," Francona says. "They ferret these guys out, hunt them down ruthlessly, and kill them."

Another opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is outlawed. The group was decimated by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, at a massacre in Hama in 1982. The Muslim Brotherhood had tried to assassinate Hafez al-Assad, but since Hama, its remaining members have scattered and have not threatened the regime again. And the Syrian security forces keep it that way. "Syrian intelligence is clear that their job is to maintain security and eliminate threats to the regime or the national interest," Francona says. "In Syria, it's understood that there are Damascus rules, and if things got really bad, there are Hama rules."

How strong is the external opposition?

Former Vice President Khaddam, fired from his post in June last year, now leads a dissident movement from Europe. Khaddam, a longtime foreign minister of Syria, was considered an important rival to Assad before being forced out. "Since the death of Ghazi Kenaan [a former Syrian official who was found dead of an alleged suicide in October 2005] Khaddam probably has a unique stature with the senior ranks of Bashar's critics," Murphy says. In December, Khaddam told the al-Arabiya television station that Assad's government threatened Hariri before his death.

Experts say Khaddam has linked up with Muslim Brotherhood members—also in exile in France—to form a new party and a government-in-exile. They are demanding regime change, but experts say their influence is weak. "Many Syrians think Khaddam is as corrupt, and has as much blood on his hands, as anyone still in power," Yacoubian says. "Khaddam is so identified with Syria's Lebanon policies that he's not credible as an opposition figure," Djerejian says. And Francona says Khaddam is too far removed from the country to be effective. "The external opposition movements have limited impact," he says. "We learned that from Iraq."

Is there a threat of a military coup?

The Alawite generals who run the military and security services were worried at the end of last year about Assad's leadership, but they feel a bit more secure now, experts say. Syria still exerts significant control in the region through its support for the armed militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, insurgents in Iraq, and Hamas in the Palestinian Authority. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal lives in Damascus. Experts say a military coup is unlikely at present. "They figure this is not the time to move against Bashar," Francona says. A coup would be more likely if the military elite feared Syria was coming apart, he says.

What effect has the UN investigation had?

Bashar and Vice President Farouk al-Shara, who was Syria's foreign minister during the Hariri assassination, met with UN investigator Serge Brammertz in Damascus April 25. Details from the meeting have not yet been released. Bashar had refused to meet Brammertz' predecessor, Detlev Mehlis. The first UN report by Mehlis, investigating Hariri's death, was released October 19, 2005, and accused the Syrian and Lebanese security services of cooperation, if not outright complicity, in Hariri's murder. It also implicated several senior members of Assad's regime, and was "nothing short of a bombshell," Yacoubian says.

The Mehlis report led to intense political pressure on Assad and the possibility of sanctions against Damascus. A second report from Mehlis, released in December, accused the Syrian administration of obstructing justice, tampering with or intimidating witnesses, and otherwise interfering with the investigation. The UN investigation is "the big black cloud hovering over Damascus that makes any movement forward very difficult," Djerejian says. A final report is due in June, although an extension is possible.

After that, "it all depends on the contents of the report," Djerejian says. "If there's incriminating evidence against Bashar's inner circle, it will be very difficult for the president." If that happens, sanctions are possible, but growing less likely as the immediacy and momentum behind punitive action against Syria have waned.

How much impact does Syrian intelligence have in Lebanon?

Syrian influence remains strong in Lebanon, experts say. "Because the army's gone, we shouldn't assume that Lebanon is free to act as a sovereign state," Murphy says. Many politicians, including Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, are openly pro-Syrian. Syrian intelligence agents are still influential throughout the country, and Syria still arms and supports Hezbollah, regional experts say. "You're not going to see Syria give up on Lebanon," says Francona. Syrians still refer to their smaller neighbor as "the province." Their influence persists in part because Lebanese leaders are struggling to set up a democracy amid deep sectarian divisions. "The imperatives of confessional democracy [where certain government posts are reserved for certain religions] are very complicated and difficult to deal with," Yacoubian says.

Hamas Operation in Jordan - Why?

Almost a week ago, Jordanian internal security forces arrested several Hamas militants in northern Jordan - most likely in Irbid, a common venue for Palestinian activity and home to a large number of Palestinian refugees. The Hamas group had weapons that included British-Swedish anti-tank weapons. The Jordanians claim the weapons were to be used against Jordanian targets.

I think everyone knows that Iran routinely supplies money, weapons and training (the three things required to maintain an insurgency) to Hizballah, as well as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but not too many realize that Hamas has been on the recipient list for Iranian largesse since at least 1992. The funding is estimated to be as much as $30 million per year. Despite the fact that the PIJ and Hamas are Sunni fundamentalist groups, the Iranian Shi'a leaders' hatred of Israel transcends any reluctance to support the Palestinian Sunni groups.

Although one route to get the weapons from the delivery point at Damascus International Airport to the Hamas and PIJ is via smugglers' trails through Jordan, the question we should be asking is why Hamas would be planning operations in Jordan. They would be foolish to take on the very capable Jordanian security services. If you believe the Jordanians, and they have an effective intelligence service against the Palestinian target, you have to look north to Syria. Syria? Why would Bashar Al-Asad be stirring up trouble to the south? He has enough to keep himself busy with the United Nations investigation into Syrian complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

If you look at Syria's borders, you have Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Lebanon to the west, Israel to the southwest, and Jordan to the south. Of all of these, Jordan is the one that is relatively calm - why stir up trouble there?

As for Hamas, aren't they a bit busy now trying to convince the world they can run the Palestinian Authority, convincing people to give them money rather than starting trouble in Jordan? Or is this just a Hamas money-making effort on behalf of sponsors in Syria and/or Iran?

It doesn't make sense to me.

April 22, 2006

Iraq's New Prime Minister - Right Man for the Job?

(AP Photo)
Nuri Jawad Al-Maliki Current Iraq prime minister Ibrahim Al-Ja'fari has withdrawn his name for re-election at the express request of Grand Ayatollah 'Ali As-Saystani, spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'a majority.

The majority party has put forth the name of Nuri Kamal "Abu Isr'ah" Al-Maliki as his replacement. President Jalal Talabani has asked him to form a new government. Is Al-Maliki the right man for the job? Does he have the ability to address Iraq's critical problems and at the same time be acceptable to the diverse ethnic and religious groups that make up the country?

Nuri Al-Maliki is the deputy leader of Iraq's oldest Shi'a Islamic party, Hizb Ad-Dawa' (The Call Party) - note that the leader of the party is incumbent prime minister Al-Ja'fari. Unlike Al-Ja'fari, however, Al-Maliki has the reputation as a tough, committed leader who may have the makeup needed to address Iraq's biggest problem - security.

Al-Maliki fled to Iran in 1979 and after being sentenced to death for his activity in the Dawa' party. He took up residence in Syria in 1990. He claims to have orchestrated Dawa' guerrilla operations inside Iraq while living in Syria - these claims may or not be true. He returned to Iraq following the fall of the Saddam Husayn regime in 2003. He was involved in the drafting of the constitution and has taken a hardline position against the Sunni insurgency, calling for the beheading of captured insurgents. Surprisingly, his nomination has been accepted by the Sunnis as well as the Kurds.

The Americans do not favor his desire to integrate the militias into the army, but will likely go along with his efforts to crack down on the insurgency. This was Al-Ja'fari's largest failure - not being tough enough on going after the Sunni insurgents.

It's crunch time for the new Iraqi government. They need to aggressively confront the insurgency - that's polite-speak for hunting them down and killing them. Perhaps Al-Maliki is the right man at the right time. I hope so - we may be running out of time.

April 17, 2006

Saddam Trial - Session 21 (April 17)

The trial of Saddam Husayn resumed for an hour today. This was the 21st session of the trial that began in October. Today's' session focused on a report from the team of handwriting experts charged to determine the authenticity of signatures on documents implicating Saddam and his co-defendants in the execution of over 140 Shi'a Iraqis. The Iraqis were from the village of Dujayl, the scene of an assassination attempt against Saddam in 1982.

After the judge dismissed yet another request by Saddam's lead attorney Khalil Ad-Dulaymi for the judge to step down, the handwriting team chief was called to present his report. After listing which defendants either provided or refused to provide handwriting samples, the expert presented a lengthy explanation of which documents he used as exemplars to establish the authenticity of the signatures on the documents submitted as evidence.

Both Saddam Husayn and his half brother, former Iraqi Intelligence Service chief Barzan At-Tikriti, had refused to provide handwriting samples. Not surprisingly, they rejected the experts' claims that the signatures on the documents are authentic. They claim that the team of experts cannot provide a fair examination because they are part of the government (employees of the Ministry of the Interior) that is bringing the case against them. The defendants demanded that an international team (from anywhere but Iran) be called in to examine the documents.

Several of the defendants (including Barzan) complained that the prosecutor had announced to the media the results of the handwriting analysis prior to it being presented in court - the prosecutor denied having made those statements.

The prosecution asked the judge to appoint a team of five experts be called in to make further examination of the signatures. The judge agreed and adjourned the trial until April 19.

The trial should be nearing an end. After authentication of the signatures, most if not all of the evidence will have been presented and the tribunal can determine innocence or guilt.

April 15, 2006

NBC - Stolen military data for sale in Afghanistan

On April 13, NBC Nightly News aired a piece by Lisa Myers for which I provided analysis and comment.

Stolen military data for sale in Afghanistan
Portable computer drives peddled at bazaar outside Bagram Air Base

By Lisa Myers & the NBC News Investigative Unit
Updated: 7:31 p.m. ET April 13, 2006

WASHINGTON - Just outside the main gate of the huge U.S. military base in Bagram, Afghanistan, shopkeepers at a bazaar peddle a range of goods, including computer drives with sensitive — even secret information — stolen from the base.

This week, an NBC News producer, using a hidden camera, visited the bazaar and bought a half dozen of the memory drives the size of a thumb known as flash drives. On them, NBC News found highly sensitive military information, some which NBC will not reveal.

“This isn't just a loss of sensitive information,” says Lt. Col. Rick Francona (ret.), an NBC News military analyst. “This is putting U.S. troops at risk. This is a violation of operational security.”

  • Some of the data would be valuable to the enemy, including:
  • Names and personal information for dozens of DOD interrogators;
  • Documents on an “interrogation support cell” and interrogation methods;
  • IDs and photos of U.S. troops.

With information like this, “You could cripple our U.S. intelligence collection capability in Afghanistan,” says Francona.

Among the photos of Americans are pictures of individuals who appear to have been tortured and killed, most too graphic to show. NBC News does not know who caused their injuries. The Pentagon would not comment on the photos.

The tiny computer memories are believed to have been smuggled off base by Afghan employees and sold to shopkeepers. Whoever buys one can simply plug it into another computer, and in a couple of minutes, see thousands of files.

Other reporters have bought drives at the bazaar containing classified information, including names and photos of Afghans spying for the U.S. and maps revealing locations of radar used to foil mortar attacks.

“This is simply appalling,” says Col. Ken Allard (ret.), an NBC News military analyst. “You've got a situation in which the U.S. is going to be forced to change an awful lot of its operational techniques.”

Thursday, the base commander said he's ordered an investigation into activities at the bazaar and into procedures supposed to keep sensitive secrets secure.

Lisa Myers is NBC’s senior investigative correspondent.

Watch the video.

© 2006 MSNBC.com

April 5, 2006

The Ongoing Trials of Saddam Husayn

The 18th and 19th sessions of the first trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Husayn were held on April 4 and 5, 2006. During these sessions, additional charges were filed, indicating a second trial as soon as the current trial ends. Saddam is currently on trial for the murder of 140 Shi'a Iraqis in the village of Dujayl in 1982. (See my earlier: Saddam Husayn Trial: Getting Closer to Actual Evidence.)

In the latest two sessions, the chief prosecutor questioned Saddam on the documentary evidence presented last month implicating the leader in the trial and execution the residents of Dujayl involved in an assassination attempt in July 1982. Saddam and his legal team (including volatile Lebanese lawyer Bushra Khalil) challenged not only the legitimacy of the documents and previous eyewitness testimony but the legitimacy and authority of the court as well.

It appears that this trial is entering the final phase. Since there is no jury - guilt will be decided by the five-man tribunal headed by Judge Ru'uf 'Abd Ar-Rahman (a Kurd from Halabjah) - a verdict could come in short order. Saddam and his seven co-defendants face the death penalty.

As this case draws to a close, new charges have been filed for a second trial. These charges include a charge of genocide and cite Saddam's actions in the six-month "Anfal" campaign against the Kurds of northern Iraq in 1988. That campaign included the notorious chemical weapons attack on Halabjah in which 5,000 Kurds were killed, however, these charges do not include this incident - Halabjah will be the subject a specific charge against Saddam and at least another defendant, 'Ali Hasan Al-Majid (also known as "Chemical 'Ali").

The Anfal campaign took place during the last six months of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. It is likely that Saddam's defense team, or Saddam himself in one of his courtroom tirades, will raise American support for his regime in 1987 and 1988. Perhaps some background and perspective is in order.

I was one of two Defense Intelligence Agency officers involved in that support. While I was in Baghdad in March 1988, the Iraqis conducted the attack on Halabjah using air-delivered chemical weapons. A month later, they used chemical weapons in their re-taking of the Al-Faw peninsula which they had lost to the Iranians in 1986. I visited the battlefields soon after the fighting ended and was able to acquire physical evidence of Iraq's use of chemical weapons.

This irrefutable information from Al-Faw plus international outrage over the attacks on Halabjah caused the United States to reassess its relationship with Iraq. The debate in Washington was, "Do we continue our relations with the Iraqis and make sure the Iranians do not win this war, which was the goal of the operation all along - or do we let the Iraqis fight this on their own without any U.S. assistance, and they'll probably lose?" Neither option was very palatable. The decision was that it was more important that Iran not win the war - the relationship resumed.

Saddam's lawyers will no doubt attempt to raise this earlier U.S.-Iraqi cooperation.

Az-Zarqawi Demoted by Al-Qa'idah?

According to a story broadcast on April 2 by the Dubai-based Al-'Arabiyah television network, Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi has been reprimanded and demoted. Az-Zarqawi is the Jordanian-born leader of Al-Qa'idah in Iraq (tanzim al-qa'idah fi bilad ar-rafidayn) and was once touted by Al-Qa'idah leader Usamah Bin Ladin as the organization's key player in their war against the United States.

For some time now, Az-Zarqawi's operations in Iraq have been criticized by senior Al-Qa'idah officials. Specifically, he has been told to stop beheading hostages (including Muslims), stop operations in neighboring countries (especially his operations in Jordan) and to discontinue his efforts to foment a civil war between the Sunni and Shi'a factions in Iraq. Some of these admonitions were contained in a letter from Bin Ladin's deputy Ayman Az-Zawahiri. Despite the letter, Az-Zarqawi continued and even increased his attempts to cause sectarian violence in the country. It is widely believed that the bombing of the Al-'Askari Mosque (also known as the Golden Mosque or Al-Hadi Mosque) in Samarra' on February 22 was the work of Az-Zarqawi.

Since Az-Zarqawi is arguably the most effective insurgent operating against American, coalition and Iraq forces, the Al-Qa'idah leadership sought to develop a mechanism to retain Az-Zarqawi as a combatant while preventing image problems for the organization among the fundamentalist Islamic base. To this end, six groups in Iraq (including Az-Zarqawi's) formed the Mujahidin Shura (council). The council issued a statement that Az-Zarqawi will limit his role to military action, while political leadership will be exercised by an Iraqi, 'Abdullah Baghdadi.*

What effect will this "demotion" or division of labor in the Iraqi insurgency have? Perhaps there will be more focused attacks on Iraqi security forces, Iraqi government facilities and officials, but certainly no decrease in the level of effort. Although attacks on American forces are still on the table, the insurgents have learned the hard way that except for the use of improvised explosive devices, operations against U.S. forces are costly.

If the organization has any influence over the insurgency, there should be a decrease in attacks on Shi'a religious institutions, although right now it is hard to judge given the high level of sectarian attacks back and forth in the wake of the Samarra' bombing.

* This is an obvious alias - Al-Qa'idah members often chose a name followed by a nationality or regional designator, in this case, "'Abdullah, of Baghdad."