October 29, 2010

Initial thoughts on Yemen and the terror threat

CAVEAT: More and clarifying information will come out - this is my assessment on what was available today.

Yet another security threat is traced to Yemen. Two air cargo packages were intercepted overseas, reportedly based on information provided by the Saudi intelligence service. The two packages did contain explosive devices and were bound for Jewish facilities in the Chicago area. The packages were discovered on aircraft in the United Kingdom and Dubai (United Arab Emirates), and both originated in Yemen.

Yemen is home to al-Qa'idah in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP and one of its leaders, American-born radical cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi have been very active over the last few years. This makes at least the fourth attempt on the United States since President Obama took office. Before today:

- November 5, 2009: U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded 30 others in an attack inspired by al-'Awlaqi.

- December 25, 2009: Nigerian 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab, trained by AQAP and inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear while on board a Detroit-bound airliner.

- May 1, 2010: Faysal Shahzad, a Pakistani American inspired by al-'Awlaqi, attempted to detonate a car laden with explosives in New York City's Times Square.

The explosive in the devices discovered in the UK and UAE today contained the same explosive materials, PETN (a favorite of al-Qa'idah) and RDX, as those used in both 'Abd al-Mutallab's underwear and "shoe bomber" Richard Reid's shoes.

The question everyone is asking now is, "How many other devices were involved in today's attempt and where are they?"

Saudi intelligence, the source for the information that led to the discovery of today's attacks, is quite capable when operating in their own backyard. Since 2004, the Saudis have been absolutely lethal to al-Qa'idah elements in the Kingdom. Of course, they are not hamstrung by the oversensitive civil liberties charlatans in the United States; they actually get results. (See my earlier piece,
Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?) In any case, I tip my hat to the Saudis. I have often been critical of them in the past, so when they perform, I feel it is incumbent on me to recognize that as well.

Of course, we all abhor al-Qa'idah tactics to kill innocents in the furtherance of their goals. That said, one must analytically appreciate the skill with which they have approached attacking the United States. Over the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, al-Qa'idah has patiently observed American security procedures and identified vulnerabilities. After determining where we had not spent hundreds of millions of dollars on defenses, they adapted their method of attack. It appears they have assessed (correctly, in my view) that cargo aircraft are not subject to the same scrutiny as passenger aircraft.

How is al-Qa'idah able to mount operations against the United States in 2010 after years of being assaulted in Afghanistan?

The United States has deployed almost 100,000 troops to south Asia to, as President Obama keeps telling us, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah." Despite that, they are able to put at least two (that we know about) explosive devices that would be delivered to Jewish facilities in Chicago?

The reaction from President Obama's terrorism advisor John Brennan that it "may have been more than a dry run." You think, John? Actual explosives in multiple packages designated to be delivered to Jewish targets in the United States? I am going out on a limb here, but I am guessing that there is a real threat here, and your "I don't know" response does not engender confidence in our counter terrorism capabilities.

Maybe we are fighting the wrong war. Even CIA director Leon Panetta concedes that there are only a few hundred al-Qa'idah fighters left in Afghanistan. Most of the "true believers" have moved to Pakistan or Yemen. In Pakistan they survive under the protection of the Pushtun tribes in the FATA, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which is "Paki-speak" for "we don't want to try and impose law and order there because they will kick our butts." Bottom line: the real war is not in Afghanistan.

In response to today's attacks, let's at least face reality and call them that: attacks. President Obama said the United States will continue to work to destroy al-Qa'idah. Great, Mr. President. So why have you committed much of our offensive military power to a venue where we know al-Qa'idah is not a threat? Is your mandate to rebuild Afghanistan or to defeat al-Qa'idah? I think you know the right answer but have not figured out how to explain it. Let me help. If you want to, as you claim, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qa'idah," start taking them on where they are. That is in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, not Afghanistan. Today's events provide you the perfect opportunity. Move against the threat.

Ah, but President Obama is a political animal. That is not a condemnation, but simply an observation. He cannot help but wonder why al-Qa'idah would be conducting these attacks within a week of the American elections. The conventional wisdom is that if al-Qa'idah is attempting to influence the elections, it wants to ensure that the new American political landscape favors al-Qa'idah. For most observers, that means a Democratic victory. Then again, a Republican victory means a commitment to continued American troops presence in Afghanistan, taking the pressure off where the real al-Qa'idah presence is, that being Pakistan and Yemen.

Yemen is emerging as the key locus for the fight against terrorism. As then-Secretary of State Colin Powell did in 2001 with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, we need to approach Yemeni President 'Ali 'Abdallah Salih and explain that the fight happens one of two ways. One is cooperation between our intelligence and security services, and the other is crippling air and missile strikes where we deem appropriate. Remember, this is the same government that stymied an American investigation in to the attack on the USS Cole, allowed (and possibly fostered) the mysterious escapes of al-Qa'idah operatives, the continues to refuse to extradite indicted felons to the United States - it goes on and on.

The real fight is not in Afghanistan, it is in Yemen.

October 25, 2010

Karzai and Iranian money - who can blame him?

DOD photoOver the last few days, there have been "revelations" in the press that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has received millions of dollars (actually paid in euros) from the Iranian government. Karzai has acknowledged these payments, claiming they were used to run the presidential palace and his office, and not paid to individuals.

The Iranian government has said that it is not involved in paying money to buy influence in Afghanistan. First, the claim is laughable; many governments do this. When the United States gives money to foreign governments, is there not some expectation that it will have more influence than if there had been no payment? Of course there is.

Second, the Iranians have a long history of providing large sums of money, as well as weapons and training to governments and groups they feel advance their interests (as do all countries). For example, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps routinely supports Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Sadrists in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan in this manner. Now Iran is paying money to the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

Iran is providing money to both sides of the Iran equation, so whoever emerges as the power in Afghanistan, the Iranians will be well-positioned to exercise influence. Of course, the Taliban is going to accept the money and weapons; they need them to continue the fight against the Americans and NATO forces in the country.

That said, why is the Karzai government accepting money? The easy answer is that Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries on the planet. It is likely to remain that way, given the rampant corruption and ravages of decades of warfare. There is also a religious affiliation between the two, since both countries are Islamic republics, albeit one predominately Shi'a and the other predominantly Sunni. More importantly, though, Karzai is taking the money because there is no indication that American money or military support will continue past President Obama's arbitrary deadline of July 31, 2011 to begin the withdrawal of American forces.

Karzai is trying to make the best of what he likely considers a confusing situation. Commander of American (and NATO) forces in Afghanistan General David Petraeus claims that the July 2011 deadline is the point at which the Administration will review the situation on the ground and determine if it is possible to withdraw troops.

Those words are in direct contrast to Vice President Joe Biden's: "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." That does not sound like conditions-based analysis of the situation, it sounds like a political promise. What we need to hear is the President and Vice President talk about victory as a strategy. What we need is a commander in chief, not a politician, but I digress.

President Karzai is trying to do the best he can based on the conditions he faces. He does not know if he can rely on the United States after July 2011. He probably has assessed the current Administration as more interested in formulating a withdrawal strategy than a victory strategy. If the United States withdraws its troops before the situation on the ground warrants, and that is not a far-fetched idea, the Taliban will have a chance to seize power. Karzai will not be withdrawing with Petraeus, he will still be in the country and has to figure out a way to survive.

Can you blame him for maintaining good relations with his Iranian neighbors to the West? If the United States deserts him, Tehran may be willing to fill the void.

October 24, 2010

Wikileaks reveals U.S. failures over hikers

Border Crossing at Panjwin (Iraq) and Bashmaq (Iran)

A classified U.S. Army document released by the Wikileaks organization appears to support earlier claims that Iranian forces crossed the border into Iraq in the Panjwin area to kidnap three American hikers in July 2009. Two of the three hikers are about to tried for espionage in an Iranian court; the third, a woman, was released on humanitarian grounds.

The military document is dated July 31, 2009, and makes reference to the kidnapping of three tourists hiking in the Panjwin area. It also indicated that the three were warned about the dangers of approaching this area of the Iranian border. In response to the reported kidnapping, American forces launched a reconnaissance drone and two F-16 fighters.

Here is the report - my comments follow.

2/1 07:112

Initial report:

WHO: Tourists/Reporters

WHAT: Arrest, Effective, Confirmed (CF)

WHERE: –– ––––– –––––, Sulaymaniyah / Halabjah

WHEN: 311600JUL09

HOW: MND-N G2 reported a kidnapping of 3 Americans who were being taken to the Iranian border. The Americans were hiking near the Iranian border when taken. A fourth tourist did not go hiking with them and reported that a kidnapped female called him saying that they were being surrounded by armed men.

UPDATE 311630JUL09: the following grid is where the kidnapping incident occurred: 38SNE 267 395.

UPDATE 311631JUL09: DIV reported an updated grid of the kidnappers: 38SNE 969 068.

UPDATE 311632JUL09: JPRC (Corps Personnel Recovery) is reporting that the victims were tourists who came to Iraq to go rock climbing.

UPDATE 311633JUL09: Kirkuk PJCC made contact with Suly JCC. Suly JCC will establish checkpoints throughout Suly.

UPDATE 311633JUL09: CF/CF en route to ––––– –– to make link up with " Meckfessel", ––––– –––––– ––––– –––– –– ––– –––– –– –– – –––– –––– –– –––– ––––– –– –– –––––.

UPDATE 311633JUL09: JPRC reports: victims were hiking the "Ahmad al Waha (variant Waaha, Waah, etc.) Rock face outside of Sulaymaniyah. (––––– ––––– –––––)

UPDATE 311645JUL09: AWT and Pathfinder team are en route to Warrior for refuel. Once complete they will remain on standby at FOB Warrior.

UPDATE 311715JUL09: last known location of vehicle new grid ND898 931.

UPDATE 311718 JUL09: Colonel Latif of the 10th Pesh Murga brigade reports Iranians detained 3x AMCIT for being too close to the border

UPDATE 311724 JUL09: CJ3 reports that President Barzani has been notified and has offered support

UPDATE 311728JUL09: Pathfinder landed, AWT are 5 min out

UPDATE 311733JUL09: F16s on station

–––– ––––: ––––– –––––

-–– –– –– ––––– (–––––– –– –/– –––)

-–– ––––– –––––: –– ––––– (–––––– –– –––-–)

-–– –––– – –––– –– – –––– –– –– –––––

-–– –– ––––– –– ––––– –– –– –––– –– –––– ––––––.

-–– –– –– ––––– –– –– –––––

-–– –––––– –––– –– ––––– –– –– –––––

UPDATE 311744JUL09: OSINT: Iranians report picking up three civilians

UPDATE 311750JUL09: link up with Meckfessel confirmed

UPDATE 311804JUL09: MND-N has confirmed that they will C2 the recovery operations.

–––– –––––––: –– –– –– ––––– ––--–––– –––– –– –––– ––––––, – – –– ––––– –– ––––, –– –––– –––– –––––– –– – –––– ––––, –– –––– –––– – ––––– –––– –––– –– –– ––––––

UPDATE 311826JUL09: CJSOTF will pick up Meckfessel and take him to PB Andrea. Pathfinders will return him to Warrior where a C12 will transport him to Baghdad.

UPDATE 311920JUL09: CPT ––––– and SFC ––––– will escort Meckfessel to Baghdad.

–––– –––––––: ––-––– –– –––– –––– –– –– –––– –– –– ––––, –-–– ––––– –––––––

–––– –––– –––––: ––-––– –– –––– –– –– –– –––– –– –– ––––– –– –– –––––

–––– –––––––: ––––– –––– –––– –––– –– –––– –– –– –––––

–––– –––––––: ––-––– –– –– ––––– ––––– –––– –– –– –––––

UPDATE 312014JUL09: C-12 will arrive at 2040

UPDATE 312036 JUL09: C-12 has landed

UPDATE 312040 JUL09: C-12 departed warrior en route to Baghdad

UPDATE 312145 JUL09: Escorts report landing at BIAP.

UPDATE 312330JUL09: Escorts transfer Meckfessel to Embassy personnel.

UPDATE 010015AUG09: Escorts will fly fixed wing at 1100 hrs on 1 AUG09 to FOB Warrior

BDA: 3x AMCIT Detained by Iranians

PAO ASSESSMENT: All queries referred to the US embassy in Baghdad.

IO ASSESSMENT: IQATF will monitor for atmospherics on this SIGACT.

S2 ASSESSMENT: The lack of coordination on the part of these hikers, particularly after being forewarned, indicates an intent to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran. The leadership in Iran benefits as it focuses the Iranian population on a perceived external threat rather than internal dissension. Kurdish leaders remain concerned about international perceptions regarding security as they seek to increase investment in the KRG. Expect KRG leadership to intervene to return the 3 individuals and the Iranian government to accuse them of being spies. Additionally, KRG leadership may impose additional restrictions on private activities near the Iranian border.




The assessment by the S2, the intelligence section, is prescient. It is exactly how the Iranians reacted.

In the intervening year, the American government has absolutely no foreign policy successes with the Iranians, despite a two-pronged strategy of engagement and economic sanctions. Neither have ameliorated Iran's behavior, either in its nuclear weapons program or its conduct in the community of nations.

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her spokesman P.J. "Spinner" Crowley offer platitudes and feckless rhetoric, two young Americans remain in the notorious Evin prison, Iran continues to enrich uranium to higher levels than required for reactor fuel, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to supply arms to Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Sadrist militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. See my earlier article, The three hikers in Iran - how's that "engagement" working?

It will be interesting to find out why the hikers were in this part of Iraq. If the intelligence assessment is correct, that they were intending "to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran," I'd like to hear their opinions of Iran now. I tend to not assign that motive to the three.

The three say they were on a trip to see the Ahmad Awa cave; it is well worth a visit. However, it is very close to the Iranian border in an area where Iraq juts far into Iran. I've been to this area. The Iranian border is clearly marked and in most places well-fortified, at some places with deep tank traps. Remember that these two countries fought a bloody eight-year war. Claims that they may have inadvertently strayed across the Iranian border are ludicrous.

The second part of the S2 (intelligence officer) assessment turned out to be exactly right, "...the Iranian government to accuse them of being spies."

Thus far, the Administration has been unable to get two obviously innocent hikers released. Is this the team we want dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran?

Here is a compilation report from Newsy.com on the media coverage of the Wikileaks story:

October 22, 2010

Syria - the rise of Asif Shawkat

Asif Shawkatآصف شوكت

Last month, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad realigned his security and intelligence agency chiefs as he positions his government to assume a greater role for Syria in the Middle East. The major agencies in the pervasive and myriad Syrian security and intelligence services are Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence and State Security.

The leadership of all three agencies was changed in September. Officers move between the agencies at the pleasure of the president.

The head of Military Intelligence, Major General Asif Shawkat was promoted to lieutenant general and is likely to be named the new minister of defense. Shawkat is married to President al-Asad's older sister Bushra.

Replacing Shawkat at Military Intelligence is Major General 'Abd al-Latif Qudsiyah, who vacates his post as chief of Air Force Intelligence.

The chief of Air Force Intelligence was replaced by Major General Jamil Hasan, was had been the deputy head of State Security.

At State Security, Major General 'Ali Mamluk retired upon reaching mandatory retirement age, and will become a special advisor to the president. Major General Zuhayr Hamad, a counter-terrorism specialist, was promoted from within State Security to be its chief.

The most interesting move here is the promotion of Asif Shawkat to lieutenant general and the news that he may be the next minister of defense. Shawkat owes virtually all of his good fortune to the fact that he is married to Bushra Hafiz al-Asad. If he becomes the minister of defense, al-Asad will have an absolutely loyal and trustworthy ally in that key position. While almost all of the senior officers in key positions are from the 'Alawite minority of the Latakia region, Shawkat is one better, he's family.

Shawkat, now 60 years old, has been the chief of Syrian Military Intelligence since early 2005, shortly after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut. Most Middle East observers (including me) believe there was a Syrian hand in the murder. We also believe Shawkat was involved in the planning, if not the execution.

After Lebanese public demands and demonstrations forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, it appeared that al-Asad's control over the smaller country was disappearing. Through patience and back-channel maneuvering, Syria has again emerged as a major power broker in the country. One only needs to read this week's news to see how the situation has changed. See my piece from earlier this week,
Syria flexes it muscles in "the province" of Lebanon.

The maneuvering that regained Syrian influence was most likely the province of Syrian Military Intelligence, which has a long history of basically controlling Lebanon. Shawkat delivered Lebanon back to Bashar al-Asad. In return, he gets to be the Minister of Defense. Shawkat is now one of the most powerful men in Syria, possibly second only to the president.

October 20, 2010

Syria flexes it muscles in "the province" of Lebanon

Never count Syria out when it comes to being a power broker in Lebanon. After the Syrians were forced by public demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut, it seemed that Syrian influence was either over or on the wane.

Since then, the long arm of Damascus appears to have extended itself back into Lebanese politics. It has been coming for at least the last few months. It became readily apparent when Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri reversed himself on his earlier accusations that Syria was involved in the murder of his father Rafiq. He claimed that he was mistaken in those accusations. In his words, "We made a mistake. At one point we accused Syria...that was a political accusation, and that political accusation is over." See my piece from last month,
Syrian influence returning to Lebanon.

Political expediency at its finest. Whether it was Syrian military intelligence or Hizballah that conducted the actual operation against the elder al-Hariri, it had to be done with Syrian complicity. Nothing happened in Lebanon in 2005 that did not have Damascus's stamp of approval. It had been that way for almost 30 years. I remember vividly the day when Syrian tanks rumbled into downtown Beirut and established pax syriana.

All that changed with the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. The Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims were finally galvanized into public demonstrations against the Syrian military presence in their country. In what became known as the "Cedar Revolution," the demonstrations forced Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to withdraw his forces from the country, ending an almost 30-year presence, or as some called it, an occupation. It appeared that Syrian influence in the country was near over.

Many Syrians regard Lebanon as a part of "greater Syria," the province of the former Ottoman Empire that ruled the area until the end of World War One. It was only in the aftermath of the war that the area was divided into countries. France was given the mandate for the Syrian area, from which they created the modern countries of Syria and Lebanon. The "Syrians" were not consulted on the creation of what was supposed to be a Christian enclave called Lebanon.

In a somewhat surprising move, a Syrian official this week said that Lebanon "must make a deep change in Lebanon. Sa'ad alHariri is the only obstacle to reconciliation between the Syrian and Lebanese people." Let me translate that into what he really meant: We are not satisfied with Sa'ad al-Hariri's progress on bringing Lebanon back into the Syrian sphere, so we'll replace him with someone who can.

The current situation in Lebanon is tense. The Lebanese expect that soon the United Nations will accuse Hizballah of the murder or Rafiq al-Hariri. That will set off recriminations throughout the country. It is serious enough that Saudi King 'Abdullah visited the country in an attempt to urge restraint. Of course, that visit was followed by a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has more than likely added to the tension.

Who gains from all this? Syria. Bashar la-Asad will be the new power broker in the country. Hizballah will always be a consideration, but the real power will be wielded from Damascus.

Who loses? Sa'ad al-Hariri was convinced to forgo vengeance on Syria for his father's death in return for a chance to lead Lebanon. That appears to have been a major miscalculation. However, the real losers are the Lebanese people.

It would appear that Lebanon is being returned to its status as a virtual province of Syria.

October 19, 2010

Colonel David Lemon, U.S. Army (Retired) 1940-2010

Colonel David L. Lemon, U.S. Army (Retired) 70, died last Saturday. His obituary appeared in yesterday's Washington Post.

I worked with Dave Lemon when he was the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, and again when he was the defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.

Dave accepted a short-notice assignment to Baghdad in 1987 after the Iraqis expelled the previous defense attache from the country for "actions not in keeping with his diplomatic status." That's diplo-speak for "he was doing his job too well for our tastes." Once in Baghdad, he met and married Maria Aragon, the daughter of the Argentinian ambassador.

In Baghdad, Dave was the liaison officer between the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Iraqi Directorate of Military Intelligence. When DIA officers traveled to Baghdad to meet with DMI officers and offer intelligence assistance that later was key to the Iraqi military victory over the Iranians, it was through Dave's efforts. I remember long, hot days working with Dave in Baghdad to get the project going.

I was saddened to read of his passing. My condolences go out to Maria and the Lemon family.

Excerpts from the obituary:

David L. Lemon, 70, an Army colonel who served as a defense attache in Baghdad and Cairo and in retirement worked in the Middle East and North Africa as a marketing and sales executive with ITT and Motorola, died Oct. 16 at a nursing home in Miami. Col. Lemon, who served two tours in the Vietnam War, did extensive language training in the military and became fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Arabic.

After a stint with the Defense Intelligence Agency, he served as defense attache in Baghdad from 1987 to 1988, a period when the United States had cordial military relations with Iraq. He was then defense attache in Cairo until 1991. He retired from active duty the next year.

David Lee Lemon was born March 29, 1940, in Enid, Okla., and raised in Abilene, Tex. He was a 1962 graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where he also received a master's degree in politics and economics in 1970. As an undergraduate, he won honors as a distinguished military student in the ROTC program. He did graduate work in engineering at Rice University in Houston and attended the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa., and what is now the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk.

Survivors include his wife, the former Maria Laura Aragon, of Miami, whom he married in 1988; two daughters from his first marriage, a son from his second marriage; two sisters; and five grandchildren.

October 18, 2010

Saudi intelligence warnings - seriously?

Prince MuqranThe Saudi intelligence service has issued a warning about an al-Qa'idah threat to Europe. The warning stated that the al-Qa'idah affiliate group calling itself al-Qa'idah on the Arabian Peninsula was targeting "the European continent and in particular France."

The warning comes after a series of threat alerts over the past weeks. What is significant is that this one comes from the Saudis. Since the warning was sourced to the AQAP, it is likely reliable information. Although Saudi intelligence has a uneven reputation as a reliable intelligence service, they are good at collecting information that either threatens the ruling family or takes place in their own back yard.

Saudi Arabia's primary intelligence service is formally called the ri'asat al-istkhbarat al-'amah (رئاسة الاستخبارات العامة‎), the General Intelligence Presidency, but it more commonly referred to as the GID for General Intelligence Directorate. It is a cabinet level agency that reports to the King. As such, its primary intelligence requirement is to provide warning of, and occasionally neutralize, threats to the royal family. The head of the GID is Prince Muqran bin 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, the third youngest son and youngest surviving son of the founder of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also a brother of the King. He has been in the position since October 2005.

While deployed to Saudi Arabia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991, I worked closely with Saudi military intelligence and the GID. For the most part, we found their reporting to be unreliable, for several reasons. At that time, and I hope the services have improved since then, they were not functioning as most professional intelligence services do.

The intelligence cycle in most services begins with a requirement, or what does a decision maker want or need to know? Collectors, be they case officers or technical systems, are then tasked to gather information against that requirement. The collected data is then collated and compared with other information if available and analyzed. The final intelligence product is then provided to the decision maker.

In my experience with the Saudis, they tended to skip the analysis step and take most raw data as truth. This caused the American intelligence agencies a lot of time and effort during the run up to the liberation of Kuwait. The Saudis would present us with a raw intelligence report from an asset in Europe or Africa, almost always dealing with a threat to the King. We would have to spend man hours and task scarce resources to collect information refuting the mostly incredible claims of the Saudi assets. This took away from collecting information on the Iraqis whom we were about to engage.

The reason I would believe threat information about AQAP from the Saudi service now is that in 2004 the Saudis had an epiphany when it comes to al-Qa'idah. As far back as 1997, Saudi intelligence was in contact with Usamah bin Ladin. In fact, CIA officers recommended that the Saudi service be considered a hostile intelligence service because of those contacts. The CIA went do far as to claim that in some instances after sharing communications intelligence on al-Qa'idah with the Saudis, the communications would disappear, suggesting that the terrorist group had been warned.

This all changed in 2004 when al-Qa'idah operatives began attacking targets in the Kingdom. The Saudis, who I believe had struck an agreement with Usamah bin Ladin that they would not pursue members of the group in Saudi Arabia, changed directions immediately and went after the terrorist group with a vengeance we could only hope to emulate. In less than three years the efficient and capable Saudi internal security forces had virtually eliminated al-Qa'idah as a viable entity in the Kingdom. Most of the survivors sought safe haven in Yemen or Somalia.

Saudi intelligence can be effective when operating on their home turf defending their royal family. It appears that the warnings were based on information developed as part of these efforts. I would be inclined to believe it.

October 14, 2010

Iranian president visits "the colony" of Lebanon

Poster with Ahmadinejad's photo reads "Welcome"
in Arabic (ahlan wa sahlan) and Farsi (khush amaded)

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an official state visit to Lebanon on October 13 and 14. In addition to the warm reception he received in Beirut, he also was honored repeatedly as he visited towns in mostly Shi'a southern Lebanon. The area is dominated by Hizballah members and sympathizers; that was obvious by the sea of yellow Hizballah flags in the crowds.

Ahmadinejad took advantage of being close to his archenemy Israel by going to the border between Lebanon and Israel. Not only did he visit the border, he chose several significant towns on that border. Two of them, Marun al-Ra's and Bint Jubayl, were scenes of bloody fighting in the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah.

While the Iranian president toured the area around Marun al-Ra's, Israeli helicopters patrolled over the closest Israeli town, Moshav* Avivim. Marun al-Ra's was the first village to be assaulted by Israeli ground forces in 2006; those forces staged from Avivim. I was a military analyst for MSNBC at the time. The signs in Hebrew and Arabic were easily visible during the preparations for the Israeli ground offensive.

Ahmadinejad also visited Bint Jubayl, just over two miles from the Israeli border. Bint Jubayl has always been a Hizballah stronghold. As such, it was the scene of brutal fighting in the 2006 war. In the end, it was virtually flattened by Israeli forces.

Why shouldn't the Iranian president visit southern Lebanon? After all, Iran funded much of the recovery, both to the general population and to Hizballah.

After the end of hostilities in 2006, Iran immediately resupplied Hizballah in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701. Hizballah claims, and Israeli intelligence agencies agree, that they have more and better weapons than prior to the fighting in 2006. These weapons include rockets and missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv. There have been press reports, likely leaked by Israeli military intelligence, that Syria is training Hizballah personnel on the Scud missile system. This would represent a major increase in the Hizballah capabilities. See my earlier piece,
Hizballah and Scuds - an Israeli red line.

Not only did Iran provide weapons to Hizballah, they provided millions of dollars to the devastated villages and towns of southern Lebanon and the Shi'a sections of west and south Beirut. While western aid agencies were trying to get organized, Iranian aid officials took advantage of Hizballah's existing social network in the area and provided much needed, and appreciated, aid quickly and effectively. The Shi'a of southern Lebanon regard both Hizballah and Iran as their protectors and rescuers. It is no wonder that large crowds of cheering Shi'a turned out to welcome Ahmadinejad.

I am not naive enough to think that Iran's assistance is totally altruistic. It is true that the Iranians share a common heritage through the Shi'a sect of Islam. It was Lebanese Shi'a who brought that branch of the faith to Iran centuries ago. However, it goes beyond that. Iran now has a proxy armed force on Israel's northern border, one that responds to its tasking. After all, they provide virtually all the money, weapons and training necessary for the group's existence.

Iran's ties to Hizballah date back to 1982; it was elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Syria and Lebanon contingent** that created Hizballah as a resistance group targeted against the Israeli occupation of the southern part of Lebanon. Over the intervening years, Hizballah has received hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran, not to mention an impressive arsenal of weapons, including long-range rockets, that it has used continuously against Israel.

Using Iranian money, Hizballah has been able to become one, if not the, most powerful political forces in the country. The group has won a large number of seats in the country's legislature and has even secured veto power over virtually all actions of the Lebanese government. Iran can call this a success; Ahmadinejad was here to take a victory lap.

The U.S. State Department has made the usual statements that the visit was "a provocation that undermines Lebanon's sovereignty." At that fearsome tirade, I am reminded of the axiom, "Money talks." The Iranians have again outmaneuvered the rest of the world by providing a needed service. The United States provides platitudes, while the Iranians rebuild schools and medical clinics, and handout cash to displaced residents. Ahmadinejad embodies that assistance.

Western-backed parties in Lebanon (that normally means Christians) warned that Ahmadinejad is seeking to transform Lebanon into "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean."

News flash: They already have.

The Israelis, who live in the region, were much more cogent in their analysis. Their spokesman said that Iran "has turned Lebanon into an Iranian satellite and made Lebanon a hub for regional terror and instability."

That about sums it up.

* A moshav is a type of cooperative that is less communal than a kibbutz. In a moshav, people own their own homes and work their own land. They are popular among American Jews exercising aliyah (Jews returning to live in Israel).More here.

** This force later became the nucleus of the IRGC special operations group known as The Qods Force.

October 12, 2010

Iraq - the consequences of another term for al-Maliki

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki It appears likely that incumbent Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki will retain his position, much to the dismay of myself and other observers who favor Dr. Iyad 'Alawi. Although 'Alawi's secular 'Iraqiyah slate won a few more seats in the elections held seven months ago, 'Alawi has not been able to form a government. With recent Kurdish support for al-Maliki, it appears that the Iraqis (and the United States) will be saddled with al-Maliki for another term.

Why the Kurdish support?

Before I go into this, I should declare my background with the Kurds. I was part of a CIA operation that provided support to the Kurds in northern Iraq in 1995 and 1996. During that time, I worked closely with both the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) under Mas'ud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Talabani is the current president of Iraq, and Barzani is the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, an autonomus region as provided in the Iraqi constitution. I also worked with another senior Kurdish official, Hoshyar Zebari, now Iraq's foreign minister.

I believe that the Kurds have legitimate concerns that should be addressed. That said, I am not pleased with the decision to support al-Maliki over 'Alawi. I think 'Alawi is the better choice to unify the Iraqis, be they Sunnis, Shi'a or Kurds. Al-Maliki will simply continue the policies that most Sunnis believe are exclusionary to them. Unfortunately, the Kurdish support will easily give al-Maliki the seats he needs to form a new government.

To gain Kurdish support, al-Maliki has committed in turn to support the Kurds' demands for the return of lands they were forcibly removed from during Saddam Husayn's "Arabization" (t'arib) campaign of the 1980's. In this campaign, entire Kurdish villages were relocated to the deserts of southern Iraq and replaced with ethnic Arabs. The most notable loss for the Kurds was what they believe is the Kurdish city of Kirkuk. The Kurds consider Kirkuk to be their true capital city.

Such an arrangement between al-Maliki's political bloc and the Kurds is sure to inflame the Sunnis all over Iraq and the Turkmens residing in Kirkuk. The Turkmens consider Kirkuk to be a Turkmen city, and are supported in this claim by the Turkish government. The Sunnis will continue to feel disenfranchised, believing that the Shi'a and Kurds, both of whom were repressed under Sunni-majority Ba'th Party rule, have joined forces against them.

The cooperation between the Kurds and al-Maliki is not a unifying strategy for the country, but the Kurds are more interested in their own future than that of Iraq. While most Kurds favor the creation of an independent Kurdistan, most also realize the chances of that happening are virtually non-existent. They are making the best of the situation. It is hard to blame them. As is often said to describe the Kurds, "no friends but the mountains."

Not only will another term for Nuri al-Miliki continue the rifts between the Sunni and Shi'a, and between the Sunnis and Kurds, but it also raises concerns about Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. Political pundits in Baghdad have referred to al-Maliki as al-maliki al-irani, "al-Maliki the Iranian," and to his office as "the Persian carpet."

It gets better. Al-Maliki is also supported by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's followers are committed to a close and cooperative relationship with Iran. At one point, the Iranian government declared al-Sadr as the "emir" (prince) of Iraq and their chosen leader for the country. Al-Sadr is currently in Qom, Iran, studying to become an ayatollah, hoping that the prestigious religious credentials will gain him more credibility and support among Iraq's Shi'a majority. Al-Sadr has not hidden his desire to be the key player in Iraqi politics.

So, with Kurdish and Sadrist support, Nuri al-Maliki will likely continue to be the prime minister of Iraq. It remains to be seen how he handles the Kirkuk situation and if he can convince the Sunnis to cooperate with his government. More critical to American national interests is the amount of influence wielded by Iran externally and the Sadrists internally.

Al-Maliki is not a friend of the United States. As long as he is in power, the United States will need to keep one eye on Baghdad and one eye on Tehran.

October 10, 2010

Naiveté, thy address is 1600 Pennsylvania

Ahmadinejad at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility

In keeping with Iran's strategy to deal with world concerns over its nuclear program, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki declared that Iran is ready to hold talks with six major powers over its nuclear program "in late October or early November." Those six powers are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) plus Germany, often referred to as the P5+1.

It is important to remember that Russia and especially China have deep and longstanding economic ties to the regime in Tehran. The latest round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations was watered down to gain Chinese and Russian acquiescence. Surprisingly, Russia is somewhat abiding by them, although China is basically ignoring them. There were so many back room deals between the United States and the two nations, one has to suspect that the United States has agreed to turn a blind eye to Chinese violations. (See my earlier piece, Iran sanctions and the backroom deals.... On a positive note, however, the Russians did cancel the sale of the S-300 air defense system to Iran.

The Iranian foreign minister's announcement is typical. The Iranians constantly offer to hold talks over their nuclear program. The P5+1 constantly agree, and a date for talks is set. The talks constantly fail, followed by the Iranians agreeing to continue talks about having more talks. All the while they are talking or agreeing to talk about talking, centrifuges at who knows how many facilities continue to enrich uranium, and research and development continues on longer range missiles.

This latest Iranian "offer" carries conditions. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants more and varied countries (Iran-speak for friendly to them) involved, and these countries must declare whether they seek friendship or hostility with Iran (yes, nonsensical), and they must clarify a position on Israeli nuclear capabilities.

The reaction from the United States to the latest Iranian offer to talk? State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says, "If Iran is ready to hold talks, all they need to do is pick up the phone and set a date."

Pitiful, but not unexpected.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have failed to make any impact on the Iranian nuclear program. For years, anyone with a modicum of expertise on, experience in, the Middle East has realized that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons, despite the ridiculous National Intelligence Estimate issued in 2007 that the Iranians had halted their weapons program. The Iranians are resolute in their efforts and have outmaneuvered both this and the previous administration at every turn. Promises of talk seems to mollify the diplomats.

The Obama Administration continues to repeatedly fall into the Iranian trap. Every time the Iranians need more time to work on their program, they offer talks to the west. They are doing it again, and if Crowley is to be believed, the Administration is falling for it again. How many times is this President and his national security team going to fail to take meaningful action on Iran's nuclear ambitions? Do we have to wait until Ahmadinejad declares "fission accomplished?"

Naiveté is alive and well, and resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

October 8, 2010

Hizballah and Scuds - an Israeli red line

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An article in Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily newspaper, was published under the title "Hezbollah militants training in Syria missile base, satellite images show - Google Earth photos reveal Scuds at base near Damascus."

First of all, the title and first paragraph of the article are misleading.

"The Syrian army has a Scud missile base near Damascus, according to recent satellite photos. The photos also suggest that Hezbollah activists are being trained in the Scuds' use at the base."

Taken at face value, it gives the impression that satellite images indicate that Hizballah militants are training at a Syrian base. In my former career as an intelligence officer, I have seen thousands of much better satellite imagery than that available on Google Earth. To say that it is difficult to assign identity to a particular group is an understatement. From the above image, it is impossible. The second part of the title is probably more accurate. It is possible to detect ballistic missiles with Google Earth.

If anyone is interested to take a look a the imagery to which this article refers, go to Google Earth and navigate to the coordinates 33 37 15N/36 25 38E. The facility at this location is the Scud missile base across the Damascus-Hims highway from the city of Adra. Adra is also noted for its huge customs facility, cement factory, military parachute training drop zone and a notorious prison. It takes about 40 minutes to drive to Adra from Damascus; I used to pass by it frequently when I traveled north from the capital city.

There were reports earlier this year that Syria had supplied Hizballah with the Scud ballistic missile system. (See my earlier piece,
No Scuds for Hizballah - just "the usual rockets") This missile system has the range to strike anywhere in Israel and would represent a serious upgrade in Hizballah capabilities.

More importantly, Scuds in the Hizballah arsenal would represent an unacceptable change in the already tense situation between Israel and the militant group. Israel has conducted military strikes in Lebanon in the past over less threatening weapon systems. In September 2007, it proved that it was willing to strike targets in Syria itself if it regarded them as too great a threat, destroying a suspected North Korean supplied nuclear reactor in the northwest part of the country.

I suspect that what we are witnessing is an Israeli information operation. The resurfacing of this information now raises questions. Senior Israeli intelligence officers have already commented on the story, claiming that Hizballah now has thousands of rockets and missiles in its inventory. The numbers are greater than prior to the war between Israel and Hizballah in 2006, despite United Nations' resolutions that the militant group would not be resupplied.

I also suspect the specificity of the claims based on Google Earth imagery. It would be impossible to draw the conclusions presented in the Haaretz article. Most likely, the Israeli military intelligence service used other intelligence sources to determine what is happening and "leaked" it to the paper and suggested the use of the imagery as cover.

In any case, Israel is attempting to portray Hizballah as in increasing threat to the Jewish state, possibly paving the way for a pre-emptive military strike. I agree with the Israeli assessment that Hizballah is more of a threat that at anytime in the past. While I do not wish yet another war on the Lebanese people, I would find it hard to fault Israel for defending itself against a terrorist group armed with ballistic missiles that put the entire country at risk.

October 7, 2010

The Taliban and Pakistani intelligence - longtime allies

Here's a bit of non-news: the Pakistani intelligence service is actively supporting the Taliban. That includes urging the radical Islamist militant group to attack American forces in Afghanistan. The recent attacks on NATO supply convoys in Pakistan are part of that effort.

Why is anyone surprised by this?

The Pakistan Army Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, more commonly referred to as ISI, is Pakistan's primary intelligence agency. It has responsibility for both internal and external operations, including covert operations. These covert operations included assisting the United States Central Intelligence Agency in its support of the Afghan mujahidin during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980's.

The cooperation between CIA and ISI was not without controversy. All weapons and supplies for the mujahidin were required to be funneled through ISI. Since Pakistan is arguably one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, it stands to reason that some of the money and/or weapons were diverted to serve ISI's pet projects elsewhere, or more likely, to enrich ISI's senior officers.

For example, in the latter years of American support for the mujahidin, the U.S. Navy seized an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf suspected of laying mines. Sailors found on that ship a battery pack for an American-made Stinger air defense missile. The serial numbers indicated that the battery was part of a shipment sent to the ISI but destined for the mujahidin.

The ISI is manned primarily by members of the Pushtun ethnic group. Keep in mind that Pakistan is yet another artificial country created by the British as their empire shrank. Just as the British created the countries of Iraq and Jordan in the aftermath of World War One, they created Pakistan from their Indian colony. Pakistan is made up of several disparate ethnic groups that vie for power in the country. Pushtuns are often found in the military and intelligence ranks.

The ISI was instrumental in the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990's. The ISI had easy access to Afghan refugees in the camps near Peshawar; it was from these camps that the Taliban drew its first recruits. Pakistan, via the ISI, supported the Taliban takeover of the government in Afghanistan, and was one of only a handful of nations that formally recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of the country.

After al-Qa'idah's attacks on the United States in September 2001, Pakistan allied with the United States and allowed American forces to use its airspace in its operations against the Taliban and al-Qa'idah. There was considerable American pressure put on then-President Pervez Musharraf to drop support for the Taliban and assist the United States. Many of Pakistan's senior military and intelligence officers did not support that decision. The Pushtuns in these services have always been sympathetic with the Taliban, and by extension, al-Qa'idah.

Sympathy is one thing; actively urging the Taliban to attack American targets is quite another. There is an internal struggle in Pakistan over how much the government in Islamabad should continue to provide support to American efforts in Afghanistan. The United States has repeatedly put pressure on Pakistan to step up its efforts against militants in the tribal areas (read: Pushtun areas) along the Afghan border. These efforts are aimed at what many ethnic Pushtuns in the military and ISI regard as their tribal homeland. It is not surprising that they do not support their government's efforts to move against their tribal brethren.

It is also not surprising, but nonetheless alarming, that members of the ISI are actively encouraging their Taliban allies to attack American targets. What we need to know is what the Pakistani government is prepared to do about it.

NATO supply lines are now under pressure. Taliban militants are attacking them, setting fire to scores of fuel tankers. They are doing so with either the acquiescence or even support of the ISI. If the Pakistani government is not willing to stop these attacks and take action against its own treasonous intelligence officers, the United States needs to rethink its financial support, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, to Islamabad and seek other ways to resupply its forces in Afghanistan.

If that happens, the United States should also wreak havoc on the Taliban and al-Qa'idah forces using the Pushtun tribal areas as safe havens. Drone attacks can only do so much. Might concentrated American air power be a better alternative?

October 2, 2010

The Ron Insana Show - comments

On Friday morning (October 1), I was a guest on the Ron Insana radio show. Ron is a former anchor at CNBC, and he and I worked together when I was a CNBC Middle East military analyst during the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. I have been on his radio show periodically over the last few years.

Ron asked that I come on the show to discuss the elevated terrorist threat, given the recent arrests in Europe of a group of European nationals trained by al-Qa'idah to launch "Mumbai-style" attacks against Americans and other Westerners. This is in reference to the November 2008 attacks by members of the al-Qa'idah affiliated Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e Taiba in Mumbai. During the three day killing spree, a group of 10 terrorists who had infiltrated into India by inflatable boats were able to kill almost 175 people and wound over 300 others. Most of these attacks were aimed at hotels and tourist locations that cater to Westerners.

In response to Ron's questions, I made the point that this phenomenon of "home-grown" terrorists is an al-Qa'idah adaptation to our fairly successful military and intelligence operations against terrorist organizations. However, as bureaucracies are wont to fight the last war, to solve the last problem, American law enforcement and intelligence agencies had focused on Middle Eastern and South Asian nationals as potential terrorists.

Soon after the Bush Administration created the Department of Homeland Security, al-Qa'idah instructed its members to start recruiting "non-alerting" potential jihadis. They have been successful. They have recruited British-born and American-born Muslims to join the organization and to travel to Pakistan's Waziristan provinces for indoctrination and training on "martyrdom operations," which is jihadi-speak for suicide bombings.

The poster child for this effort is arguably American citizen Najibullah Zazi. Zazi is labeled as an naturalized citizen born in Afghanistan, but more importantly he is an American citizen of Pushtun descent. Pushtuns are the ethnic group that comprise the majority of the Taliban and who provide protection and support the the Arabs of al-Qa'idah in the Afghan tribal areas. "Tribal areas" is a euphemism for what I'll call Pushtunistan.

Zazi's status as an American citizen allowed him to move easily in and out of the United States, not drawing much attention. His American citizen status also protected him from many surveillance and investigative techniques that American law enforcement and intelligence agencies have used effectively against foreigners. We should not underestimate al-Qa'idah's ability to recognize such weaknesses and adapt to exploit those weaknesses.

Another case in point is the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-'Awlaqi, now believed to be resident in Yemen. The ACLU has mounted a legal challenge to the government's plans to kill al-'Awlaqi if possible. Although I think killing al-Awlaqi would be a good thing, the legal restrictions need to be addressed, not just for him, but for other and future American-citizen jihadis overseas as well. We all remember John Walker Lindh, or "Taliban John," who was accorded all rights of an American citizen despite the fact that he was captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan.

There was also an American-born Saudi member of al-Qa'idah who had to be transferred from Guantanamo to a Navy detention facility to allow him all the rights of an American citizen. If you take up arms against the United States, I do not agree that they are still American citizens, but then I'm not a lawyer. I'm just a retired intelligence operations officer who had to deal with such scum. As for Lindh, I'd have left him on a battlefield in Afghanistan; he would have not needed an attorney.

All that said, what do we do?

We need to allow our intelligence agencies to collect information on potential jihadis, regardless of their citizenship. I have no problem with getting warrants, but at least set up a system that works. If I was in charge, there would be no Department of Homeland Security. As far as I can tell, all they do is get in the way, that is, when they are not looking at former military members as potential terrorists. I cannot find any incident that was prevented in which DHS was the lead agency. Most of our successes have been the result of good old fashioned law enforcement or classic intelligence work, not the bloated bureaucracy that is DHS. Give the FBI the lead for this vital mission.

We also need to cooperate more closely with our European and Middle Eastern allies to track potential recruits as the travel for training and indoctrination. Right now the common denominator for the travel and training is Pakistan, specifically the Waziristan provinces.

Ron asked me the obvious question: why don't we pressure the Pakistanis to have their army move into the Waziristans and wipe all these guys out. We have, but the answer is not that simple. Pakistan was created out of British India and includes several ethnic minorities. One of these is the Pusthuns who inhabit both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. Their loyatly is not to Pakistan or Afghanistan, it is to their fellow Pushtuns. Their law is Pustunwali, the unwritten code of the Pushtuns.

There are also many Pusthuns in the Pakistan Army, which is a good military force. The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the country's major intelligence agency, is also heavily-populated by Pushtuns. Many of these officers are sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa'idah, and are certainly not in favor of mounting extensive, bloody military operations against their fellow tribesmen.

The government in Islamabad maintains an uneasy balance of the ethnic groups. Upsetting that balance is a risk not to be taken lightly, for Pakistan or the United States. What we do not need is the fall of the Pakistani government and the rise of a radical Islamic state with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and the missiles and aircraft with which to deliver them. Take that one step further and imagine these weapons transferred to al-Qa'idah.

It is a difficult problem, but one we have to address. We need real homeland security run by proffesionals who will not dismiss every al-Qa'idah plot as "lone wolf" operations as they did with Fort Hood killer Major Nidal Hasan, Christmas-day "underwar bomber" 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutalab, failed New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shazad.

We've been lucky. That won't last. We need effective leadership.