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.