Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Turkey airport attack: 41 killed in explosions at Istanbul Atatürk

A series of deadly explosions tore through crowds at Istanbul’s Atatürk international airport on Tuesday evening, leaving at least 41 people dead and scores more injured in an attack officials blamed on the Islamic State terror group.

Shortly before the blasts, assailants armed with AK-47 rifles became involved in a firefight with security and police near the airport’s x-ray security checkpoint.
The gunmen then detonated what are believed to have been suicide bombs. Three attackers died on the scene, said the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yıldırım.

By Wednesday morning, 18 bodies had been identified, including a young married couple working in ground services, several tourism guides and one taxi driver.

The Istanbul governor’s office said 23 Turks, 10 foreigners and three dual nationals were among the dead. Turkish officials said five Saudis, two Iraqis, an Iranian, a Chinese, a Jordanian, a Tunisian, an Uzbek and a Ukrainian were killed in the attack, and Turkish national broadcaster TRT reported that five of the dead were police officers.

The governor’s office also said at least 239 people were wounded in the attack, and that 109 of those had been discharged from hospital by early on Wednesday afternoon.

Passengers embrace each other as they wait outside Istanbul’s Ataturk airport.

Iran’s Tasnim news agency quoted deputy foreign minister Hassan Qashqavi as saying five Iranian nationals had been injured in addition to the person killed, while the Ukrainian foreign ministry said a second Ukrainian was injured. The Saudi embassy said seven of its nationals were among the injured.

In a press conference in Istanbul on Tuesday night, Yıldırım said: “No matter where the terror comes from, our country is strong enough to fight against this terror. I call on every citizen to act in unity and stand by each other.” He said that by 2.22am local time air traffic was “back to normal and flights are resumed”.

A witness told Reuters that before the explosions one of the gunmen opened fire at random as he walked through the terminal.

“He was just firing at anyone coming in front of him. He was wearing all black. His face was not masked. I was 50 metres away from him,” said Paul Roos, 77, a South African tourist on his way back to Cape Town with his wife.

“We ducked behind a counter but I stood up and watched him. Two explosions went off shortly after one another. By that time he had stopped shooting.”

The scene left by two explosions and gunfire at Turkey’s biggest airport.

“He turned around and started coming towards us. He was holding his gun inside his jacket. He looked around anxiously to see if anyone was going to stop him and then went down the escalator ... We heard some more gunfire and then another explosion, and then it was over.”

Security camera footage circulating on social media was said to show the moment one of the attackers was shot by a security guard. The footage, which could not be verified, showed the assailant dropping what appeared to be an assault rifle before collapsing to the floor. Seconds later he appeared to activate a suicide bomb.

“There were the sounds of gunfire, it was like thunder, then there was a fireball everywhere,” a taxi driver, named as Fatih, told CNNTurk. “My front window blew out, the car in front of me was turned into scrap.”

Fatih said that at the most two minutes passed between the gunfire and the explosion.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on all governments, especially in the west, to join forces in taking a “firm stand against terror”.

“The bombs that exploded in Istanbul today could have gone off at any airport in any city around the world. Make no mistake: for terrorist organisations there is no difference between Istanbul and London, Ankara and Berlin, Izmir and Chicago or Antalya and Rome.

“Unless all government and the entire mankind join forces in the fight against terrorism, much worse things than what we fear to imagine today will come true.”

Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdağ, told parliament in Ankara of the attack.

“I harshly condemn those who executed this terrorist attack, and those who gave the orders for it,” Bozdağ said.

Jared Malsin, a correspondent for Time, tweeted from the scene: “Hundreds of travellers now streaming out of the airport. Some saying they were trapped inside for 2+ hours … several witnesses confirming two separate explosions, the second one triggering a stampede inside the arrival hall.”

One witness, whose name was given as Omar, told TRT that his brother was wounded in the explosion at the arrivals hall as he was fetching his luggage. Covered in blood and in obvious distress, Omar described hearing both “the explosion” and “a lot of gun[fire]”.

He ran inside to look for his family, he said, and saw his brother lying on the floor. “I don’t know what to do,” he said.

There were only a handful of people at the stop of the Atatürk airport transfer buses in Taksim on Wednesday morning, but drivers said it was “business as usual”, and that normal service had resumed after the reopening of the terminal.

Engin Sürer, a taxi driver, said he had driven away from the international terminal about 30 minutes before the explosions and said he was still shaken by the attack. “I am not afraid to work, but of course I am nervous. I would have never thought that such an attack would be possible at the airport.”

He said that he had not been able to reach all of his colleagues on duty at the airport at the time of the explosions, one of which occurred near a taxi stand outside the international terminal.

Taxi driver Eftal Erdin, 55, said that he was angry after news circulated on social media saying that taxi drivers asked for much higher fees from people stranded at the airport after the attack.

“Many of our friends drove injured people to the surrounding hospitals for free. Those drivers have no shame, but we want the world to know that Turkey is not a bad place,” he said. “These attackers want to bring tourism in Turkey to its knees, but we want to make sure that people know that we will not allow for that to happen.”

Peter, 56, and Vlad, 21, both from London and currently on holiday in Istanbul, said they had not considered cutting their trip short.

“We are not delighted of course, and I briefly hesitated when booking this trip,” Peter, who preferred not to give his last name, said. “But I have been coming to Turkey a lot, it’s a beautiful country.

Maybe I would not have booked this trip if I would have to make the decision today, but I have lived in Belfast and the centre of London at the height of the Troubles, somehow one deals with it.”

Tourism, one of the country’s main economic sectors, has almost ground to a standstill as a result of the bloody string of attacks over the past year. Sitting in front of a tourism agency office, Abdulbakir Demir, 42, said that prospects were grim:

“With Eid coming up, business had just started to pick up again as well,” he said. “But now we are finished.” Motioning at the hotels and shops selling knickknacks in the streets around his agency, he added: “All of these will have to close down. This morning, our Eid reservations went down to 30%. People keep calling to cancel their holidays because of the explosion at the airport last night.”

One cargo plane pilot who preferred to remain anonymous andhad been waiting for take-off on the tarmac during the attacks said he was “definitely not afraid”: “That is what they want, isn’t it? But we will carry on and not let them scare us.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack police barred access to the airport and some flights were diverted away from Istanbul.

Turkish authorities issued a broadcast ban on the attack and Erdoğan held an emergency meeting with the prime minister and military commanders on Tuesday night.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blasts.

British foreign office officials said they were “urgently seeking further information” following the attack. The defence secretary, Philip Hammond, said he was “shocked” but “we stand ready to help”.

The attack on Turkey’s largest airport, and the third-busiest in Europe, is yet another ‘soft’ target attack, following on from the attack on Brussels airport in March which killed 32 people and injured more than 300.

It is also the third attack on Turkey’s biggest city this year.

The nation has been on high security alert after a string of terrorist attacks. Two deadly bombings in Istanbul earlier this year were blamed on Islamic State.

In early June a car suicide bomb killed 12 people in the central Vezneciler district of Istanbul in an attack claimed by radical Kurdish militants.

In just over one year, almost 300 people have died in 17 bomb attacks and suicide bombings all over the country, and more than 1,000 have been injured.

German cabinet approves spy service reform in wake of NSA controversy


The senior executive body of the German government has approved draft legislation that reforms the country’s intelligence services, following revelations that Germany helped the United States spy on European states. The legislation is seen as a response by the German government to a number of recent public controversies involving the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND.

In 2015, the BND was found to have secretly collaborated with the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on several European governments and private companies. According to German investigative magazine Der Spiegel, the BND used its facilities at Germany’s Bad Aibling listening station to help the NSA spy on, among other targets, the palace of the French president in Paris, the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, and the France-based European conglomerate Airbus. In response to the revelations, Airbus filed a criminal complaint against the German government, while Belgium and Switzerland launched official investigations into the joint BND-NSA activities.

The extent of the BND-NSA collaboration prompted widespread public criticism in Germany. In response to the criticism, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly fired the director of the BND in April of this year, in a move that surprised many. Gerhard Schindler, who had headed the BND since 2012, was replaced by Bruno Kahl, a senior official in the German Federal Ministry of Finance, who did not come from within the ranks of the BND. Additionally, the German chancellor authorized a parliamentary inquiry into the operations of the BND, which was completed last spring. The resulting 300-page report forms the basis of the draft legislation that was approved on Tuesday by the German cabinet.

The new legislation bans the BND from spying on foreign governments or corporations for the benefit of German companies. It also prevents it from spying on targets within the European Union, unless the operation pertains to “information to recognize and confront threats to internal or external security”. This is taken to mean operations relating to suspected terrorist activity that directly threatens German national security. The legislation also calls for the establishment of a new independent oversight body consisting of senior judges and representatives of the Office of the Federal Prosecutor, whose job will be to evaluate and approve the BND’s proposed espionage activities against foreign targets.

The legislation will need to be finalized through its approval by the German Federal Parliament, known as the Bundestag. The body is expected to approve the legislation before the beginning of its official summer break in mid-July.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

American spy for Israel released after 30-year sentence ‘still a threat to US’

Pollard - a

Senior United States intelligence officials have filed parole documents arguing that an American Navy analyst, who was recently released from prison after serving a 30-year sentence for spying for Israel, continues to pose a threat to national security. Jonathan Jay Pollard is a former intelligence analyst for the United States Navy, who has was jailed in 1985 for selling American government secrets to Israel. During his trial, the US government successfully argued that Pollard was one of the most damaging spies in American history, having stolen a high volume of classified documents in a relatively short period of time.

But Pollard was recently released from prison, having served his full 30-year sentence. However, as part of the conditions of his release, Pollard must consent to the US government having constant access to the hard drive of his personal computer and internet browsing history. He is also obligated to wear a GPS device at all times, which tracks his daily movements in New York, where Pollard has been living since his release from prison. Some intelligence observers, including Newsweek correspondent Jeff Stein, have voiced concerns that Pollard may be tempted to travel abroad in order to collect funds that his Israeli spy handlers may have deposited for him in offshore bank accounts as payment for his past acts of espionage.

Now Pollard’s lawyers have filed a legal brief arguing that his parole conditions are unnecessary and excessive, and that the US government should ease them considerably. However, documents filed late last week with the US Parole Commission by senior intelligence officers acting on behalf of the US Intelligence Community, make the case that Pollard’s parole conditions should continue unchanged. In a report published on Tuesday, the Daily Beast’s Shane Harris says the intelligence officers argue “forcefully” in the documents that Pollard “still poses a risk to national security”. One of the documents (.pdf), filed by Jennifer Hudson, Director of the Information Management Division at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, uses particularly stark language in support of maintaining Pollard’s parole conditions. Hudson argues that “some of the sources and methods used to develop some of the intelligence exposed by Mr. Pollard not only remain classified but are still in use by the Intelligence Community today”.

Harris quotes an unnamed “former senior US intelligence official familiar with Pollard’s case”, who argues that the spy may have known which “up-and-coming” Israeli or other Middle Eastern leaders US intelligence had recruited or was trying to recruit as agents in the early 1980s. These individuals may today be in positions of prominence, and Pollard may be able to harm them. In her declaration filed with the Parole Commission, the ODNI’s Hudson argues that Pollard could also compromise information gathered from US agents in Israel and elsewhere, which could potentially reveal their identities. “Even in cases where [these agents are] no longer alive, such disclosure can place in jeopardy the lives of individuals with whom the source had contact”, she writes.

There is, of course, another reason too, says Harris, for the resistance put up by the US Intelligence Community against easing Pollard’s restrictions: “US spies don’t easily forgive, and they don’t forget”, he says. Pollard’s former colleagues are still angry about his monumental betrayal. The Daily Beast says it contacted one of Pollard’s lawyers for a comment, but there was no response.

Recent gains against ISIS are not enough, may actually backfire, say experts

First Post H

Western experts and intelligence officials are warning that the recent military gains made against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not enough to damage it, and may in fact make the group stronger in the long run. Undoubtedly, the impressive momentum of ISIS, which calls itself the Islamic State, has been curtailed, and the image of invincibility that it once projected is no longer there. Observers estimate that the Sunni militant group has lost nearly a fifth of its territory in Syria, while it is no longer in control of about half of the land it used to occupy in Iraq. As a result of these territorial defeats, ISIS has lost a third of its oil production, which is believed to account for half of its overall revenue. Earlier this month, US President Barack Obama said that, as ISIS continues to concede territory, it is “losing the money that is its livelihood”.

But US intelligence officials do not seem to agree. Speaking on June 16 before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, cautioned against triumphalism. He told senators that the efforts of the international military coalition against ISIS “have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach”, adding that ISIS would “have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly”. According to Reuters, a number of US intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts support Brennan’s views. The news agency said on Wednesday that many experts are warning that the military campaign on the ground was “far from eradicating [ISIS] and could even backfire”.

The fact that local troops fighting ISIS are almost completely composed of Shiite Arabs from Iraq and Iran, or are Kurdish Peshmerga, could add legitimacy to ISIS as the protector of the Sunni Arab minority in the region. There are also reports of human rights violations against Sunnis by the advancing Shiite forces, including an unconfirmed allegation that 49 Sunni men of fighting age were executed after surrendering to the anti-ISIS coalition in Falluja. Additionally, if ISIS loses much more territory, it will be tempted to simply abandon conventional fighting tactics and turn into a guerrilla group. Reuters quotes RAND Corporation analyst Seth Jones, who argues: “It looks like the areas that the Islamic State has lost, they are generally abandoning, and that would mean preparing to fight another way”. That could mean that ISIS fighters intend to blend in with the urban population and launch a campaign of sabotage, assassination and disruption of government services.

As ISIS has lost ground in Iraq and Syria, the flow of foreign fighters intending to join the organization has dropped significantly. But that is not necessarily a good thing, says Reuters. These fighters, who in the past were instructed to join ISIS in the Middle East, may now be told to launch lone-wolf terrorist attacks abroad. The Reuters report cites one terrorism expert, Hassan Hassan, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, who argues that the international appeal of the Islamic State is not connected to the group’s military performance in the Middle East. In other words, its popularity among its Western followers will persist even if all of the group’s territorial strongholds are lost to its adversaries.

US, UK, had secret plan to bomb Middle East oil facilities if Soviets invaded

Recently uncovered documents shed further light on an ultra-secret plan, devised by the British and American governments, to destroy oil facilities in the Middle East in the event the region was invaded by Soviet troops. The documents, published on Thursday by George Washington University’s National Security Archive, were found in the British government archives and date from 1951 to 1955. They describe a top-secret United States plan known as NSC 26/2, which was approved by the National Security Council in 1949 and authorized by President Harry Truman. The plan aimed to prevent the use of Middle East oil facilities by Soviet troops if the latter were able to successfully invade the region.

American documents from the 1950s describe NSC 26/2 as a “denial policy”, which called for a secret collaboration between Middle East-based American and British oil companies. The goal was to sabotage or completely destroy oil facilities and equipment that were in British and American hands, before the Soviets could take them over. The most sensitive part of the plan was the need to keep it secret from the governments of Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, even though most of them were allies of the West at the time.

The existence of NSC 26/2 was first revealed in 1996, when the American newspaper Kansas City Star published an extensive article about it, written by Steve Everly. But the recently unearthed British documents shed more light than ever before on the intelligence aspects of the secret plan. Specifically, they reveal the leading role played by the Central Intelligence Agency in implementing the details of the plan in nearly every Middle Eastern country, including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. As part of the plan, the CIA systematically inserted what the National Security Archive describes as “undercover operatives” into posts in American and British oil companies. Their mission was to collect inside information and recruit other oil employees to facilitate the requirements of NSC 26/2. In essence, says the National Security Archive, the CIA created “a paramilitary force ready to execute the denial policy”.

Some of the documents also show that American and British leaders discussed the possibility of bombing —in some cases using nuclear weapons— some oil facilities in countries like Iraq and Iran that were state-owned and thus had no Western connections. In 1953, NSC 26/2 was updated and replaced with NSC 176, which was later renamed NSC 5401. The plan continued to call for the destruction of oil facilities in the Middle East, using “direct action”, if they were close to being seized by Soviet troops.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

ISIS threat to U.S. air bases, South Korea intelligence agency warns

ISIS has collected information on 77 U.S. and NATO air force facilities around the world and is calling on supporters to attack them, according to South Korea's intelligence agency.
The terror group has also released information on individuals in 21 countries, including the personal details of one employee of a South Korean welfare organization, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in a statement Sunday.
That person is now under protection, the agency said.
The NIS says ISIS' hacking organization, the United Cyber Caliphate, collected details of U.S. air force units in South Korea including Osan Air Base, and addresses and Google satellite maps have been released through the Telegram messaging service.
    In a statement Monday, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said it took the safety and security of its installations very seriously.
    "Through constant vigilance and regular exercises with our South Korean counterparts, we remain prepared to respond at any time to any emerging threats," the statement said.
    "USFK remains committed to ensuring the highest degree of security on the Korean Peninsula."
    Over the past five years, 50 people suspected of being part of terrorist organizations have been deported from South Korea, according to NIS.
    In its statement Sunday, the NIS warned that "terror against South Korean citizens and foreigners in this country is becoming a reality."

    Things heat up near South China Sea: two U.S. aircraft carriers, B-52s and EA-18G Growler detachment

    The U.S. build-up in the disputed waters of South China Sea continues with bombers, carriers and Electronic Attack planes.

    Some interesting photographs have been arriving from the troubled waters of Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
    The most recent ones, released on Jun. 18, show the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76)carrier strike groups (CSG 3 and CSG 5) crusing close each other during dual carrier flight operations in the Philippine Sea.
    Such operations included air combat training, long-range strike training, air defense drills as well as sea surveillance.
    The CSG 3, that started operations in the Western Pacific on Feb. 4, consists of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (CG 53) and guided-missile destroyers of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 21, USS Stockdale (DDG 106), USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93) and USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), and the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 9.
    CSG 5, begun its summer patrol of the Indo-Asia Pacific, on Jun. 4, and consists of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), guided-missile cruisers USS Shiloh (CG 67) and USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) and guided-missile destroyers from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 15, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54), USS McCampbell (DDG 85), USS Benfold (DDG 65); the aircraft of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan and routinely, patrols the Western Pacific.
    According to the U.S. Navy, the CSGs (Carrier Strike Groups) began coordinated operations in international waters to demonstrate “the United States unique capability to operate multiple carrier strike groups in close proximity.”
    U.S. Navy aircraft carriers regularly conduct dual carrier strike group operations in the Western Pacific and sometimes also in the South China Sea, East China Sea and Philippine Sea: this occurs when carriers deployed to the 7th Fleet area of operations from the U.S. West Coast are joined with the forward deployed carrier strike group from Japan. When it happens a force of 12,000 sailors, 140 aircraft, six combatants and two carriers operates in the same sea: an impressive “show of force.”
    Two carriers in South China Sea
    Previously, in Sept. 2012, USS George Washington (CVN 73) and USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) strike groups conducted combined operation in the South China Sea and East China Sea. In 2001, USS Constellation (CV 64) and Carl Vinson operated together in the South China Sea.
    A few days before the two carriers started combined operations, a joint service bombing exercise at the targeting island Farallon de Medinilla, an uninhabited small island in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean located 45 nautical miles north of Saipan, saw two U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers launched from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, fly over USS Spruance (DDG 111) in a maritime attack training sortie.
    Along with the two carrier strike groups and the B-52 providing extended deterrence, Washington has also deployed to the Philippines the first temporary detachment of Navy EA-18G Growlers.
    The electronic attack aircraft have arrived at Clark Air Base, on Jun. 15. Even though they are officially there to train with the local FA-50, the detachment, made of 4 aircraft and 120 personnel with the Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138, “will support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law.”
    Therefore, the strategical deployment brought not far from the disputed waters in the South China Sea some cutting-edge aircraft capable to perform electronic escort missions on both U.S. ships and spyplanes that are frequently shadowed by Chinese spyplanes or intelligence gathering ships. Furthermore, the Growlers could jam, if needed, the Chinese radars on the Spratly, Paracel, Pratas and the rest of the islands, including those that have been artificially created, decreasing Beijing ability to establish an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) similar to that in the East China Sea and to support its warplanes in the area.
    The presence of (some more…) EA-18Gs could theoretically limit the operations of the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLANAF) that, according to “Flashpoint China: Chinese air power and regional security” published by Harpia Publishing and written by Andreas Rupprecht, one of the most authoritative sources on Chinese Air Power, “are able to ensure virtually continuos, round-the-clock aerial coverage and combat air patrols over the area during a crisis or a conflict.”
    In particular, the PLANAF is pretty active in the area with a regiment each of H-6 bombers and JH-7 fighter-bombers and no fewer than three regiments of J-11 interceptors covering the South China Sea . “The availability of long-range J-11s and aerial refueling assets implies that much of the SCS [South China Sea] is now de-facto Chinese airspace,” says Rupprecht.
    It’s not a coincidence that a recent close encounter in the area involved few weeks ago two Chinese J-11 tactical aircraft that carried out an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft on a routine mission in international airspace over the South China Sea.
    VAQ-138 Clark AFB refuel
    The Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 138 is an expeditionary squadron based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, that has previously taken part in deployments across the region. The Growler detachment comes after a first temporary Air Contingent made of five A-10C Thunderbolt aircraft, three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and approximately 200 personnel deployed from multiple Pacific Air Forces units that took part in exercise Balikatan and completed their final mission on April 28, 2016.

    U.S. Navy officials say European exercises not 'saber-rattling'

    BERLIN (Reuters) - Top U.S. Navy officials say increased U.S. and NATO exercises in eastern Europe do not amount to "saber-rattling," but are necessary steps to train with allies and deter the most aggressive Russian maritime expansion in 30 years.
    Vice Admiral James Foggo, who heads the U.S. Navy's fleet in Europe and oversaw the annual NATO exercise that just ended in the Baltic Sea, told Reuters he was braced for incidents such as the one last April when two Russian warplanes flew simulated attack passed near a U.S. guided missile destroyer.
    But he said this year's 'Baltops' exercise saw "much less Russian activity and harassment" than in 2015, and Russian officials had apparently shifted to more strategic messages by senior politicians than tactical incidents like the flyover.
    He said Russian surveillance ships did shadow U.S. ships during the exercise, and Russian jets and helicopters flew over U.S. and British ships, but they stayed at a safe altitude and acted professionally. Russian and U.S. officials also met recently to discuss ways to avoid incidents at sea, Foggo said.
    Foggo and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus both rejected comments from German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who warned this weekend that NATO exercises in eastern Europe could raise tensions with Russia at a time when more cooperation was needed.
    "What we shouldn't do now is to inflame the situation by loud saber-rattling and shrill war cries," Steinmeier told Bild newspaper in an interview published on Sunday.
    Mabus said the remarks likely reflected domestic political issues, and stressed that Germany was part of the 28-member NATO alliance, which had agreed by consensus to carry out the exercises in question.
    "What’s important is what comes out of NATO, and what comes out of the defense ministerial and the summit in Warsaw," Mabus told Reuters in an interview in Berlin. "And the aim and the resolution of NATO are pretty clear in terms of deterrence and reassurance."
    NATO is increasing its defenses in Poland and the three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as part of a wider deterrent that NATO hopes will discourage Russia from a repeat of its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014.
    Russia sees NATO's deterrence plans as hostile.
    Mabus said increased U.S. shipbuilding deliveries - with the current fleet of 274 ships expected to grow to 308 by 2021 - would also allow the U.S. Navy to increase its presence in Europe for the first time in 15 years, even as it also boosts its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
    "Baltops was not about saber-rattling," Foggo said in an interview from his headquarters in Naples, Italy. "It was not our intent to look like or act like an aggressor force."He said Russia - which last participated in the Baltops exercise in 2012 - could be invited to resume participation if its behavior improved. But he said it was still unclear that Russia would want to participate.
    Foggo said NATO and the U.S. Navy needed to maintain dialogue with Russia to minimize the risk of accidents, while also keeping an eye on a 50 percent increase in Russian naval operations. He cited Russian plans to deploy six more submarines in the Black Sea, and said U.S. officials reported a level of submarine operations in the Mediterranean not seen since 1999.
    "We need to be vigilant and we need to hone our anti-submarine warfare skills," he said. "You must negotiate from a position of strength."

    Iran says it foiled ‘massive terrorist attack’ by Sunni militants

    Iranian intelligence officials said on Monday that they foiled “one of the largest terrorist attacks ever planned” against the country, allegedly plotted by Sunni militants aiming to inflict mass casualties during the month of Ramadan. A statement by the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence said that the attacks had been planned to take place simultaneously in the capital Tehran and several other Iranian cities. Iranian state-owned news agencies reported that an unspecified number of suspects had been arrested and were under interrogation by the authorities.
    The statement by the Intelligence Ministry provided few details, but said that the suspects were arrested in several raids conducted across Iran. It added that “a great deal of explosives and ammunition” were confiscated in the raids. The Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), which has close links with the Iranian government, said that the raids were personally coordinated by Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani. Shamkhani is secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, which is effectively the country’s national security council. Another government-controlled news agency, Fars, said that the terrorist plot aimed to attack civilian targets during the holy month of Ramadan, which is the most revered time on the Muslim religious calendar. Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, reported on Monday that the attacks had been planned for last Thursday, a day in the Iranian religious calendar when festivities are held to commemorate the death of Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the first wife of the Prophet Mohammed.
    None of the media reports identified those who were allegedly connected with the planned attacks. However, the reports repeatedly used the term ‘takfir’, a derogatory epithet used to describe Muslims who display militancy against those whom they consider to be ‘unbelievers’. The term is frequently employed by state-owned Iranian media to refer to the followers of the Islamic State, which Iran has been battling for over a year in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. However, IRNA referred to the alleged plotters as “Wahhabi takfiris”, possibly implying a link with Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state-promoted religious dogma. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have sunk to unprecedented lows in recent years. Last month, Iran said it would not allow religious pilgrims to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj pilgrimage, because the Saudi authorities had not responded to Tehran’s requests to provide security for Iranian pilgrims.

    Thursday, June 16, 2016

    Hungarian Far Right Party Politician Accused of Being KGB Spy

    The Hungarian government has requested that the European Parliament lift legal immunity on far-right MEP Bela Kovacs, so it can investigate allegations that he is a KGB agent.

    Kovacs is a member of nationalist party Jobbik and a vocal supporter of Russia, but now stands accused of being a KGB informer, following a honeytrap operation in the 1970s.

    "The case is currently in front of the European Parliament, after the Hungarian prosecutor general's office turned to its president requesting the suspension of MEP Béla Kovács' immunity," Hungary's prime minister's office confirmed to Newsweek.

    Hungarian investigators are currently awaiting a decision from Brussels to begin their investigation, which could see Kovacs jailed for more than 10 years if found guilty.

    The move follows revelations from Hungarian newspaper Index.

    On Tuesday, the newspaper reported that Kovac's wife, Russian Svetlana Izstosina, was legally married to two other men, one of them a nuclear scientist at Moscow State University.

    In the decades prior to Kovacs emergence into Hungarian politics on a nationalistic anti-EU platform, Kovacs and his wife travelled unhindered frequently to Russia, unhindered by the Soviet Union's strict border laws.

    Izstosina is alleged to have acted as a messenger for the Soviet government, with Kovacs acting as an accomplice after she acted as a honeytrap: a spy who seduced men to blackmail or extract information from them.

    According to intelligence and security sources quoted by the paper, Kovacs held "confidential" meetings with Russian diplomats in 2009.

    Kovacs denies allegations that he worked for a foreign intelligence agency. When confronted with evidence that his wife is also married to Masanori Omiya, a Japanese man, Kovacs reportedly told the newspaper, "I think I have as many questions for her as you do."

    The MEP has close ties to Russia, with Russian president Vladimir Putin calling for him to be an election monitor for the disputed Crimea referendum in March.

    Experts say that the KGB has infiltrated a number of far-right and far-left wing organisations in Europe in an attempt to undermine its strategic rival the EU.

    Russia ‘mobilizing for war’ warns Canadian intelligence report

    CSIS Canada

    A report by Canada’s primary intelligence agency warns in stark language that Russia is “retooling its military for a fight” and appears to be “mobilizing for war”. The classified report was accessed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the country’s state-owned broadcaster. According to the CBC, the document was produced by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s primary national intelligence service. It is titled 2018 Security Outlook and is described by the CBC as a “distillation” of information from open sources and publicly available academic research, without input from internal CSIS assessments.

    The 104-page report contends that, in the absence of any serious opposition inside Russia, the hardline nationalistic policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin are going unchallenged and becoming “more deeply entrenched”. When assessed collectively, Putin’s maneuvers in the area of national defense reveal that he is “retooling [the Russian] military for a fight”, claims the CSIS report. It goes on to add that Moscow “is not modernizing its military primarily to extend its capacity to pursue hybrid warfare”. The term ‘hybrid warfare’ is used by some experts to describe Russia’s utilization of irregular military tactics during its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and many believe that it points to the future evolution of Russian military thinking. But the CSIS document argues that President Putin is primarily modernizing Russian “conventional military capability on a large scale” and argues that “the state is mobilizing for war”.

    The CSIS report is believed to be among several reasons why Ottawa is considering contributing hundreds of troops to a new 4,000-strong North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force that is expected to be stationed in the Baltic States in the coming months. The Canadian intelligence agency argues in favor of a more aggressive NATO policy vis-à-vis Russia in its report, stating that the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow after the annexation of Crimea are not working. Instead of faltering due to outside economic pressures, the Kremlin “appears to be coherent, durable and united”, says CSIS. Consequently, “Western assessments that Russia is vulnerable to economic collapse and disruptive internal discontent are exaggerated”, according to the report. The document concludes that Russia is “adapting to diversity [by] deliberately tilting [its economy] to security, rather than economic freedom”.

    France Special Forces Building Military Base against ISIS in Syria’s Kobani

    France Special Forces Building Military Base against ISIS in Syria’s Kobani

    French Special Forces were tasked with training the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and building a military base near Kobani ahead of a major offensive on the ISIS-held city of Manbij, said a former Kobani official on Wednesday. 
    "French soldiers arrived in Kobani along with US troops to take part in liberating Manbij. They are primarily tasked with coordinating the US-led coalition airstrikes, consulting and providing training to Manbij's Military council and the Syrian Democratic Forces," said former Kobani official and political analyst Idris Nessan, Sputnik reported.

    The French on the ground are not expected to take part in combat, at least for now, and Nessan could not disclose how many French soldiers were present in Kobani, however he added that additional troops could arrive if required.

    Manbij is a strategically important city located southwest of Kobani in Northern Syria. It has been surrounded by Kurdish and Arab fighters, but ISIS militants are still maintaining their grip on the urban area itself.

    The siege has dealt a major blow to the terrorist group that relies heavily on unfettered access to Turkey that has allowed the organization to regroup, rearm and resupply. Manbij has also served as a key link between the border region and the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS.

    "France also intends to build a military base in Kobani. However, contrary to earlier reports, construction works will not take place at the Mistenur hill. The facility will instead be located in the South of Kobani," he explained.

    No military activity has been detected at Mistenur, he added.

    "In addition, this area is not suitable for building a base due to security reasons. The French forces have been stationed at a cement factory to the South of Kobani," he noted.

    France admitted that its special forces were deployed to Northern Syria last week. "We are helping with arms, we are helping with aerial support, we are helping with advice," France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

    French army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron later confirmed the information, but refused to provide additional information to protect the Special Forces involved in the operation, FNA reported.

    Syrian Jets Drop ‘Surrender Now’ Leaflets over ISIS-Held Regions in Raqqa

    Syrian Jets Drop ‘Surrender Now’ Leaflets over ISIS-Held Regions in Raqqa
    Syrian Jets Drop ‘Surrender Now’ Leaflets over ISIS-Held Regions in Raqqa

    The Syrian Army aircraft dropped leaflets reading “Surrender Now” over the ISIS-held regions in Raqqa province to give the Takfiri terrorists a last chance to lay down their arms and surrender to the authorities as soon as possible.

    The Syrian aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets over the terrorist group's strongholds in different towns and villages of Northeastern Raqqa province reading "surrender now; you have nowhere to go".

    "The Syrian army and its allies are advancing towards the ISIS bases across the province and the Takfiri terrorists' rule in the region is on the verge of collapse," the Syrian army underlined in its leaflets, adding, "The fate of those who try to fight against the Syrian army and nation will end in nothing but death."

    Sources in Raqqa province disclosed on Tuesday that simultaneous with the significant advances of the pro-government forces in the Western and Northern parts of the province in recent days, a large number of foreign fighters of the ISIS fled the battlefields to find shelters in other provinces or even in Iraq.

    "The ISIS fighters, including those from Saudi Arabia and Chechnya, have departed the ISIS. They have left alone their comrades after the victories, the Syrian Armed forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), gained against the Takfiri group near al-Tabaqa airbase and Tishrin dam," the sources said, adding, "The ISIS has forbidden access to fresh news about the developments in the battlefields."

    "Talking about news over the defeats of the ISIS in the battlefront can end in death penalty for ordinary people in Raqqa," the sources said, FNA reported.

    Belgian police received warnings that ISIS fighters are on their way to Europe

    A Belgian police officer patrols near an apartment building in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, Belgium, May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

    BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian police have received an anti-terror alert warning that a group of Islamic State fighters recently left Syria en route for Europe planning attacks in Belgium and France, a Belgian security source said on Wednesday.

    The Belgian crisis center in charge of coordinating security responses said an alert had been circulated to all police forces in the country but there were no immediate plans to raise the security level to the maximum that would indicate an imminent threat of an attack.

    A source at France's Interior Ministry said Belgian authorities had transmitted a note to their French counterparts, who were currently reviewing the information in the alert. "We know the threat is very high," the source said. "We're reviewing all the elements (in the alert)."

    Newspaper DH quoted the alert from Belgium's anti-terror cell as saying the group "left Syria about a week and a half ago aiming to reach Europe via Turkey and Greece by boat without passports", without giving an exact departure date.

    The Belgian security source confirmed the contents of the alert. The Belgian federal police declined to comment and the French source could not confirm the content.

    DH said the fighters were armed and aimed to split into two units, one aiming to carry out attacks in Belgium, the other in France. Potential targets in Belgium included a shopping center, a fast-food restaurant and a police station.

    It mentioned no specific targets in France, which is hosting the Euro 2016 soccer championships in 10 stadiums across the country until July 10. Some 2.5 million spectators are expected to watch the 51 matches.

    "We know there are fighters who are coming back (to Europe)," French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told a news conference on Wednesday, adding he could not confirm the specific alert from Belgium.

    The alert came two days after an attacker who pledged allegiance to Islamic State killed a French police commander and his partner at their home outside Paris, and four days after a gunman declaring loyalty to the Islamist militant group massacred 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

    No change in security level

    Belgian authorities raised the threat level for the capital Brussels to the maximum of four shortly after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and after suicide bombers killed 32 people at Brussels airport and on the city's metro on March 22. The status was lowered on each occasion after a few days.

    Belgian police have arrested a number of men of Moroccan origin suspected of direct or indirect involvement in the Paris and Brussels attacks.

    A spokesman for the Belgian crisis center said that despite the latest alert, the body that sets the security level did not have any indication of an imminent threat.

    "We are still at level three, which refers to a threat that is serious, and we have been at this level since November," he said. "It is true that you should be careful in areas with large concentrations of people... Security has already been reinforced at all these targets. For now, there has not been a change."

    Tuesday, June 14, 2016

    Orlando Gunman Seen At Gay Club Several Times

    Omar Mateen, suspected of shooting dead dozens of people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida Pic: MySpace 

    The gunman who killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando is reported to have been seen there several times before the massacre.

    CBS News has spoken to a US official with knowledge of the investigation who says club-goers had told investigators they had seen Omar Mateen at Pulse previously.

    Local newspaper The Orlando Sentinel reported that Mateen was seen drinking alone at the club by at least four people before the night when he opened fire.

    Orlando's The Pulse nightclub
    Orlando's The Pulse nightclub

    One club regular Ty Smith told the paper he had seen Mateen at least a dozen times.
    He said: "Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself.

    "And other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent.

    "We didn't really talk to him a lot, but I remember him saying things about his dad at times," Mr Smith added.

    "He told us he had a wife and child."

    Another Pulse-goer Kevin West told the Los Angeles Times that Mateen had messaged him several times using a gay chat app.

    The communication was on and off over the space of a year, he added.

    WFTV9, meanwhile, interviewed a gay former classmate of Mateen's who claimed the killer had asked him out after going to several gay bars with him.
    When his ex-wife Sitora Yusufiy was asked by CNN on Monday if he was gay, she sat in silence for a few seconds before answering: "I don't know."

    Orlando Police have so far refused to comment.

    Some have suggested his familiarity with the club may explain why he chose Pulse, rather than other clubs closer to his home in Port St Lucie, about 130 miles (200km) south of Orlando.

    The US-born security guard, a 29-year-old son of Afghan immigrants, shot dead 49 people on Sunday night and injured another 53 before being himself shot dead by police at the end of a hostage siege.

    Officers had to use an armoured vehicle to smash a 2-3ft hole through a wall to rescue dozens of people who had been hiding in a toilet.

    The FBI have said Mateen was investigated in 2013 over "inflammatory comments" suggesting "terrorist ties" and US media reported he made a phone call before the Orlando attack declaring allegiance to Islamic State.

    Orlando club killer Omar Mateen's father Siddique Mateen
    Orlando Killer's Father Speaks Out

    There have been reports that Mateen showed anger at seeing two men kissing, but his father has told Sky News a normal reaction would have been to say "it's a free country".

    Seddique Mateen told the New York Daily News his son is not gay.

    Friends and co-workers have described Omar Mateen as homophobic and "mentally unstable," while his ex-wife said he was violent and had bipolar disorder.

    The FBI is trying to establish whether Mateen had recently scouted Disney World as a potential target, as some reports suggested.

    US authorities have confirmed he was able to buy at least two guns in the days before Sunday's attack, despite confirmation from the FBI that he had been interviewed twice over possible terror links.


    Second U.S. aircraft carrier enters Mediterranean: U.S. Navy

    The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the Mediterranean late on Monday, the U.S. Navy said, at a time when U.S. officials are raising alarm over Russia's maritime expansion.

    The Eisenhower, also known as the "Ike," will relieve the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group which later this month heads back to the United States after an extended eight-month deployment.

    The Eisenhower, which also leads a strike group of cruisers, destroyers and warplanes, is scheduled to continue on to the Gulf to participate in U.S. air strikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Exact details of its deployment have not been released.

    Fighter jets based on the Truman have been carrying out air strikes against Islamic State from the Mediterranean since June 3.

    The Eisenhower's deployment is part of a rotation of U.S. forces supporting maritime security operations around the globe, the Navy said. Its strike group includes two guided-missile cruisers, four guided-missile destroyers and nine air squadrons.

    The Navy said the presence of two carrier strike groups in the Mediterranean showed the U.S. commitment to safety and security, while sending "a strong message of support to our allies and partners in Europe."

    The move coincides with NATO military exercises across eastern Europe and Turkey that may raise tensions with Russia.

    U.S. officials say Russia is operating warships and submarines in the Mediterranean and plans its own military exercises in coming weeks.

    Vice Admiral James Foggo, who heads the U.S. Navy's fleet in the Mediterranean, and naval analyst Alarik Fritz last week said Russia was aggressively expanding its surface and submarine maritime capabilities from the Arctic to the Black Sea.

    "Combined with extensive and frequent submarine patrols throughout the North Atlantic and Norwegian Sea, and forward-deployed forces in Syria, Russia has the capability to hold nearly all NATO maritime forces at risk," they wrote in the naval journal Proceedings.

    They said it was critical to leverage allied navies to work with NATO partners so they could respond to emergencies and protect maritime infrastructure.

    Russia last week said it would respond to a U.S. destroyer's entry into the Black Sea with unspecified measures, saying it and other deployments were designed to ratchet up tensions ahead of a NATO summit in Warsaw next month.