Thursday, October 12, 2017

US aircraft carrier drills with Japan as Air Force B-1 bombers buzz North Korea

uss ronald reagan
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan

A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the Ronald Reagan, is conducting drills with a Japanese warship in waters around Okinawa southwest of the Korean peninsula, Japan's military said on Wednesday. 

The exercise comes amid heightened tension with North Korea as the U.S. holds air drills in the region with B1-B bombers flown from Guam.

The exercise with the Reagan strike group, which began on Saturday, involves vessels sailing from the Bashi Channel, which separates the Philippines and Taiwan, to seas around Japan's southwest island nearer to North Korea, Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force said in a statement.

One Japanese destroyer, the Shimkaze, is accompanying the 100,000-ton Reagan, which is based in Japan, and its escort ships, the JMSDF said.

Major symposium on Dutch double spy Mata Hari to take place in London

Mata Hari

 A symposium about the life, activities and legacy of World War I-era double spy Mata Hari is to take place in London this month, on the 100th anniversary of her death by execution. Mata Hari was born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland in 1876. In 1895 she married Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch Army Captain of Scottish descent serving the Dutch colonial administration of what is now Indonesia. She eventually divorced the alcoholic and abusive MacLeod, who was 20 years her senior, and joined the circus in Paris. Eventually she became wildly popular as an exotic dancer, a position that placed her in direct and close contact with several influential men in France, including the millionaire industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet, who became her longtime lover. Several of her male devotees came from military backgrounds from various European countries. Most historians agree that by 1916 Mata Hari was working for French intelligence, gathering information from her German lovers. However, in February of the following year she was arrested by French counterintelligence officers in Paris and accused of spying on behalf of the German Empire. French prosecutors accused her of having provided Germany with tactical intelligence that cost the Triple Entente the lives of over 50,000 soldiers.

On October 28, an international symposium will take place at City University, one of 28 colleges and research centers that make up the University of London. Entitled “The Legacy of Mata Hari: Women and Transgression”, the symposium will bring together historians, museum curators, as well as intelligence and military experts who have spent decades studying the story of Mata Hari. They include her biographers from Holland, historians from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, German and French military intelligence historians, as well as a representative from the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. The symposium’s host and keynote speaker is Dr Julie Wheelwright, Lecturer in Creative Writing (non-fiction) and director of the Master’s program in Creative Writing at City University. Dr Wheelwright is considered one of the world’s foremost specialists on Mata Hari and is author of the 1992 book The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage.

The organizers of the symposium say that recently unearthed personal letters by leading figures in Mata Hari’s life, as well as newly declassified government documents, present researchers with a unique opportunity to reassess the Dutch double spy’s character, motives and legacy. Another purpose of the symposium will be to explore the reality and stereotypes of the use of female sexuality in espionage, the role of women in war and intelligence, as well as the historical contribution of women spies in World War I. Several other events are planned on the occasion of the centenary of Mata Hari’s death across Europe, including a major new exhibition about her in her home down of Leeuwarden in Holland’s Fries Museum, which is scheduled to open later this month.

 Author: Joseph Fitsanakis

Israel reportedly behind discovery of Russian antivirus company’s spy links

Computer hacking

Israeli spy services were reportedly behind the United States government’s recent decision to purge Kaspersky Lab antivirus software from its computers, citing possible collusion with Russian intelligence. Last month, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a directive ordering that all government computers should be free of software products designed by Kaspersky Lab. Formed in the late 1990s by Russian cybersecurity expert Eugene Kaspersky, the multinational antivirus software provider operates out of Moscow but is technically based in the United Kingdom. Its antivirus and cybersecurity products are installed on tens of millions of computers around the world, including computers belonging to government agencies in the US and elsewhere. But last month’s memorandum by the US government’s domestic security arm alarmed the cybersecurity community by alleging direct operational links between the antivirus company and the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that the initial piece of intelligence that alerted the US government to the alleged links between Kaspersky Lab and Moscow was provided by Israel. The American paper said that Israeli cyber spies managed to hack into Kaspersky’s systems and confirm the heavy presence of Russian government operatives there. The Times’ report stated that the Israelis documented real-time cyber espionage operations by the Russians, which targeted the government computer systems of foreign governments, including the United States’. The Israeli spies then reportedly approached their American counterparts and told them that Kaspersky Lab software was being used by Russian intelligence services as a backdoor to millions of computers worldwide. The Israelis also concluded that Kaspersky’s antivirus software was used to illegally steal files from these computers, which were essentially infected by spy software operated by the Russian government.

It was following the tip by the Israelis that he Department of Homeland Security issued its memorandum saying that it was “concerned about the ties between certain Kaspersky [Lab] officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies”. The memorandum resulted in a decision by the US government —overwhelmingly supported by Congress— to scrap all Kaspersky software from its computer systems. Kaspersky Lab has rejected allegations that it works with Russian intelligence. In a statement issued in May of this year, the company said it had “never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis

Britain’s main threats are from Russia and jihadi terrorists – our defence policy should reflect that.

.HMS Ocean is at risk from defence spending cuts.
 HMS Ocean is at risk from defence spending cuts.

Since 2015, British defence and security policy has been defined by two words: “global reach”. Britain, said the national security strategy hastily written by the incoming Tory government, should have the ability to zap any location on the planet. Now, as the government trawls through the defence budget to try to find ways to plug a £20bn hole, the entire concept is being held up to ridicule. It is our already depleted navy that’s getting zapped.

Two Royal Navy amphibious landing ships – HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion – are being considered for the chop, together with 28 brand-new Wildcat helicopters, designed for warfare against ships and submarines. Other options include cutting 1,000 soldiers from the Royal Marines, on top of 200 lost already, and scrapping the helicopter ship HMS Ocean.

The move has prompted outrage in south-west England, where much of the Royal Navy is based and was, it emerged last week, the trigger for the resignation of the commander of the UK’s maritime forces. Predictably, even backbench Tories are now agitating to save this or that favoured segment of the military. What is needed is something much more radical: to scrap the policy of “global reach” and start afresh.

The strategic defence review and the accompanying strategy statement were hailed in 2015 as a triumph of process. Guided by the cabinet’s two least inspiring figures – Philip Hammond as foreign secretary and Michael Fallon at the Ministry of Defence – Britain managed to re-commit itself to a vast military presence east of the Suez canal without anybody in parliament seeming to notice.

On top of that, it had begun the conversion of the two army units into “strike brigades”, designed to invade other countries by land or sea. And it had committed the UK to both replacing the Trident missile submarines and deploying both of the new aircraft carriers commissioned under Gordon Brown. The only thing missing amid the flurry of maps and organograms, was a clear understanding of the evolving threats to Britain.

These, as we now understand, are the jihadi terrorism of Islamic State and the hybrid warfare being waged against all western democracies by Vladimir Putin. Even in 2015 it was clear that the major and strategic threat to the global order came from unilateral actions by Moscow. Crimea had been annexed, Ukraine for all practical purposes partitioned and the mass murder of passengers on MH17 traced to Russian backed and armed rebels. Yet the security strategy busied itself with trade issues, the aid budget, a vanity naval base in Bahrain and training missions to Malaysia and Singapore.

At the core of the strategy was the protection of a “rules-based international order and its institutions”. But since 2015, two rather big holes have appeared in that rules-based order. First, British voters decided to break up one of its vital institutions, the EU; then the Kremlin manipulated the US electoral system so effectively that a man under investigation for links with Russian intelligence is now commander-in-chief of the US military.

The rules-based order is in disarray; the UK’s place in it uncertain – and the UK’s military capabilities are being slashed piecemeal to the diktats of an austerity budget that does not make sense. As to the foreign secretary – the person nominally in charge of handling these problems – it does not seem likely that he will be around long enough to apply his mind to them.

The whole situation calls for a rethink and it looks, incredibly, as if Labour is better equipped to lead it.

Theresa May offered, in her Florence speech, a new security treaty between Britain and the EU. But she did not say what would be in it. They know what is not in it: the Tories have ruled out any participation in the EU armed forces, or EU foreign and security policy after Brexit. Yet Europe has to be the main security focus of the UK for the foreseeable future for two linked reasons. First, because Europe is where Islamist terror cells have been planning operations against British citizens, both here and abroad. Second, because Putin’s strategic aim is to disrupt Europe, rendering it “multipolar” – with some states and many opposition parties polarised towards Moscow’s interests. The mini-review going on behind closed doors in Whitehall should be halted and brought out into the open. The ships and naval helicopters being earmarked for the chop are vital components of the conventional deterrent Britain is committed to providing via Nato in the Baltic. Instead of another round of piecemeal cuts, the government has to decide how the forces and equipment specified in 2015 are supposed to work amid the new global and regional insecurity.

There is a big opportunity here for Labour. Having buried the issue of Trident renewal, it could bury concerns about its commitment to national security with a clear commitment to stop and reverse defence cuts.

The changed pattern of terrorist attacks in the summer has prompted a scramble to centralise intelligence resources and rethink counter-terror tactics. That’s good. But ask “What are we doing about Putin’s attempt to dismember Europe?” and the most honest answer you’ll get is: helping him.
Between 2011 and 2015, the Tories implemented real defence spending cuts totalling 13%. Even if the government meets in full its obligation to spend 2% of GDP on defence, with GDP growing slowly and sterling depressed against the dollar, that is already delivering fewer resources than intended.

Nobody can predict how threats to the UK will evolve. But when you see Spain wracked with civil unrest and some parts of Germany voting 20%-plus for the far-right, it is rational to believe those threats will evolve in Europe. All we can ask of the military technocrats is that they design forces and commission equipment flexible enough to meet the evolving challenge.

What we can ask of government is strategic clarity and money. But there is none.

Al Qaeda Spinoffs Rise from Syrian Ashes

Al Qaeda in Syria

One of the most worrisome trend lines in the Syrian civil war has been the accelerated growth of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which seized control of Syria’s northwestern Idlib province over the summer and has transformed into the de facto face of the country’s anti-Assad campaign.

Throughout the six-year-old Syrian civil war, numerous militias, such as the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham, have taken up arms against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they attempt to force the loathed leader from power.

Other rebel factions, however, including the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, have prioritized ousting ISIS from its strongholds in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa as well as in Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zour province.

As different groups gain or cede territory over the course of the conflict, HTS’ power and prestige among the Syrian people has only increased.

“HTS is emerging as the most formidable fighting force in Syria and is attracting more and more jihadists – foot soldiers and leaders – from other groups inside the country,” says Emile Nakhleh, Cipher Brief expert and a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service. “HTS’ three-pronged strategy of appearing more Syrian, more focused on Assad, and more anti-Shia is enhancing its credibility and legitimacy, and propelling it to the forefront of the anti-Assad jihad in Syria.”
Last month, while speaking at an event at the New America Foundation, former White House counterterrorism director Joshua Geltzer called the threat posed by al Qaeda in Syria billed the jihadist group as the al Qaeda network’s “largest global affiliate,” with an estimated force of at least 10,000 fighters.

Al Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot developed in 2011 against the backdrop of Syria’s civil war. The group, then known as Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front, quickly emerged as one of the most potent rebel movements fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In January 2012, it released its first video outlining its objectives: overthrow Assad and institute an Islamic government in Syria based on Sharia law.

The U.S. State Department designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in December 2012, and the organization continued to serve as al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria until last summer when its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani announced that his group was “splitting” from the al Qaeda network and rebranding itself as Jabhat Fateh el-Sham (JFS).

Counterterrorism experts immediately dismissed the idea that a real separation had occurred.  Pointing out that just a few months prior, al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a statement in which he offered his blessing for al-Nusra to break away from al Qaeda and unite with other jihadi factions fighting in Syria, many saw this simply as a means of procuring new partnerships and additional sources of financing from individuals and organizations hesitant to support an overt al Qaeda branch. Moreover, during his video announcement, Julani declared his reverence for Osama bin Laden and his intention to establish an Islamic state in Syria, further indicating his continued adherence to al Qaeda’s doctrine.

This January, JFS merged with four smaller Syrian jihadist factions to form an umbrella organization called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now dominates the two million people living in Idlib province, the most populous area held by rebels.

Since the group’s latest rebranding, it has accumulated strength at an alarming rate, managed to essentially push its main rival, the Turkish-backed Ahrah al Sham, out of Idlib province, and worked to present itself as an anti-Assad force fighting on behalf of the Syrian people instead of a purely jihadist movement – all while likely retaining its clandestine ties to al Qaeda, according to counterterrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Earlier this month, HTS faced a minor setback after two of its significant fighting factions, Nour el-Din al-Zinki and Jaish al-Ahrar, broke away from the alliance. Then last week, HTS announced a change in leadership as Julani was appointed to head the organization in place of Abu Jaber al-Sheikh, who was selected as leader when the groups merged in January. HTS gave no reason for the resignation, adding in a statement that al-Sheikh had been appointed head of its Shura Council.

Nonetheless, by emphasizing its anti-Assad campaign, HTS has managed to tighten its grip on Idlib province and galvanize support under the radar while ISIS bears the blunt of U.S. and international force.

“Jihadist groups have a tendency to intermingle the local with the transnational, so we should not take its current local prioritization as unchangeable,” Gartenstein-Ross told The Cipher Brief. “But,” he said, “the group is currently emphasizing the local, while its overarching objectives remain transnational.”

And despite its targeted, anti-Assad messaging in Syria, HTS’ long-term objectives still align with al Qaeda’s desire to attack the “far enemy,” the United States.

“If HTS believes that American forces and military operations in Syria aim at thwarting HTS’ goal of toppling the Assad regime and establishing a Sunni emirate, the group will begin to engage American troops in Syria,” Nakhleh explains.

“Once it achieves its short-and medium term objectives, the threat to the U.S. becomes more real.”

British IS recruiter Sally Jones killed in Syria drone strike

British jihadi Sally Jones, one of Islamic State's top recruiters, is alive and trying to escape from the Syrian city of Raqqa
Jones became known as the White Widow after the death of her husband
The former punk rocker from Kent fled to Syria with her son in 2013 and became a leading recruitment officer for Islamic State.
The Government was informed by CIA chiefs in June that US forces had killed Jones, 50, in a missile strike close to the Iraq/Syria border, The Sun reports.
However, it was kept secret on both sides of the Atlantic over fears her 12-year-old son Jojo may have also died in the blast.

The Sun says Britain's most wanted woman, Sally Jones, has been killed in a drone strike
The CIA informed No 10 about the attack in June, according to The Sun
It remains unclear if he was killed and sources said the attack would have been aborted if it was known he was close by, the newspaper added.
Sky's Defence Correspondent Alistair Bunkall said: "UK Defence sources have told Sky News they believe the strike was successful but question some of the detail being reported in the media.
"The UK and US military has been working closely together on a number of high-profile targets in recent months and Jones is believed to have been on that list."
Jones became known as the White Widow after her British jihadist husband Junaid Hussain was killed in a US drone strike in August 2015.
Before fleeing to Syria, computer hacker Hussain admitted publishing Tony Blair's address in 2011 and was jailed for six months after making hoax calls to a UK counter-terror hotline a year later.

IS recruiter Sally Jones is known to be alive in Raqqa
IS recruiter Sally Jones fled to Syria in 2013

At the time of his death, the 21-year-old from Birmingham had allegedly been planning "barbaric attacks against the West", including terror plots targeting "high profile public commemorations".
In an exclusive report in 2015, Sky News revealed the couple used online messaging services to urge British would-be recruits to carry out "lone wolf" attacks in the UK.
In one conversation with an undercover journalist, Jones detailed the materials needed to make a bomb and said she could help construct a device remotely.
Following the death of Hussain, Jones was reportedly placed in charge of the female wing of IS' Anwar al-Awlaki batallion - a foreign fighter unit formed with the purpose of planning and executing attacks in the West.
The 50-year-old used her Twitter account to recruit women and shared pictures of herself with weapons.

 Junaid Hussain

Hussain was killed in a US drone strike in August 2015

She also posted comments such as: "You Christians all need beheading with a nice blunt knife and stuck on the railings at Raqqa ... Come here I'll do it for you."
Despite this, Sky News was told in June that the jihadist was not happy in Syria and wanted to return to Britain.
The wife of another immigrant to the so-called Islamic caliphate said she knew Jones and described her as "very cute".
She added: "(Jones) was crying and wants to get back to Britain but ISIS is preventing her because she is now a military wife. She told me she wish to go to her country."
Major General Chip Chapman, the former MoD head of counter terror, told Sky News that Jones was a "significant" target for the US and UK.

Former punk rocker Jones became a leading IS recruiter
 Former punk rocker Jones became a leading IS recruiter

He said: "Recently IS have said women should get involved in jihad - that's a sign of weakness.
"If you take out those who are high value target women it is going to have an impact at the operation level of IS."
Asked about reports Jones' son was killed in the strike, Maj Gen Chapman added: "It is a difficult one because under the UN Charters he is under the age of what we would classify as a soldier."
He continued: "Even if he got up to really bad things, he shouldn't have been targeted. We don't know for sure whether he was with her or not."