Thursday, April 19, 2018

Canada evacuates diplomats’ families from Cuba, citing mysterious brain injuries


 Embassy of Canada in Havana, Cuba

The government of Canada has announced plans to evacuate family members of its diplomats serving in Cuba, because of medical issues caused by an alleged espionage-related technological device. These concerns have persisted among United States and Canadian diplomatic staff since the fall of 2016, when several members of staff at the US embassy in Havana reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. Eventually, their symptoms became so serious that some American diplomats decided “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”, according to the Associated Press, which published this story in August of 2016.
Since that time, the US Department of State has said that 21 of its diplomatic and support staff have been diagnosed with brain injuries. In response to these concerns, Washington recalled the majority of its diplomats from Havana last September and issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island. Now the Canadian embassy has said it will evacuate all family members of its personnel stationed in Havana, according to the BBC. The government of Canada is believed to have made the decision to evacuate its citizens after it confirmed that at least 10 members of diplomatic families living on the island had been found to suffer from “unexplained brain symptoms”, according to Canadian government officials. These include regular spells of dizziness and nausea, as well as difficulty in concentrating on tasks.
Interestingly, Canadian experts have dismissed theories, emanating mostly from the US, that the mysterious brain symptoms come from a mysterious covert weapon that emits sonic waves. But some Canadian experts have said that the symptoms suffered by the diplomats and their families may point to a new illness, whose cause remains unknown. Cuba has dismissed repeated allegations by Washington that it allowed a third party —possibly Russia—to conduct sonic attacks against Western diplomats on the island. Cuban officials have described the allegations as tricks in a game of “political manipulation” that has been concocted by the White House to damage the bilateral relationship between the US and the government of the Caribbean island.

Islamic State propagandists seek to undermine rival jihadists in Syria



The Islamic State’s so-called province in Damascus released a video on Apr. 11 that is intended to undermine the ideological legitimacy of the group’s rivals, including al Qaeda and Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS).
The 18-minute plus production, titled “So Will They Not Repent to Allah,” opens with footage of Bashar al-Assad’s regime dropping explosives and victims’ bodies being pulled from leveled buildings. It quickly moves to a brief and self-serving history of the jihad in Syria, lauding Al Nusrah Front for its early role in the war. At the time, prior to early 2013, Al Nusrah was an arm of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). And Al Nusrah’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani, was Baghdadi’s subordinate.
A narrator blasts Al Nusrah for supposedly choosing “a new path” by disobeying Baghdadi and swearing fealty to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri (seen below). A masked jihadist claims that Al Nusrah then switched from fighting Assad’s regime and its allies to operating against the “pious,” meaning the Islamic State’s loyalists. This undermined the mujahideen’s efforts to rule according to sharia, he says. In addition, Julani is labeled a “traitor” for his betrayal of Baghdadi.
Although the video has some truth in it, it offers a selective interpretation of history. Significant evidence shows that Baghdadi’s ISI was a part of al Qaeda’s global network, despite management problems and disagreements. The ISI adhered to many of al Qaeda’s directives, including abstaining from attacks inside Iran, and al Qaeda’s senior leaders addressed Baghdadi, as well as his predecessors, as their lieutenants.
In addition, Al Nusrah did not stop targeting the Assad regime after breaking from Baghdadi, as the Islamic State’s propagandists argue. Indeed, Al Nusrah led the Jaysh al Fateh alliance that swept through Idlib province in 2015, clearing out many of Assad’s strongholds in the process. And Al Nusrah’s men continued to fight Assad’s forces thereafter, including after the group was relaunched as HTS in Jan. 2017.
HTS itself regularly accuses the Islamic State of focusing its operations on rival Sunni jihadists and Islamists, rather than the Syrian regime, even comparing Baghdadi to Assad himself. So the Islamic State’s video is an attempt to return the charge. (In reality, both HTS and the Islamic State regularly clash with Assad’s armed forces and their irregular, Iranian-backed allies.)
The Damascus “province” eagerly trumpets HTS’s allegedly heavy “losses” at the hands of the regime, while also advertising its own operations against Assad’s fighters. A number of grisly scenes depict Islamic State snipers and assassins killing Assad’s men. The Islamic State’s propagandists portray the group as the key opponent to the Syrian government, pointing to areas in and around Damascus where other groups have ceded ground. Some of the footage was recorded in the Qadam neighborhood of Damascus, where Baghdadi’s jihadists continued to fight even after others were vanquished.
The video’s narrator and masked witness tick off other problems HTS has encountered, highlighting the group’s decision to detain al Qaeda loyalists such as Sami al-Uraydi, a Jordanian ideologue who has been one of Julani’s staunchest critics. One image, seen above, depicts Uraydi behind bars. Uraydi was released by HTS, but only after veteran jihadis formed a mediation council and interceded. The Islamic State also criticizes Julani’s and HTS’s alliances with “apostate” rebel groups inside Syria and Al Nusrah’s decision to rebrand itself more than once. Baghdadi’s loyalists take aim at other jihadi personalities in Syria, including Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al Muhaysini, as well.
All of this is intended to convince HTS members to defect to Baghdadi’s cause. The masked Islamic State member calls on HTS jihadists to leave their group, “repent” and “turn to Allah.”
The Damascus province’s video followed an article in the Islamic State’s weekly An Naba magazine that was critical of al Qaeda. In the 126th issue of An Naba, released earlier this month, the Islamic State accused al Qaeda’s leaders of of placing “the safety of their organization over the safety of religion.”
There has been some speculation that the Islamic State may be willing to rejoin al Qaeda now that it has lost most of the territory it once controlled. However, the organization’s recent propaganda efforts demonstrate that it retains its animosity for al Qaeda and HTS. Some Islamic State figures and factions may be tempted by al Qaeda’s reconciliation efforts and rejoin their former brethren. The competition between the Islamic State and al Qaeda may vary from one jihadi theater to the next, and the situation could also evolve over time. But the mother group continues to produce messages that are intended to weaken its jihadist rivals.

Israel's Elite Intelligence Unit Helped Foil ISIS Plane Bombing in Australia, Army Reveals

An illustrative photo of a Mitsubishi passenger airplane, 2015.


Israeli intelligence helped foil an Islamic State passenger-plane bombing against Australia last year, after the 8200 intelligence unit passed on crucial information, the Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday after the lifting of a gag order.
According to the IDF, arrests were made at a very advanced stage of planning late last year, possibly reflecting the latest such success by Israeli intelligence in a matter of months.
The Australian Federal Police said at the time that four men had been arrested after law enforcement became "aware of information that suggested some people in Sydney were planning to commit a terrorist act using an improvised device."
AFP added that they believed it was a case of "Islamic-inspired terrorism" and that several properties had been searched across four Sydney suburbs.
Members of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence and cyberwarfare Unit 8200, in 2013.
In May, The Washington Post and The New York Times reportedthat U.S. President Donald Trump had told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about an Islamic State plan to slip a laptop rigged with a bomb onto a passenger plane. The foreign press ascribed the intelligence to Israel.
In recent years the high-tech 8200 unit has been studying the Islamic State’s threat to Israel, Jews and Israeli tourists around the world. Now that the group has been defeated in Syria and Iraq, 8200 is keeping an eye on its fighters who have scattered – some to their home counties and some, worryingly for Israel, to the neighboring Sinai Peninsula.
The 8200 unit and the IDF’s telecommunications forces recently thwarted an Iranian hacking attack against private and government Israeli sites after learning of the attempt early in the process.





Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Russia claims 71 out of 105 cruise missiles were downed in air strikes.




Pentagon Publishes Effective Strike Data. Russia Claims 71 Cruise Missiles Downed.

The United States, France and the United Kingdom launched strikes against targets in Syria on Friday night U.S. time, early morning in Syria. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. General Joseph Dunford, told news media that the strikes hit three targets inside Syria.
The targets included a research facility in the Syrian capital of Damascus alleged to be used in chemical weapons production, a storage facility thought to house chemical weapon stockpiles west of Homs, Syria and a command and control facility outside Homs claimed to also be used for weapons storage.
image: https://theaviationist.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Targets.jpg
A chart released by the Pentagon showing the three sites targeted by the air strike on Apr. 14.
The last cruise missiles may have landed in Syria for now but the propaganda war is in full swing between the U.S. and its allies as Russia and Syria claim vastly different results from overnight strikes.
Soon after the strikes in Syria ended today Russian news media claimed that 71 cruise missiles were intercepted during the strikes on Syria Friday night/Saturday morning. In a press conference today, Russian Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff, Colonel Sergei Rudskoy, said Syrian military facilities had suffered only minor damage from the strikes.
By contrast, in a press conference on Saturday morning, April 14, U.S. Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told journalists the U.S. and its allies, “successfully hit every target” during the strikes from the U.S., Britain and France. U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., The Director of the Joint Staff (DJS) displayed photos of targets that were hit in Syria during the press conference. “We are confident that all of our missiles reached their targets,” Lt. Gen. McKenzie told reporters, in direct contrast to Russian claims that cruise missiles were shot down by Syrian defenses.
The U.S. released the following details on weapons employed in the overnight strike:
From the Red Sea:
USS Monterey (Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser) – 30 Tomahawk missiles
USS Laboon (Arleigh Burke-class destroyer) – 7 Tomahawk missiles
From the North Arabian Gulf:
USS Higgins (Arleigh Burke-class destroyer) – 23 Tomahawk missiles
From the eastern Mediterranean:
USS John Warner (Virginia class submarine) – 6 Tomahawk missiles
A French frigate ship (could not understand name) – 3 missiles (naval version of SCALP missiles)
From the air:
2 B-1 Lancer bombers – 19 joint air to surface standoff missiles
British flew a combination of Tornado and Typhoon jets – 8 Storm Shadow missiles
French flew a combination of Rafales and Mirages – 9 SCALP missiles
The above order of battle does not include the F-16s and F-15s aircraft providing DCA (Defensive Counter Air) nor the U.S. Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler that provided EW escort to the B-1s.
One fact that both sides seem to agree on is that all U.S., French and UK aircraft involved in the strike returned to their bases successfully. Ships that participated in the strike remained at sea without armed confrontation from Syria or Russia. This alone marks a victory for the allied forces striking Syria following a week of rhetoric by Russia about defending Syrian interests. Based on this outcome it would appear the U.S. and its allies can strike targets in the heavily defended region with impunity. U.S President Donald Trump tweeted “Mission accomplished!” on Saturday morning.
While claims of success or failure by either side in a conflict are usually manipulated to control public perceptions Russia does have a long reputation for effective and highly adaptive air defense systems, as the U.S. does for precision strike success using cruise missiles. Russia also has a reputation for using media as a tool to craft perception of outcomes, historically to a greater degree than the U.S. But despite Russia’s admittedly dangerous air defense technology in Syria, it would appear the three nations delivering the overnight strikes in Syria achieved their objectives without loss.
One potential factor that may have influenced the effectiveness of some U.S. weapons systems was that the U.S. Administration was very vocal about the upcoming strikes, giving significant advanced warning to Russian-supplied Syrian air defense units. It is reasonable to suggest that Syrian air defense units spent this entire previous week preparing for a predicted U.S. and allied strike on Syria. Based on intelligence gathered by Syrian and Russian air defense crews from the U.S. strike exactly a year and a week ago on Shayrat Airbase in Syria, air defense crews were likely well-drilled and prepared to meet a U.S.-led attack on their claimed chemical weapons facilities. By contrast, this also gave the U.S led trio of nations participating in the strike time to gather intelligence about Syrian air defense capabilities so attack plans could be optimized to avoid losses. This approach appears to have prevailed in this strike.
If Syrian air defense units were ineffective in stopping U.S. cruise missiles, and most information now points to that outcome (actually, it looks like the Syrians fired their missiles after the last missile had hit), this represents a significant blow to the Assad regime and to Russia’s ability to assist in an effective air defense in the region.
The Tomahawk missile, one of several stand-off weapons used in the overnight strikes in Syria, is an older and still effective weapons platform especially in its most updated versions. Tomahawks were first employed in the 1991 strikes against Iraq when 288 of them were fired in the opening days of the war. While first adopted over 35 years ago, the Tomahawk has been repeatedly upgraded but remains somewhat limited by its overall dimensions that prevent it from having a larger engine installed that would deliver greater speed. The missile currently flies to its target at low altitude and subsonic speeds of about 550 miles per hour. This low speed may make it vulnerable to sophisticated air defense systems Russia is known for such as its advanced S-400 system, called the SA-21 Growler in the west. However, the low altitude flight profile of an attacking Tomahawk, its ability to use terrain masking for cover and concealment and its relatively small size, significantly smaller than a manned combat aircraft, make it a difficult target for even the most advanced air defense systems.
The Russian supplied air defense systems in use in Syria that include the S-400 missile and its 92N6E “Gravestone” fire control radar along with other systems are highly mobile and highly adaptive. That means that, while intelligence sources can pinpoint the locations of Syrian air defense systems prior to a strike, those systems can be moved in the hours before a strike to present a different threat posture to attacking missiles and aircraft. Most of the launch platforms for the BGM-109 Tomahawk are large, non-stealthy surface ships, although submerged submarines also launch Tomahawks. The newest version Block IV Tomahawk missile employs several upgrades to its guidance and targeting systems that improve accuracy and flexibility, but may increase time over a target area, making the missile potentially more vulnerable to sophisticated air defense systems.
It is likely more modern stand-off weapons like the UK’s MBDA Storm Shadow and French SCALP-EG cruise missile along with the new AGM-158 JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range) were highly effective in Friday night’s strike on Syria by UK, France and the U.S. If this were the case the Tomahawks may have served a purpose by engaging relatively lightly defended targets while attacks by the more recent version of SCALP and JASSM-ER missiles could have struck more heavily defended targets.
As with most conflicts the ancient cliché about the truth being one of the first casualties seems to be true in this latest exchange in Syria, but the emerging strike intelligence from the U.S., England and France suggest this round goes to them and a significant blow was dealt to the Russian-backed Assad.
image: https://theaviationist.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/B-1-take-off.jpg
One the B-1s involved in the air strikes takes off from Al Udeid, Qatar. Image credit: US DoD via Oriana Pawlyk



Russian ex-spy sees link between Skripal and GCHQ officer found dead in 2010

Boris Karpichkov


A former officer in the Soviet KGB, who now lives in the United Kingdom, is to be questioned by British police after alleging that there is a link between the recent poisoning of Sergei Skripal and the mysterious death of a British intelligence officer in 2010. There has been extensive media coverage in the past month of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s and has been living in England since 2010. Nearly every European country, as well as Canada, Australia and the United States, expelledRussian diplomats in response to the attack on the Russian former spy, which has been widely blamed on the Kremlin.
But eight years ago, another mysterious attack on a spy in Britain drew the attention of the world’s media. Gareth Williams, a mathematician in the employment of Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, had been seconded to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Britain’s external intelligence agency, to help automate intelligence collection. He had also worked with United States agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. But his career came to an abrupt end in August 2010, when he was found dead inside a padlocked sports bag at his home in Pimlico, London. It remains unknown whether his death resulted from an attack by assailants.
Last weekend, however, Boris Karpichkov, a former intelligence officer in the Soviet KGB and its post-Soviet successor, the FSB, said that Williams was killed by the Russian state. Karpichkov, 59, joined the KGB in 1984, but became a defector-in-place for Latvian intelligence in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He claims to have also spied on Russia for French and American intelligence. In 1998, carrying two suitcases filled with top-secret Russian government documents, and using forged passports, he arrived with his family in Britain, where he has lived ever since. In an interview with the British tabloid newspaper The Sunday People, Karpichkov said that Williams was killed by Russian intelligence operatives with an untraceable poison substance, because he had discovered the identity of a Russian agent within his agency, the GCHQ. According to Karpichkov, Williams had befriended the mole, codenamed ORION by the Russians, and had realized that he was working for the Russians. The mole then allegedly told his Russian handler, a non-official-cover officer with an Eastern European passport, codenamed LUKAS, that Williams had grown suspicious.
Eventually, the Russians made an attempt to recruit Williams, allegedly by threatening to reveal his secret transvestite lifestyle to his supervisors at GCHQ. But, according to Karpichkov, Williams rejected the Russian advances and told the Russians in no uncertain terms that he would report the attempt to recruit him to British intelligence. At that point, said Karpichkov, “the SVR had no alternative but to kill [Williams] to protect their agent inside GCHQ”. At the last meeting between the two men in Williams’ apartment in the London borough of Pimlico, LUKAS allegedly offered the GCHQ mathematician a glass of wine that contained “a mixture of amyl nitrate and the Viagra drug Sildenafil”. After Williams became unconscious, Karpichkov says that the SVR dispatched a special operational team known as “the cleaners”, whose members killed the British intelligence officer. They did so, said Karpichkov, by injecting his ear with “a plant-based poison made from belladonna, aconite and black henbane mixed with other chemicals”, which was designed to escape the attention of forensic medical examiners.
Karpichkov told The Sunday People that —unbeknownst to him— he lived very lose to Williams at the time. He had grown suspicious, he said, because he had noticed many marked Russian diplomatic cars in the area in the month prior to Williams’ death. The former KGB spy said he was worried that the Russians were planning to kill him. When he saw media reports about Williams’ killing, he realized the Russian diplomatic cars had been there for the GCHQ employee and not for him, he said. “I had never seen those cars before and I never saw them again”, said Karpichkov. He added that “the Russian security services are the connection” between the cases of Skripal and Williams.
Also on Sunday, police in the city of Salisbury, where Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned, announced that it would speak to Karpichkov about his allegations regarding Williams and Skripal.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis 

Russian journalist who wrote about mercenaries’ deaths in Syria is found dead

Maxim Borodin

A Russian investigative journalist, who wrote a series of articles about Russian soldiers-for-hire in Syria, has died after falling from the balcony of his apartment in western Siberia. Some of his colleagues say they suspect foul play. Maxim Borodin wrote for Novy Den (New Day) an investigative online magazine. In the past few weeks, Novy Den published a series of probing articles by Borodin about the activities of Russian mercenaries working for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Borodin was one of just a handful of Russian journalists who reported on claims that more than 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in Syria on February 7.
According to the United States government, the Russians were part of a 500-strong Syrian government force that crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. American-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded US troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes against the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses, including at least 200 Russian troops. The incident was subsequently confirmed by the Kremlin, which said that the Russians were contractors and were not members of the Russian armed forces. Borodin wrote that the Russian mercenaries were employed by the Wagner Group, an arms-for-hire company owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire with close ties to the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s name is included in the most recent list of Russian oligarchs that are subject to economic sanctions imposed by the US government.
Last Thursday, just weeks after writing his exposé about the Wagner Group, Borodin was found by neighbors at the foot of the building that houses his apartment in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. The journalist was taken to a local hospital, where he later died from his injuries. The American news network CNN said it spoke to Valery Gorelykh, a local Russian Interior Ministry official, who said that no foul play was suspected in Borodin’s death. The door of his apartment had been locked from the inside and there were no signs of struggle, said Gorelykh. He went on to say that the most likely explanation for Borodin’s death was that he slipped and fell off the balcony while smoking a cigarette.
But some of Borodin’s colleagues and friends question the verdict of accidental death. Vyacheslav Bashkov, a close friend of the deceased, said Borodin had called him in a frantic state in the early morning hours of April 11. He said his apartment had been surrounded by armed security personnel wearing ski masks, one of whom had climbed on his balcony and appeared to be waiting for a court order so that he could search Borodin’s apartment. But an hour later, Borodin called Bashkov again, this time to let him know that the armed men had been conducting a training exercise and that they never entered his apartment after all. Another colleague of Borodin, Novy Den editor-in-chief Polina Rumyantseva, said she did not believe Borodin had committed suicide.
► Author: Ian Allen 


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Will the mass expulsion of diplomats affect Russia’s spy capabilities?

Russian embassy in Washington

Relations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low on Monday, with the expulsion of over 100 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions were publicized on Monday with a series of coordinated announcements issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of Tuesday, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian so-called “undeclared intelligence officers” that were expelled from Britain last week. Further expulsions of Russian diplomats are expected in the coming days.
It is indeed difficult to overstate the significance of this development in the diplomatic and intelligence spheres. Monday’s announcements signified the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence personnel (intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover) in history, and is remarkable even by Cold War standards. In the United States, the administration of President Donald Trump expelled no fewer than 60 Russian diplomats and shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle. Such a move would have been viewed as aggressive even for Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is known for her hardline anti-Russian stance. In Europe, the move to expel dozens of Russian envoys from 23 different countries —most of them European Union members— was a rare act of unity that surprised European observers as much as it did the Russians.
RUSSIA’S ESPIONAGE CAPABILITY
However, in considering the unprecedented number of diplomatic expulsions from an intelligence point of view, the question that arises is, how will these developments affect Russia’s espionage capabilities abroad? If the Kremlin did indeed authorize the attempted assassination of the Russian defector Sergei Skripal, it must be assumed that it expected some kind of reaction from London, possibly in the form of limited diplomatic expulsions. The resulting worldwide wave of expulsions must have caught Russian intelligence planners by surprise. There is little question, therefore, that these are difficult hours for the GRU, Russia’s military-run Main Intelligence Directorate, and the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. These agencies will be losing as much as two thirds of their official-cover officers in Europe and North America. The last time this happened on such a massive scale was during World War II, as Soviet embassies across Europe were unceremoniously shut down by the advancing Nazi forces.
WHO NEEDS AN EMBASSY?
Nevertheless, as the Russian embassy in London tweeted on March 13, in response to rumors of pending diplomatic expulsions of Russians by Britain, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. This will prove to be the case in the coming days, as Moscow will proceed to expel dozens —probably even hundreds— of Western diplomats from its soil. Russia has traditionally stationed more intelligence officers in its Western embassies than Western countries have inside Russia. This means that the Russian response to Monday’s diplomatic expulsions will virtually decimate entire stations of several European intelligence agencies on Russian soil, and will even cut into the foreign diplomatic community in several Russian cities. On balance, these tit-for-tat expulsions will hurt the West more than Russia, because it is more difficult for the West to run espionage operations inside Russia than it is for Russia to spy in the West. Western societies are relatively open and are characterized by limited and unobtrusive governments. This allows countries like Russia to run spy operations with little resistance, even in the absence of embassy personnel operating in relative safety under diplomatic immunity. The same cannot be said about intelligence operations carried out by Western agencies inside Russia, where the role of diplomatic personnel is usually central. Russia is a relatively closed society, where working as an intelligence officer without diplomatic immunity is at best perilous. Consequently, diplomatic cover is far more useful for Western intelligence services working inside Russia, than for Russian intelligence services working in the West.
WILL RUSSIA’S COVERT OPERATIONS BE AFFECTED?
Undoubtedly, the expulsions of Russian diplomats —presumably most of them undeclared intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover— will send a strong political message to Moscow and will disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence activities in the West. But they will have a limited effect on covert operations of the kind that was witnessed in England on March 4, when Sergei Skripal and his daughter were nearly poisoned to death. These operations, which are extremely complex and meticulously planned, are rarely conducted by embassy personnel. The latter may provide a marginal supporting role, but the bulk of these activities are carried out by large teams of specialists who are dispatched directly from Russia and are not associated with the diplomatic community. It follows that the latest expulsions of diplomats will have little —if any— effect on Russia’s ability to conduct covert operations against dissidents, known double agents, or other targets abroad.
Last but not least, Russia’s most damaging intelligence operations against Western targets in recent years have been carried out in the online environment. The meddling by Russian intelligence services in the 2016 US presidential election has undeniably wreaked havoc in the American political life and has dangerously deepened pre-existing divisions in the country. In this operation —arguably Russia’s most effective against its American arch-rival in the post-Cold War era— the role of spies was distinctly marginal. Much of it was designed, organized and implemented from windowless computer labs in drab government buildings in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Impressive as they may be, the latest diplomatic expulsions of Russian diplomats will do little to stop such damaging and potentially lethal intelligence operations taking place remotely.
I do not mean to suggest that the massive wave of diplomatic expulsions is insignificant or harmless for Russian interests. Moscow never expected that its decision to kill Skripal would cause it to lose nearly 150 official-cover intelligence officers from some of the world’s most important geographical collection targets. But Russia has a long tradition of espionage that dates from Tsarist times, and has suffered far deeper wounds in its history. It will recover and will continue its secret work, as always with a mixed record of failure and success. In responding to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, the West has shown rare unity and resolve. But if it is to prevail in this prolonged, unpredictable conflict, it will need to remain united and continue to act collectively. The coming weeks will show whether that is a realistic hope.
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis

Russian double agent Sergei Skripal wrote to Putin seeking to return, says friend

Vladimir Putin

Sergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this month, wrote to the Kremlin asking to return to Russia, according to one of his old school friends. Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, remain in critical condition in hospital, three weeks after being poisoned with a nerve agent that British scientists say belongs to Russia’s Cold-War-era chemical stockpiles. Moscow has angrily rejected claims that Skripal, who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, was on a Kremlin-approved hit-list of defectors. On March 17, the Kremlin expelled 23 British diplomats from Moscow in response to London’s earlier expulsion of 23 Russians, which the British government said were “undeclared intelligence officers”.
On Saturday, the BBC said it contacted one of Skripal’s friends from his school days, who said that he was contacted by the double spy in 2012. Vladimir Timoshkov told the BBC that he was a childhood friend of Skripal when the two were in school together, but lost contact later in life. In 2006, when he learned through the media that Skripal had been convicted of espionage, Timoshkov said he managed to contact Skripal’s daughter, Yulia, after finding her on a social media platform. He remained in contact with her, and in 2012 he received a telephone call from Skripal himself. By that time, the double spy was living in England, having relocated there after the Kremlin swapped him and three others for 10 Russian spies who had been caught in the United States.
Timoshkov said that he and Skripal spoke for half an hour, during which Skripal told him he was “not a traitor” to the Soviet Union, the country that he had initially promised to protect. According to Timoshkov, Skripal also said that he had “regretted being a double agent” because his life had “become all messed up”. He also said that he felt isolated from his old classmates and friends, who shunned him following his arrest and conviction for espionage. During the telephone conversation, Skripal allegedly told Timoshkov that he had written a personal letter to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking for a full pardon. He did so because he missed his mother, brother, and other relatives who were living in Russia, and he wanted to visit them. In the letter to President Putin, Skripal denied that he betrayed his country and asked for “complete forgiveness” from the Russian leader, said Timoshkov.
But on Sunday, the Russian government denied that a letter from Skripal had been received by the Kremlin. The BBC report was also denied by the Russian embassy in London. In a tweet quoting the Kremlin, the embassy said: “There was no letter from Sergei Skripal to President Putin to allow him to come back to Russia.”
► Author: Joseph Fitsanakis 

Gendarme who swapped place with hostages hailed a hero in France

Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame who was killed after swapping himself for a hostage in a siege in the town of Trebes, southwestern France, on 23 March.
Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame who was killed after swapping himself for a hostage in a siege in the town of Trebes, southwestern France, on 23 March.


Even by the high standards of duty and self-sacrifice expected of professional soldiers and police officers the world over, the courage of Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame was extraordinary.
By offering to swap places with hostages held by a terrorist gunman who had already killed three people and had declared his allegiance to Islamic State (Isis), the decorated officer would have known he was almost certainly walking to his death.
In the last three years attackers with Islamist sympathies have attacked – and in certain cases killed – French police, gendarmes and soldiers on more than 10 occasions. Armed with nothing but this knowledge, Beltrame strode across the car park of the SuperU store in Trèbes, a small town near Carcassonne, to confront Radouane Lakdim, a self-described “soldier of the caliphate”.
The Frenchman of Moroccan origin had carried out three separate attacks that day, culminating in a three-hour siege at the supermarket, where he killed a member of staff and a customer and took several hostages. Beltrame left his mobile telephone line open, enabling police and special forces outside the supermarket to hear what was going on. When they heard shots, they stormed the store, killing Lakdim and finding Beltrame gravely injured after being shot and stabbed.
After the gendarme was helicoptered to a hospital, France held its breath and hoped for a happy ending. At around 6am on Saturday morning, that hope was shattered.
A brief statement from the interior minister, Gérard Collomb, announced that Beltrame had made the ultimate sacrifice. Tributes poured in for the 45-year-old officer who, it was revealed, had been preparing to marry on 9 June. He had already married his wife, Mariele, under civil law, and the couple were planning a church ceremony. Instead, the priest who would have officiated at the wedding was called to Beltrame’s bedside, where Marielle was keeping vigil on Friday evening to give him the last rites.
French investigators are trying to discover how Lakdim, who had been flagged up by the country’s intelligence services as a security risk, was able to obtain a weapon and go on a killing spree, gunning down four people. The Trèbes attack is the first since Emmanuel Macron was elected last May and the first since France’s state of emergency was ended last November. While other European countries, Britain, Spain, Belgium among others, have been hit by terrorism, France has been especially targeted.
Apart from possible social and economic reasons that may drive disillusioned youngsters to extremism and France’s hard line on religious symbols like the burqa as well as the French military’s involvement in the US-led bombing of Syria, one reason France is targeted is that Isis specifically decided to target it. Islamic State’s chief spokesman, Mohammad al-Adnani, singled out the “spiteful French” for attack in September 2014.
Lakdim, who lived in Carcassonne, was known to police as a petty criminal and small-time drug dealer, and since 2014 he had been on France’s Fiche S list, meaning he was considered a potential threat. He had also been under surveillance, though intelligence officers reportedly decided he was not a serious risk.
Although French police knew he had consulted pro-Islamic State websites, French prosecutor François Molins said there had been no evidence he was planning a terrorist act.
Collomb agreed, saying Lakdim had shown “no sign of radicalisation”. He described his actions as that of “a loner who suddenly decided to act”. Islamic State claimed responsiblity for the attacks without giving any evidence. The claim is being investigated.
A second unnamed person, a male aged 17, was taken into police custody for questioning, and Lakdim’s girlfriend, 18, was brought in for police questioning on Friday evening.
Meanwhile, Beltrame’s family have been paying tribute to the courage of the officer. His brother Cédric said the gendarme would have walked into the supermarket knowing he would probably die.
“He certainly would have known that he had practically no chance. He was very conscious of that … he didn’t hesitate a second,” Cédric Beltrame told RTL radio, adding that it was “perfectly appropriate” to describe his brother as a hero. “He gave his life for someone else, a stranger, not even for someone in his family,” he said.
Beltrame’s mother also spoke to RTL on Friday before he died. “He used to say to me, ‘I’m doing my job, maman, that’s all.’ That’s just the way he is,” she said.
Florence Nicolic, Beltrame’s cousin, said that the gendarme had been passionate about the military all his life. “Since he was a little boy, Arnaud has always talked about the army and being a soldier. That has been a passion in his life since he was a baby,” Nicolic told the BBC. “He used to play with tin soldiers all the time. His grandfather was in the army and was an idol and he wanted to do it.”
She added: “What he did was so wonderful and so brave, we were very surprised and shocked. But when we heard what had happened, we were not surprised in a sense, because that’s the thing he would do without hesitation. He wouldn’t think about the consequences.”
Beltrame, of the Aude Gendarmerie, grew up in Brittany and had a distinguished career, earning commendations and military honours, including a military cross. He graduated from France’s elite military college, Saint-Cyr, in 1999 with the rank of major and a commendation for his “resolutely offensive spirit when faced with  adversity”.
His superior officers noted that he was prepared to “fight to the end and never give up”.
From Saint-Cyr, Beltrame underwent training for the gendarmerie, including for the special intervention unit, the elite GIGN (Groupe d’intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), whose missions include counter-terrorism and hostage rescue. He was given military honours in 2007 following a two-year posting to Iraq and later spent four years as part of the Garde républicaine at the Elysée Palace, before becoming a special adviser to the secretary-general of France’s environment ministry. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in 2016.
“Lieutenant-colonel Arnaud Beltrame died serving the country to which he had already given so much. In giving his life to bring to an end the murderous actions of a jihadist terrorist, he has fallen a hero,” President Emmanuel Macron said.
As a former member of the elite anti-terrorist police, Beltrame had trained for such a situation. As deputy commander of the Aude Gendarmerie, he had organised an exercise simulating a terrorist attack and mass killing in a supermarket only last December. Even as they trained, Beltrame and his gendarmes must have thought such a scenario unlikely in a sleepy town like Trèbes. It now seems tragically prescient.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Theresa May has embarrassed Vladimir Putin at his own political game, Russia expert says


 Theresa May posing for the camera

  • Theresa May has "outsmarted" Vladimir Putin over the attempted murder of ex-Kremlin spy Sergei Skripal, according to a Russia expert.
  • Professor Anthony Glees said May has shown that it is a "probability that borders on certainty" that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack.
  • Rallying support from the US, France, and Germany was a major victory, which has made Russia look isolated.
  • May's handling of the Skripal case has impressed voters in Britain.
Theresa May has "outsmarted" Vladimir Putin with her response to the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain last week, a Russia expert has told Business Insider.
The prime minister has been praised for gripping the issue and corralling support from the UK's most powerful allies, as the West looks to face down what May described as Russia's "brazen" assassination bid on Skripal.
"She played this very well," said Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham.
Glees, who is anti-Brexit and often openly critical of May, said the prime minister's ultimatum to Russia this week - to provide evidence that it had no involvement in the Skripal poisoning or face retaliation - helped flush out Putin.
"She outsmarted him - he didn't say no and he didn't say yes, all he did was treat her with the words she used: sarcasm, contempt, and defiance," he told Business Insider. "That allowed her to say that there was no other alternative to Putin, other than the Russian state was culpable."
Sergei skripal salisbury military masks© Provided by Business Insider Inc Sergei skripal salisbury military masks
The word "culpable" was in itself carefully chosen, Glees said, because it could mean one of the two things: That Putin did not take proper care of his military-grade Novichok nerve agent and it fell into the wrong hands, or that he wilfully weaponised it on foreign soil.
"In the world of secret activity, there is never going to be certainty. If we don't get into the archives of the Russian state, there's never going to be. There can only be a probability that borders on certainty - and that's exactly what Theresa May has said. It's a probability that borders on certainty that Russia was behind this," Glees said.
May's other big victory this week was to galvanize the support of the US, France, and Germany. The leaders of all three nations signed a joint statement, which said there was "no plausible alternative explanation" for the Skripal poisoning other than a Kremlin hit-job.

Putin's seeds of division have not taken root

Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to the US, tweeted: "Joint statement on Skripal attack a major diplomatic success for May. Never thought Berlin and Paris would agree. Our evidence must have been compelling."
If one of Putin's aims was to test how isolated Britain is following Brexit, then this joint statement suggests that the UK is far from marooned. Putin's seeds of division have not taken root, and it is Russia that looks increasingly adrift in a week of strained diplomatic tensions.
May's handling of the Skripal case appears to have played well in Britain as well. A snap Sky News poll asked how the prime minister is handling the incident: 61% said she is doing a "good" job, while 29% disagreed. Only 18% of those questioned said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is handling the matter well.
Similarly, a YouGov poll for The Times found that 53% of people thing Theresa May has responded "well" to the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy.

https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/theresa-may-has-embarrassed-vladimir-putin-at-his-own-political-game-russia-expert-says/ar-BBKli2x?ocid=sl