Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The UK scrambled 2 fighters on 'quick reaction alert' to intercept Russian bombers near British airspace

Typhoon Jet
AP/Donato Fasano

LONDON (AP) — Britain's Royal Air Force scrambled two fighter jets to intercept Russian strategic bombers near UK airspace on Monday, in another illustration of ongoing tensions.
The RAF confirmed that it sent Typhoon aircraft from the Lossiemouth base in Scotland on a "quick reaction alert" as two Tupolev Tu-160 Blackjack bombers approached Britain.
"The Russian aircraft were initially monitored by a variety of friendly nation fighters and subsequently intercepted by the RAF in the North Sea," the air force said. "At no point did the Russian aircraft enter sovereign UK airspace."
Russia's Defense Ministry said the pair of bombers flew over the Barents, Norwegian, and North seas during a 13-hour training mission that covered neutral waters, in line with international norms.
Encounters between Russian and NATO warplanes have become increasingly frequent as Moscow has demonstrated its resurgent military might.
Russia also has increased its navy's presence in the Mediterranean and other areas.
Last week, the HMS Westminster, a Portsmouth-based Type 23 frigate, was ordered to intercept two Russian corvettes and two supporting vessels that neared UK waters en route to their Baltic base.


The State of Liberty is pictured during a rainy day in New York on October 16, 2014.

The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) planned to attack the Statue of Liberty in New York City with pressure cooker bombs, it has been revealed.
Munther Omar Saleh, 21, and Fareed Mumuni, 22, both from New York, have pleaded guilty to conspiring to support ISIS and plotting a bomb blast in the city in February 2017, but new details of their plot have come to light.
Court filings released ahead of the sentencing of Saleh and Mumuni next month show that they had received instructions on how to build a pressure cooker bomb from an English ISIS operative, and that the pair’s targets included the Statue of Liberty and Times Square.
“i [sic] was considering that The statue of liberty has a very weak point in its lower back and its tilting forward, if i can get a few pressure cooker bombs to hit the weak point, i think it will fall face down,” Saleh wrote in his notes, according to the documents.
“Or we can hit times square which would be easier, but if i can get more akhs [brothers], we can perform simultaneous attacks all around NYC.”
Both men were arrested in 2015 and their plot was ultimately foiled. Upon arrest, the pair ran at an unmarked FBI vehicle with knives. Saleh faces up to 56 years in prison at the sentencing that begins on February 8.
A key figure in the plot was Australian jihadi Neil Prakash, one of the country’s most dangerous militants, who remains in Turkish custody. Prakash was involved in the verification of an undercover FBI agent as a member of the extremist group.
The FBI asset contacted Saleh in May 2015 before his arrest, mentioning Prakash, known by his nom de guerre Abu Khalid al Kambodi or spelt by his fellow jihadis as abukambozz.
“An akh [brother] i never met before messaged me telling me abu kambozz sent him to me,” Saleh wrote to now-dead British ISIS recruiter Junaid Hussain. “...I have to confirm with abukambozz before we can work any further.”
“Our akh Abu Khalid al kambodi told me he didn’t send anyone to me,” Saleh told Hussain.
Saleh then told the undercover agent: “Ok, akhi, problem is abukambozz denied sending u.”
He continued: “Akhi I’m very sorry but i was ordered by dawlah (ISIS) officials not to talk to anyone until they produce an akh of authority to vouch for them.”
ISIS, like its jihadi counterpart Al-Qaeda, has made New York a primary target for its fighters or inspired supporters. In November, an Uzbek citizen who moved to the U.S. in 2010 drove a rented pickup truck into civilians in Manhattan, killing eight people.
ISIS's propaganda campaign has focused on threatening further attacks in New York and other major Western cities as it continues to lose territory in the Middle East. Local ground forces backed by the air forces of the U.S.-led coalition have ousted the jihadi group from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa and northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
The militant group threatened to launch an attack on Times Square over the Christmas period, showing a Santa Claus standing next to a box of explosives. But no such attack surfaced.
The FBI foiled an attack on New York City in May 2016, breaking up a cell that was planning the “next 9/11” during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The targets included concert venues, the New York subway and Times Square.

Belgian Fighters Escort Russian Bombers Across the North Sea

Bulgaria: Belgian Fighters Escort Russian Bombers Across the North Sea

Two Belgian fighters F-16 were lifted in the air to escort two Russian strategic bombers Tu-160 over the North Sea. A Belgian newspaper citing a source from the army said.

There is no formal confirmation of the information so far, according to TASS.

According to the Belgian press, from mid-last week, Belgium is responsible for the security of the airspace of the Benelux countries. Earlier in the morning, the British Defense Ministry reported to TASS that Typhoon fighters were picked up to escort Russian aircraft.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Senior Pentagon soldier warns ISIS: Quit or be shot in the face, beaten with entrenching tools

U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks on the flightline of Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates on Dec. 22. (Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr./Air Force)

The Pentagon’s senior enlisted service member has issued a blunt warning to Islamic State fighters, saying in new social-media posts that they could either surrender or face death in a number of forms, including being beaten to death with steel entrenching tools.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser in the Pentagon, issued the warnings on Facebook and Twitter. Senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have warned Islamic State fighters for months that they must lay down their weapons or face annihilation, but Troxell’s message was unusually forceful.
“ISIS needs to understand that the Joint Force is on orders to annihilate them,” Troxell wrote on Facebook. “So, they have two options should they decide to come up against the United States, our allies and partners: surrender or die!”
Troxell added that the U.S.-led military coalition will provide militants who surrender with safety in a detainee cell, food, a cot and legal due process.
HOWEVER, if they choose not to surrender, then we will kill them with extreme prejudice, whether that be through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools,” Troxell wrote. “Regardless, they cannot win, so they need to choose how it’s going to be.”
The posts were published Tuesday night along with a photograph of an entrenching tool — a collapsible shovel used by U.S. troops.
It isn’t the first time that Troxell has issued a warning along those lines. He used the same talking points during a United Services Organization (USO) holiday tour last month in which he and his boss, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited deployed U.S. troops in numerous locations.
Video recorded by a Stars and Stripes reporter on Dec. 24 in Afghanistan shows Troxell delivering a speech to cheering troops as Dunford and Florent Groberg, a Medal of Honor recipient looked on. Troxell, speaking from a stage, said that ISIS will be “annihilated, period!” before he launched into specifics.
“That may be through advising, assisting and enabling the host-nation partners,” he said. “It may be by dropping bombs on them. It may be by shooting them in the face. And it even might be beating them to death with your entrenching tool, but we are going to beat this enemy!”
The crowd of service members assembled roared in response.
Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for Dunford and the Joint Staff, said that Troxell’s comments emphasized the sincerity of the U.S.-led coalition’s resolve to defeat the Islamic State over the last four years. Ryder noted the count atrocities that the militants have committed against men, women and children.
“His intent was to communicate the tenacity of the warrior ethos that, even when faced with the brutal and unforgiving nature of combat, will use every resource available to fight and win,” Ryder said of Troxell.
The posts include the new hashtag #ISIS_SurrenderOrDie.
As Dunford’s senior enlisted adviser, Troxell is assigned to serve as a voice for enlisted service members at the Pentagon. He frequently gives U.S. troops fiery pep talks and thanks them for their work, as many sergeants major do.
Troxell, who has deployed in combat five times, traveled to Syria twice last year. In October, he visited Raqqa, the Islamic State’s former de facto capital that U.S.-backed forces seized. In comments published by the Pentagon afterward, he said commanders of the U.S.-backed forces were warning the militants to surrender.
“There is no negotiating with these guys,” Troxell said. “They are either going to surrender or they are going to get killed.”

Washington renames Russian embassy street after slain opposition MP

A Google Maps 3D view of the Russian embassy in Washington DC, showing a small stretch of Wisconsin Avenue

The city council voted to rename the street outside Russia's embassy complex after Boris Nemtsov, who was shot outside the Kremlin in 2015.
A statement from the council said the decision to honour the "slain democracy activist" passed unanimously.
Russian politicians criticised the move, with one MP labelling it a "dirty trick".
The decision was specifically targeted at "the portion of Wisconsin Avenue in front of the Russian Embassy", according to the Washington council's statement.
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted the leader of the nationalist LDPR party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as saying US authorities "specifically want to play dirty tricks in front of the Russian Embassy".
Another politician from the Communist Party, Dmitry Novikov, told the agency: "The US authorities have long been absorbed in their own game of interfering in Russian internal affairs."
Mr Nemtsov, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot in February 2015 while walking home from a restaurant in Moscow.
A small memorial near where he was killed has frequently been vandalised, or cleared away by street cleaners late at night.

His daughter, Zhanna, travelled to Washington DC in early December to advocate for the name change.
Boris Nemtsov in a file photo from 2009
Memorials to Boris Nemtsov in Moscow have been repeatedly cleared away or vandalised

"The current Russian political regime wants to eradicate the memory of my father, since it believes - correctly - that symbols are important and that they can potentially facilitate and inspire change," she told the council.
She said her father was "an open-minded patriot of Russia" who deserved to be commemorated.
"For now, we cannot do it in Russia because of unprecedented resistance on the part of the Russian authorities. But we have a chance to do it here - and here, it will be very difficult to dismantle," she said.
Five Chechen men were convicted over Boris Nemtsov's killing in mid-2017, but family and supporters of the slain politician believe the person who ordered the murder remains at large.
The Washington DC decision comes a day after Turkey similarly renamed the street the UAE embassy sits upon in Ankara, naming it after a military commander at the centre of a diplomatic spat.

Egyptian branch of ISIS declares war on Hamas as tensions rise in Sinai

Egypt Gaza border

The Islamic State in Egypt’s Sinai Province has declared war on the Palestinian militant group Hamas, in a move that experts say will furhter-complicate an already volatile security situation in eastern Egypt. Many observers see the group, Wilayat Sinai, as the strongest international arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Known officially as ISIS – Sinai Province, Wilayat Sinai was behind the 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268, which killed all 224 passengers and crew onboard, most of them Russians. The same group killed 311 people at a Sufi mosque in November of last year, in what has become known as the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history.
Israeli sources claim that, in the past, Wilayat Sinai has had limited cooperation with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, a coastal section of the Palestinian territories that borders with Egypt’s Sinai Province. The two organizations are believed to have engaged in limited cross-border arms-smuggling, while some injured Wilayat Sinai fighters have been treated in Gaza Strip hospitals. But the two groups have major ideological differences that contribute to their increasingly tense relationship. The Islamic State objects to participation in democratic elections, which it sees as efforts to place human will above divine law. It has thus condemned Hamas’ decision to participate in the 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories. Additionally, even though it promotes Sunni Islam, Hamas is far less strict in its religious approach than the Islamic State, and does not impose Sharia (Islamic law based on the Quran) in the territory it controls. Furthermore, Hamas suppresses Saudi-inspired Wahhabism and its security forces often arrest ISIS and al-Qaeda sympathizers in the Gaza Strip. In the past month, ISIS accused Hamas of having failed to prevent America’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Additionally, ISIS is opposed to the support that Hamas receives from Iran, a Shiite nation that ISIS regards as heretical.
There are reports that Hamas has been quietly collaborating with Egypt and even Israel in recent months, in order to combat the rise of ISIS in the region. For several months now, the Palestinian group has exercised stricter control over its seven-mile-long border with Egypt. It has rebuilt border barriers that had previously been destroyed and has installed security fences and a digital surveillance system. It has also launched a public-relations effort to shame the families of young men from Gaza who have joined ISIS forces in Sinai. In response to these moves, Wilayat Sinai has publicly urged its supporters to kill members of Hamas and attack the group’s security installations and public buildings. The ISIS-affiliated group has also urged its members to eliminate members of the small Shiite Muslim community in the Gaza strip. According to experts, the decision by Wilayat Sinai to declare war on Hamas means that the group has now virtually surrounded itself with adversaries. The move may also increase informal collaboration between Hamas and the Israeli government, say observers.

The missing papers at the National Archives may not be a grand conspiracy after all

Thousands of government papers have apparently gone missing from the UK National Archives. Declassified documents covering some of the most controversial episodes from Britain’s past, including the Falklands War, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the now infamous Zinoviev Letter Affair were among the missing files, having been officially “misplaced while on loan” to government departments. Some have claimed this is evidence of a government cover-up, but the truth is probably more mundane.
Others papers returned to government from the archives based at Kew, Surrey, include papers on Britain’s control over the Mandate of Palestine, sensitive records on defence agreements between the UK and Malaya and documents on the 1978 killing of dissident Georgi Markov by Bulgarian spies in central London. The number of missing files ran to “almost 1,000”, according to The Guardian.
The story prompted criticism over government handling of documents released into the public domain and led to questions of a possible cover-up by departments trying to manipulate the past. Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett called for an investigation and said the British public deserved to know “what the government has done in their name”. The Scottish National Party also demanded an inquiry.

Amnesty International and Reprieve also expressed concerns about the possible loss of papers dealing with human rights violations, especially by the British state in Northern Ireland. Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland programme director demanded “a government-wide search”.

History theft

Journalist Siobhan Fenton linked the controversy to attempts to rewrite Britain’s colonial legacy, adding: “Britain has long failed to acknowledge the horrors that its colonialism and imperialism have wrought on the world.”
And The National’s Martin Hannan even claimed that the Zinoviev Letter (a forgery at the heart of a plot to destabilise Britain’s first Labour government in 1924) was “among the missing documents” – even though copies of the letter can be easily found at Kew.
In fairness, this isn’t the first time that government has been accused of withholding sensitive papers. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) was found to be hoarding colonial era records in the so-called “migrated archives” following legal action by Mau Mau veterans tortured by the British authorities in the 1950s. The FCO subsequently releasedthis material to the National Archives.
But are the new claims of “almost 1,000” missing files actually accurate? In short, no. Figures from the National Archives suggest the number is far smaller than that put forward by The Guardian’s Ian Cobain. Government departments can request the return of documents sent to Kew for several reasons, including writing official history and exploring departmental precedents.
Both the Public Records Act 1958 and Section 46 “Code of Practice –- records management” under Freedom of Information, asks departments to ensure the “safe-keeping and security of records in their custody”. Departments are encouraged to return files as soon as they have been used. Figures obtained under Freedom of Information show that government departments asked for just over 23,000 files between 2011 and 2014. As of early 2014, 2,925 were yet to be returned.

So how many have been lost?

The National Archives catalogue shows just 626 records – far fewer than the thousands initially suggested. These contain documents from across government, including the FCO, Home Office, Ministry of Defence, Board of Trade, Treasury, Office of Works and many more (some 63 public bodies).
Another Freedom of Information request reveals that 48 records were lost while on loan from July 2011 to July 2016. The Ministry of Defence (19) and Metropolitan Police (ten) were the worst offenders. The FCO accounted for just three. It is unclear when the other almost 600 files went missing, but these could have been lost over a longer period of time, the figures suggest.
To place this into some context, a total of 372 records went missing for unspecified reasons in the vaults of the National Archives between the summer of 2011 and 2016. Figures obtained by the BBC show this number could be as high as 402, including files on nuclear collaboration with Israel and correspondence with Winston Churchill. That’s out of nearly 11m records – 0.01% of the collection.
Searches of the online catalogue show that one Home Office file on the Zinoviev Letter, three on Britain’s relationship with Malaya and several highlighted by The Guardian have been lost. Claims that “many” of the missing papers refer to the Falklands are inaccurate. Just one Treasury file on the development of the Falklands is missing. None refer to Britain’s controversial response to the Mau Mau uprising or the colonial campaigns in Malaya, Cyprus or Aden.
On watch for Mau Mau fighters.
Given Amnesty’s concern over the loss of papers on Northern Ireland, only one file – a Ministry of Defence assessment in the early 1970s – has been lost. Many of the missing reports on Communist Party infiltration in the 1950s can be found in MI5’s declassified papers or those of the Cabinet Office, already available to researchers elsewhere.
For all the talk of government lies, many of the files relate to more mundane matters. Among the lost papers are records on the Channel Tunnel, Norwich Airport, a map of Princes Risborough, kneepads in coalmines (of interest no doubt to researchers in these areas, but far from the government cover-up suggested by some).
For a historian, the loss of government records is troubling but the claim that government is manipulating history by losing documents is an exaggeration. Historians already have the ability to write on controversial aspects from Britain’s past – Zinoviev, Mau Mau, Cold War surveillance and others – using papers at the National Archives, as seen by the growth of historical research on these subjects and many more. If government is supposedly trying to alter history by “losing” historical papers, it’s not doing a very good job.


ISIS fighter Douglas McCain was the first-known American to die fighting for the Islamic state. Now, attention is being shifted to his brother who was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison for possession of firearms and lying to the federal agents about international terrorism.
Marchello McCain, 35, was living in San Diego with a group of friends that he met as a child, some of whom went on to become radicalized, The San Diego Union-Tribune reports. His brother was also living in San Diego, but left in 2014 to fight in Syria.
Prosecutors accused Marchello McCain of being part of a conspiracy to support international terrorism and that ultimately he intended to go join his brother overseas. He went on to admit that he lied to the FBI about his brother’s reason for travel and where the money came from that funded them.  
“Counterterrorism investigations are the highest priority investigations conducted by FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Eric S. Birnbaum, said in a statement released by the Department of Justice. “When someone misleads or obstructs counterterrorism investigations, this can adversely affect investigative activity in these important cases. Today's sentence will hold Mr. McCain accountable for his actions and dissuade others from lying to law enforcement agents concerning international terrorism matters.”
Marchello McCain also told the agents that he owned at least nine firearms, some of which were stolen. Furthermore, he confessed that a few weeks before his brother departed for Syria in early 2014, they went to a shooting range in San Diego to practice handling various firearms, including an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle and a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. His brother ended up dying in the war-torn country just six months afterward.
“ISIS has brought the war on terror closer to home by directing and inspiring attacks in the U.S. and other countries, thereby putting Americans lives in danger,” U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman, said in a statement. “By lying to federal agents, Marchello McCain delayed, frustrated and thwarted an investigation into a group that supplied U.S. and Canadian fighters to ISIS. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to protect American lives here and abroad.”
Prosecutors argued for a harsher sentence for McCain, but settled on 10 years.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Tony Blair denies he warned Donald Trump British spies were after him

Tony Blair

A spokesman for Tony Blair has dismissed as “categorically absurd” allegations that the former British Prime Minister warned the White House that President Donald Trump was targeted by British spy agencies. The claims are made in the book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which is due to be published next week. Its author, Michael Wolf, says he based the information in the book on more than 200 interviews that he held with President Trump and members of his inner circle during the past year.
Wolf alleges that Blair, who was Britain’s prime minister from 1997 to 2007, visited the White House in secret in February of 2017. He allegedly did so as a private citizen, as he has held no public position since 2015, when he stepped down from his post as a Middle East envoy for the United Nations. While at the White House, Blair reportedly met with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide. During that meeting, says Wolf, Blair told Kushner that Trump could have been under surveillance by British intelligence during his presidential election campaign. The former British prime minister allegedly said that any surveillance on Trump would have been carried out by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s signals intelligence agency. Wolf further alleges that the administration of US President Barack Obama never asked London to spy on Trump. Instead, the White House “hinted” that intelligence collection about Trump would be “helpful”, says Wolf. The reason why Blair volunteered this information to Kushner, claims Wolf, was that he was hoping to gain the US president’s trust and be appointed as Washington’s envoy to the Middle East.
Blair’s revelation, which Wolf describes in his book as a “juicy nugget or information”, allegedly “churned and festered” in Trump’s mind. It was the basis for claims made on March 14, 2017, by a Fox News commentator that the GCHQ had spied on Trump on behalf of the White House. The claim was repeated on March 17 at the White House by Sean Spicer, Trump’s then-press secretary, who said that Obama had used the GCHQ to spy on Trump so as to evade American privacy laws. Spicer’s claim prompted an angry response from the British government in London and from the British spy agency itself. In a rare public comment, GCHQ called the allegations “utterly ridiculous”.
Late on Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the office of Tony Blair said in an email that Wolf’s claims in Fire and Fury were “a complete fabrication […], have no basis in reality and are simply untrue”. Last year, another spokesman for Blair dismissed claims that the former British prime minister had lobbied to be appointed Trump’s Middle East envoy. This claim was so “completely overblown” and “so far beyond speculation there isn’t a word for it”, said the spokesman. President Trump has not commented on Wolf’s claim about Blair’s alleged visit and subsequent meeting with Kushner.

South Korean ex-president took millions in bribes from spy agency, say prosecutors

 Park Geun-hye

South Korea’s disgraced former president, Park Geun-hye, has been charged with accepting bribes amounting to millions of dollars from the country’s spy agency, according to reports. Park made history in 2013, by becoming the first woman president in South Korean history. However, almost as soon as she assumed office, her administration became embroiled in successive corruption scandals. By 2016, Park’s presidency had been brought to a standstill due to mass protests urging her removal from power, while increasing numbers of officials and administrators were refusing to work with her. She was eventually impeached in 2017, after the Constitutional Court of Korea found that she had violated the country’s laws by promoting the interests of personal friends and private corporations in return for cash and favours. She is currently in custody awaiting trial for 18 different charges, including abuse of power, coercion, blackmail and bribery.

On Thursday, government prosecutors charged Park with accepting between $50,000 and $190,000 in monthly bribes from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The monthly sums were allegedly delivered to Park almost as soon as she assumed the nation’s presidency, in 2013, and continued until the summer of 2016. Prosecutors allege that the monthly bribes total in excess of $3 million. Prosecutors allege that the cash was delivered to Park’s aides in deserted parking lots and side streets located near the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. It was therefore not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to court documents. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park and her aides for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.
In November, prosecutors charged three former directors of the NIS with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to Park. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed the NIS between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The new charges will add two more counts, one of embezzlement of funds and one of bribery, to Park’s long list of accusations. The disgraced former president is expected to remain in custody until March 3.

Did Russia Really Lose Seven Warplanes in Syria on New Year’s Eve?

Did Russia Really Lose Seven Warplanes in Syria on New Year’s Eve?

On Jan. 3, 2018, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that “radical Islamists” had destroyed seven Russian combat jets at Khmeimim, or Hmeimim, air base near Latakia, Syria on New Year’s Eve, 2017.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had visited the base earlier that month to praise the troops for their “victory over the most combat capable Islamic militants” and announced a partial withdrawal of Russian forces stationed there.
According to Kommersant, two “military-diplomatic sources” said the destroyed aircraft included four Su-24 swing-wing bombers, two Su-35S multi-role fighters and one An-72 transport jet.
Additionally, the sources claimed the attack wounded at least 10 Russian military personnel and destroyed an ammunition dump. If true, this would mark by far the largest loss yet of Russian hardware in Syria.
The An-72, identifiable by two the turbofan engines fitted atop the wings, is a transport capable taking off from runways as short as 500 meters long. The Su-35S is Russia’s most advanced in-service fighter. The Su-24 is a supersonic bomber that has been a workhorse of Russia’s bombing campaign targeting Syrian rebels and civilian facilities in rebel-held areas.
In 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24. The bomber was, until New Year’s Eve two years later, the only Russian jet destroyed by hostile fire in Syria. Moscow has lost at least three more warplanes in accidents and eight or more helicopters have either crashed or been shot down.
On Jan. 4, 2o17, the Russian defense ministry issued a statement admitting that a mortar attack had killed two servicemen but denying any aircraft losses, claiming its forces there remained “combat ready.” It also noted that a Russian Mi-24 attack helicopter suffered a non-combat accident near Hama airbase on the day of the bombardment that killed both crew.
The Kremlin has not always been forthcoming or honest about losses on the ground in Syria. However, no photographic evidence has emerged confirming destroyed Russian aircraft. Strangely, it’s not even evident that any rebel groups have taken credit for, or posted evidence of, an attack that supposedly inflicted significant damage.
The same day that Moscow published its statement, Russian military journalist Roman Saponkov posted photos on VKontakte, the most popular Russian social media platform, showing the damaged horizontal stabilizers of an Su-24 and a leaking jet intake.
According to Saponkov, no aircraft were destroyed but 10 aircraft were damaged, including six Su-24s, one Su-35S, one An-72, one An-30 turboprop observation plane and an Mi-8 transport helicopter. He also claimed that two Su-24s and one Su-35S have returned to operational status.
In a subsequent post, Saponkov said he had been asked not to report the attack. “Yesterday, I turned out to be the first to give this information, although ‘everyone in the know’ already knew about it. I even wrote Syrians and expressed condolences. Five different sources asked me ‘not to tell anyone.’ Of course, the Russians, whose citizens were killed in the shelling, are not Syrians and they do not need to know … ”
“It is not worthwhile to blame our military,” Saponkov added. “The militants were qualitatively prepared, most likely they had foreign technologies. Our people simply did not expect that the militants would acquire new technology.”
In a follow-up post, Saponkov said that his credibility has been attacked by “pro-Kremlin” bloggers.
Suggestively, satellite photos of Hmeimim airbase show the Russian warplanes parked closely together. An accurate mortar bombardment could damage multiple aircraft with each shell, and potentially trigger secondary damage from flying aircraft parts.
Mortars are much smaller and more portable than artillery is and can be fired more rapidly. However, an 82-millimter mortar—a type in use with both sides in the Syrian civil war—has a range of only 2.6 miles, implying that a rebel team would have had to infiltrate quite close to the heavily defended Russian air base to strike effectively.
A larger 120-millimeter mortar can reach out to 4.4 miles, but would likely require vehicular transport. Getting so close to Latakia poses quite a challenge for the rebels, as their territory in Idlib province shrank considerably in 2017.
Saponkov reference to “foreign technology” could be telling. In recent years, Syrian rebels have used foreign-made anti-tank missiles to destroy Syrian government aircraft.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Iranian army commander offers to help police with protests

Iran's army chief said on Thursday police forces had already quelled anti-government unrest that has killed 21 people but that his troops were ready to intervene if needed, official media reported, as new state-sponsored pro-government rallies were held.

The anti-government demonstrations, which seem to be spontaneous and without a clear leader, erupted a week ago in Iran's second city of Mashhad over economic hardships - mostly youth unemployment and alleged corruption.

"Although this blind sedition was so small that a portion of the police force was able to nip it in the bud ... you can rest assured that your comrades in the Islamic Republic's army would be ready to confront the dupes of the Great Satan (United States)," Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi was quoted as saying.

As the unrest spread across the country, protesters saying they were tired of anti-Western slogans and that it was time for both the clerical leadership and the government of President Hassan Rouhani to step down.

The demonstrators include members of the working class as well as educated Iranians from the middle class, which formed the backbone of pro-reform protests in 2009.

Following six days of demonstrations, the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps said on Wednesday that it had deployed forces to quell unrest in three provinces where most of the trouble had occurred.

That was the clearest sign yet that authorities were taking the protests seriously.

The Revolutionary Guards, the sword and shield of Iran's Shi'ite theocracy, were instrumental in suppressing an uprising over alleged election fraud in 2009 in which dozens were killed.


Few see these demonstrations as an existential threat to the clerical establishment that has dominated Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But protesters have become increasingly bold, calling for the downfall of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has blamed the biggest challenge to his rule in nearly a decade on foreign agents.

"I don't want to harm my country but when I see those who run this country are so corrupt, I feel like I am being suffocated. They just talk. They accuse 'the enemies' of everything," said protester Reza, 43, a father of three in the city of Isfahan.

"I am not an enemy. I am an Iranian. I love my country. Stop stealing my money, my children's money," he told Reuters by telephone

Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi urged people to engage in civil disobedience and press on with their grievances.

The Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Iran's most famous human rights lawyer as saying Iranians should stay on the street and that the constitution gave them the right to hold demonstrations.

Authorities have responded to the nationwide anger by staging pro-government rallies in several cities.

On Thursday, state television showed thousands of marchers in Mashhad carrying posters of Khamenei and banners that read "Death to seditionists".

Ebadi, who lives in London, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and is one of a number of exiled critics of Iran's leadership. She called on Iranians to stop paying water, gas and electricity bills and taxes.

She also urged them to withdraw their money from state banks to exert economic pressure on the government to force it to stop resorting to violence and to meet their demands.

"If the government has not listened to you for 38 years, your role has come to ignore what the government says to you now," the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Ebadi as saying in an interview.

The unrest has drawn sharply varied responses internationally, with Europeans expressing unease at the delighted reaction of U.S. and Israeli leaders to the display of opposition to Iran's clerical establishment.

North Korean Missile Accidentally Hit a North Korean City

What happens when a North Korean ballistic missile test fails in flight and explodes in a populated area? On April 28, 2017, North Korea launched a single Hwasong-12/KN17 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from Pukchang Airfield in South Pyongan Province (the Korean People’s Army’s Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 447 in Ryongak-dong, Sunchon City, to be more precise). That missile failed shortly after launch and crashed in the Chongsin-dong, in North Korean city of Tokchon, causing considerable damage to a complex of industrial or agricultural buildings.

According to a U.S. government source with knowledge of North Korea’s weapons programs who spoke to The Diplomat, the missile’s first stage engines failed after approximately one minute of powered flight, resulting in catastrophic failure. The missile never flew higher than approximately 70 kilometers. The location of the missile’s eventual impact was revealed exclusively to The Diplomat and evidence of the incident can be independently corroborated in commercially available satellite imagery from April and May 2017.

The April 28 failure merits close analysis, especially as North Korea continues to carry out flight-testing of its various ballistic missile platforms from a range of new test sites. In 2017, North Korea has introduced new sites for missile testing, arguably to demonstrate the flexibility of its Strategic Rocket Force. It has even carried out ballistic missile launches from a restricted area at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport, which also serves as the country’s primary civil aviation facility and the entrypoint for most non-Chinese foreign visitors to North Korea. The potential for similar accidents occurring over Pyongyang, the country’s capital, or other populated regions remains high, especially with untested systems.

These risks may even serve to explain why North Korea chose to use the seaside town of Sinpo as its initial test site for the first two failed Hwasong-12 launches in April. An early in-flight failure over the sea would have a lower chance of striking any human infrastructure — certainly populated urban areas. However, since April, North Korea has not carried out any further ballistic missile testing from Sinpo (with the exception of four submarine-launched ballistic missile ejection tests).

Anatomy of a Failed Hwasong-12 Launch

In April, most reports of the circumstances of this launch were sparse, noting only that North Korea launched a single missile that failed in flight. U.S. Pacific Command stated that the missile was launched from “near” Pukchang Airfield, a previously unused launch site for North Korean ballistic missile testing. As The Diplomat first reported in June, contrary to other reports at the time, the three missiles tested in April were not anti-ship ballistic missiles, but a new type of intermediate-range ballistic missile.

The April 28 test, in fact, was the third attempted flight-test of this new missile. The Hwasong-12, it would later emerge, was the fundamental building block for the Hwasong-14/KN20 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) revealed later in the year. Despite the three failures in April, the Hwasong-12 would see its first successful flight-test just weeks later on May 14. (The Hwasong-12 and -14 family of missiles emerged from the so-called “March 18 revolution” engine, which was first tested on that day in 2017; the single thrust-chamber engine is used to power the first stage of both missiles.)

Later in the year, the North Korean regime provided more evidence regarding these April launches. At a concert held in July to celebrate the country’s first-ever successful test launch of the Hwasong-14 ICBM, North Korea showed an extensive slideshow detailing a history of the country’s ballistic missile program, with imagery dating back to Kim Il-sung — current North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and the founder of North Korea — inspecting early Scud short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). (Those images have been cropped from the concert video and archived here.)

Toward the end of the slideshow, which was mostly shown in chronological order, the North Koreans helpfully included photographic evidence of Kim Jong-un inspecting all three of the failed April Hwasong-12 launches, including the April 28 launch out of Pukchang Airfield. These photographs are composed in a manner similar to the images North Korea publicly releases through its state media after successful launches; had the launches succeeded, it is likely that we would have seen these images in Rodong Sinmun immediately afterward.

Using the images of the April 28 test from the Hwasong-14 ICBM celebration concert, we were able to geolocate one of the scenes to the southeastern entrance of of the underground hangar at the Pukchang Airfield. The scene above shows Kim Jong-un inspecting the new IRBM in an underground hangar (1), images of the launch and Kim Jong-un at his viewing position (2), and an image taken right outside of the underground hangar (3).

From an area near the Pukchang Airfield, the missile flew approximately 39 km to the northeast where it struck a complex in the small city of Tokchon seen below. Had it completed its flight successfully, the missile may have been designed to land in the northern reaches of the Sea of Japan, near the Russian coast. North Korea used a similar splashdown location for its first successful Hwasong-12 flight-test in May 2017. (The launch, however, took place from Kusong, not Pukchang.)

Liquid-fuel missiles like the Hwasong-12, which use a highly volatile combination of hypergolic propellant and oxidizer (meaning that the two agents ignite spontaneously on contact), can produce massive explosions depending on how they fail. In this case, with the missile having survived its descent following an engine failure, it is likely that this facility at Tokchon experienced a large explosion upon impact. It’s impossible to verify if the incident caused any loss of life and, given the time of day the test occurred and the location of the impact, it may be likely that few, if any, casualties resulted from the incident.

However, as the Google Earth imagery of the incident demonstrates, the Tokchon facility is located adjacent to what appear to be residential and commercial buildings. A slight difference in trajectory may could have resulted in an even more catastrophic accident over a populated region.

To be sure, this North Korean incident is far from the first tragedy involving rocketry near a civilian area. In February 1996, a Chinese Long March CZ-3B satellite launch vehicle failed shortly after launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan. Raw video footage of the incident conveys the immense damage resulting from the explosion, which took place near a populated area. The Chinese government never released a full accounting of the loss of life resulting from the accident and public estimates vary.

Even beyond the human and economic damage potentially caused by such a failed launch, North Korea, since August 2017, has started launching ballistic missiles over Japanese territory. It has done so twice with the Hwasong-12, succeeding both times, with the reentry vehicles splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean, clear of Japanese territory. But future successes are not guaranteed and should a future North Korean missile overflying fail at the wrong moment during its powered flight phases, its trajectory may come to resemble an attack on Japan. Even with a dummy payload, an incident like that could spark a serious crisis in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s missile tests, which violate its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions, come with no formal warning or notices to airmen, leaving regional states and the United States to their own devices in interpreting Pyongyang’s intentions once the engines are ignited.

Implications for the United States and Allies

Aside from the safety implications of North Korean launch practices, the few images associated with this test offer insight into the country’s pre-launch storage practices, with implications for U.S. and allied attempts at potential preemption and prevention. As seen in image 1, had the launch succeeded, Rodong Sinmun would likely have printed an image of Kim Jong-un standing in front of the transporter-erector-mounted IRBM in a hardened tunnel.

That would have (and now does) send a dire message to U.S. and allied military planners: North Korea’s missiles won’t be sitting ducks at known “launch pads,” contrary to much mainstream analysis. What’s more, the proliferation of newly constructed hangers, tunnels, and storage sites cannot be assumed to stop at the Pukchang Airfield. Similar facilities likely exist across the country. In 2017, not only has North Korea tested a massive variety of strategic weaponry, but it has done so from a more diverse list of launch sites — what the U.S. intelligence community calls “ballistic missile operating areas” — than ever before. Gone are the days of Kim Jong-un supervising and observing launches at a limited list of sites that’d include Sinpo, Sohae, Wonsan, and Kittaeryong.

It is true that missiles like the Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and even the new behemoth, the Hwasong-15, all use liquid fuels and must be fueled prior to launch. (North Korea’s Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile uses solid propellants and does not have this limitation.) Even with this fueling requirement, U.S. and allied intelligence would have at best a couple hours to detect launch preparations. Finally, though riskier, North Korea could fuel these missiles in a horizontal configuration within their hardened storage sites and use its road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers to launch them with fewer pre-launch signatures.

As North Korea’s production of now-proven IRBMs and ICBMs continues, it will have a large and diversified nuclear force spread across multiple hardened sites, leaving the preventive warfighter’s task close to impossible if the objective is a comprehensive, disarming first strike leaving Pyongyang without retaliatory options. The time is long gone to turn the clock back on North Korea’s ballistic missile program and its pre-launch basing options.