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.
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.
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