Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bangladesh - From Secularism to Talibanization

During the British rule, the Wahabis led by one Syed Ahmed declared India 'Darul Harb'[1] and locked themselves in a war against the Sikhs in Punjab and against the British in a bid to establish the 'Darul Harb' brand of Islam. The brand of Islam that had been preached by the Sufis in the sub-continent was by and large liberal. The Sufis were very tolerant towards other faiths and adopted certain elements from Hinduism, Buddhism and the local culture, which helped spread Islam all over India.

In 1947, Pakistan emerged as an independent state as a consequence of the partition of India. Pakistan was divided into the Punjabi-dominated West and a Bengali-speaking East. The Indian land mass divided the two wings of Pakistan. The Bengali-dominated East Pakistan emerged as the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971 after facing ruthless military repression at the hands of the Pakistani Army. An indigenous nationalist movement, the Mukti Bahini with active Indian assistance helped the people of East Pakistan achieve statehood.

In its infancy, religion had very little role to play in Bangladesh polity, primarily because the founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, following the Indian model, had sought to make the state a secular democratic republic. However, even during the turbulent period preceding the birth of Bangladesh, certain sections of the East Pakistani society, especially members of the Jamaat-e-Islami actively supported the Pakistani Army in perpetrating atrocities and were subsequently accused of complicity in the massacres that took place. Hence they were marginalised after the formation of Bangladesh. Before democratic institutions could take roots, Sheikh Mujib was assassinated and his regime overthrown in August 1975. In November 1975, General Ziaur Rehman seized power. Gen. Ziaur Rahman and his followers met in Kurmitola cantonment and drew the blueprint for a nationwide transformation from democratic secularism to nationalism. Gen. Ziaur Rahman was abetted by many intellectuals including newspaper editors, lawyers, barristers, educationists, businessmen, etc., when the Pakistani trained military man had consolidated his power. He sowed the seeds of radicalism by encouraging return of Islamist elements who had collaborated with the Pakistani Army and built ties with the Jamaat. This was done with a view to legitimizing his rule. General Ziaur Rehman was assassinated in May 1981. There was a brief period of civilian rule under a former Supreme Court Judge, Abdul Sattar. He was also overthrown in a military coup in March 1982. General H.M. Ershad took over the reigns of Bangladesh. During his tenure, both society and state continued to be Islamicized. General Ershad amended the constitution and declared Islam the state religion. Bangladesh limped back to civilian rule after the military ruler was ousted as a result of mass popular uprising. However, by this time the "Military-Islamist Complex" had taken roots in Bangladesh. Bangladesh had embarked on a journey to becoming Islamicized or more precisely 'Talibanized'.

The Militant Islamist Groups

In January 2005, a Bangladeshi human rights group had claimed that 31 Islamic militant outfits were operating in the country targetting non-Muslims and seeking to establish a "greater Islamic nation" including parts of some adjacent Indian states.

The Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) is reported to be the youth front of Al Mujahideen, the parent organization that began working in the mid 1990s and which has continued to remain obscure even today. Other organizations, such as Jama'atul Jihad, JMB, Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh (AHAB), Ahle Hadith Jubo Shangha, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI), Hizbut Tawhid, Tawhidi Janata, Islami Jubo Shangha, Islami Shangha, Al Falah A'am Unnayan Shanstha and Shahadat-e al Hiqma are believed to be part of the Al Mujahideen network. JMB was reported to have been formed in 1998 in the Jamalpur district. While the exact origins of this group is not clear, its existence became known on May 20, 2002 with the arrest of eight Islamist militants at Parbatipur in the Dinajpur district along with 25 petrol bombs and documents detailing the outfit's activities. Subsequently, on February 13, 2003, the JMB is reported to have carried out seven bomb explosions in the Chhoto Gurgola area of Dinajpur town in which three persons were wounded. The Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Party of the Mujahideen) aims at establishing the rule of Islam in Bangladesh through an armed struggle. The outfit is opposed to the establishment of democracy and calls for the conduct of government under Islamic law. Thus the JMB's aim is to replace the current state of Bangladesh with an Islamic State. The JMJB follows the ideals of the Taliban militia and propagates a movement based on Jihad.

On March 30, 2007, six top militants of the JMB, including its 'supreme commander' Maulana Abdur Rahman and second-in-command, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai were executed in different jails in Bangladesh. The other senior leaders of the outfit who were hanged were Majlish-e-Shura (the highest decision-making body) members Abdul Awal, Khaled Saifullah and Ataur Rahman Sunny and suicide squad member Iftekhar Hasan Al-Mamun. All of them had been pronounced guilty by the Supreme Court of involvement in the killing of two judges in Jhalakathi in November 2005.

Prior to the March 30, 2007 execution, JMB was led by a triumvirate consisting of its ‘supreme commander’ Abdur Rahman, a former activist of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Siddiqul Islam alias Bangla Bhai of the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Muhammad Asadullah al-Ghalib, an Arabic language lecturer at the Rajshahi University and chief of the Ahle Hadith Andolon Bangladesh (AHAB). Of these, Maulana Rahman was projected as spiritual leader of the organisation while Bangla Bhai functioned as the second-in-command and the outfit’s 'operational chief'. The outfit is known to maintain about 10,000 fulltime and 100,000 part-time cadres.

The Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI) meaning Movement of Islamic Holy War was established in 1992, reportedly with assistance from Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front. It is a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist organization whose activities extend not only within Bangladesh but also in India. On April 30, 1992, several of the HuJI leaders addressed a press conference at the Jatiya Press Club in Dhaka and demanded that Bangladesh be converted into an Islamic State. The HuJI is led by Shawkat Osman alias Sheikh Farid. Imtiaz Quddus is the general secretary of the outfit. HuJI aims to establish Islamic Hukumat (rule) in Bangladesh by waging war and killing progressive intellectuals. It draws inspiration from bin Laden and the erstwhile Taliban regime of Afghanistan. The slogan, Amra Sobai Hobo Taliban, Bangla Hobe Afghanistan (We will all become Taliban and we will turn Bangladesh into Afghanistan) itself speaks volumes about the radicalisation of Bangla society and polity.

With an estimated 2,000 dedicated fighters among 15,000 odd members, HuJI is closely affiliated with Al Qaeda and is a member of Bin Laden’s International Islamic Front.

The coastal area stretching from the port city of Chittagong south through Cox's Bazaar to the Myanmarese border, notorious for piracy, smuggling and arms running, is the principal area of activity of the HuJI.

The madrassas have been a major source of recruits for HuJI. The group reportedly maintains six camps in the hilly areas of Chittagong, where its cadres are trained in the use of weapons. Unconfirmed reports have also indicated that it maintains six training camps near Cox's Bazaar.

The HuJI cadres allegedly also infiltrate frequently into the eastern corridor of India to maintain contacts with terrorist and subversive outfits of the region.

Although there is no authoritative information on the actual cadre strength, most reports mention it to be around 15,000. Several of these recruits were trained in the Kormi and Kasia areas of Bangladesh. Further, many hundred recruits were reportedly trained at various training camps in Afghanistan, primarily during the reign of the Taliban.

The HuJI reportedly receives financial assistance from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan through Muslim Non-Governmental Organisations in Bangladesh, including the Adarsa Kutir, Al Faruk Islamic Foundation and Hataddin.

Since 2002, some of the major terrorist strikes that have been carried out in India (outside Kashmir), have been attributed to HuJI. It is reported to have the backing of some sections of the Bangladesh polity, the army and intelligence agencies and may have been engaged by ISI and other Pakistan based groups to carry out terrorist activities within India.

Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) meaning Awakened Muslim Masses of Bangladesh is an Islamist vigilante outfit that espouses the ideals of the Taliban. It has been reported in the Bangladeshi media that the JMJB is an outgrowth of the Islamist militant outfit Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

When the JMJB first came in the news in April 2004, it was also known by other names like Mujahidin Alliance Council, Islami Jalsha and Muslim Raksha Mujahideen Oikya Parishad.

JMJB does not approve of the prevailing political system in Bangladesh and that it aspires to "build a society based on the Islamic model laid out in Holy Quran-Hadith." Its stated objective is neutralizing the left-wing extremists, especially the cadres of the PBCP and its professed long-term goal is to usher in an ‘Islamic revolution’ in Bangladesh through Jihad.

The JMJB reportedly has a three-tier organisation. The first tier of the outfit consists of activists called Ehsar who are recruited on a full-time basis and act at the behest of the leadership. The second tier, known as Gayeri Ehsar, has over 100,000 part-time activists. The third tier involves those who indirectly co-operate with the JMJB.

The JMJB created strong bases mostly in north-west Bangladesh, in the districts of Rajshahi, Satkhira, Naogaon, Bagerhat, Jessore, Chittagong, Joypurhat, Natore, Rangpur, Bogra, Chittagong, and Khulna. It has allegedly spread its network to most Madrassas (seminaries) and other educational institutions in these districts.

The outfit also established at least 10 camps at Atrai and Raninagar in the Naogaon district, Bagmara in Rajshahi district, and Naldanga and Singra in Natore district. There have been reports of JMJB recruits being given training through recorded speeches of Osama bin Laden and the video footages of warfare training at the Al Qaeda's Farooque camp (now defunct) in Afghanistan.

Some JMJB leaders reportedly stated that the outfit is headquartered in Dhaka. However, media reports indicated all activities of the organisation revolving around Jamalpur.
JMJB is reported to have 300000 activists across the country and has about 10,000 full-time activists.

JMJB cadres during their vigilante operations in 2004 were seen with firearms. They also reportedly wielded swords, other sharp weapons, hammers and hockey sticks. JMJB also had access to crude explosives.

Purba Banglar Communist Party (PBCP) headed by Mofakkar Chowdhury is one of the many Maoist splinter organizations in Bangladesh. It was formed in 1968 after splitting with the Bangladesh Communist Party (BCP). It has been outlawed since the military regime of Zia-ur-Rehman. However, there has been a spurt in the activities of the PBCP since 2002.

Like Maoist groups around the world, the objective of the PBCP is capturing state power through armed struggle. Its draws inspiration from the Chinese revolution. In the opinion of the PBCP, oppression by the people of the then West Pakistani was the principal reason that lead to the liberation war in the territories of the then East Pakistan following which Bangladesh was formed. The PBCP is strongly opposed to the presence of feudal elements in Bangladesh. Ideologically, it is closer to the Marxist-Leninist groups of India and desires to launch a joint movement along with progressive parties in India, particularly the Naxalites of West Bengal. The PBCP is hopeful that China would, at some time in the future, provide significant assistance in realising its goals. The PBCP operates in south-west Bangladesh, bordering the Indian State of West Bengal. Its presence can be noticed in districts such as Khulna, Satkhira, Bagerhat, Magura, Meherpur, Narail, Kushtia, Jessore, Jhenidah, Chuadanga and Pirojpur.

PBCP cadres have reportedly been involved in acts of murder, robbery, extortion, land grabbing and abduction for ransom. Like the mafia, they are allegedly involved in settling land disputes in rural areas. In the process of adjudicating disputes, PBCP cadres collect money through their strong-arm tactics from both the parties to a dispute. In its strongholds, the PBCP levies a ‘tax’ on civil contractors who undertake construction works such as laying roads and bridges and constructing culverts and schools. This has resulted in impeding development work in southwest Bangladesh. The PBCP also publishes a journal Purba Bangla, meaning East Bengal.

Islami Chhatra Shibir is the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, which came into existence in 1941.

A person at the time of joining the organisation is considered as Karmi, meaning worker. When a Karmi meets a predefined standard of knowledge, rituals, moral status and leadership quality, he is promoted to a Shathi meaning comrade. When a Shathi is able to meet a higher standard of knowledge, rituals, moral status and leadership quality, he is promoted to a Shadashawa meaning member.

Nurul Islam Bulbul is the Central President of the ICS. Mohammed Nazrul Islam is the Secretary General of the outfit. Other important leaders are: Kamal Ahmed Sikder, A S M Faruq, Muhammad Mujibur Rahman Manju, Muhammad Raisul and A S M Ashraf Mahmud Uzzal. The Executive Council is the highest decision-making body of the outfit.

The group's objectives, inter alia, are to change the existing system of education on the basis of Islamic values, to inspire students to acquire Islamic knowledge and to prepare them to take part in the struggle for establishing Islamic way of life. A very important aim of the outfit is to establish an Islamist regime on the Taliban model in Bangladesh similar to the one that existed in Afghanistan. Consequently, the outfit is opposed to forces of modernization, secularism and democracy. The group is one of the strongest student fronts in the Universities of Chittagong, Dhaka, Rajshahi and Jahangirnagar. It is also emerging as a dominant group in the Khulna and Sylhet Universities. Within the vast madrassa (religious seminary) structure in Bangladesh, this group is reported to be a dominant and uncontested organisation.

The Shibir also been maintaining close links with the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and has been working to support Islamist subversive agenda particularly in areas bordering Bangladesh. It is also reportedly has close links with various terrorist outfits operating in South Asia and Afghanistan.

(to be continued)

[1] "Abode of War." A land ruled by infidels that might, through war, become the "Abode of Islam," dar-ul-Islam. In the nineteenth century, some Muslims argued that India had become dar-ul-harb because of British rule.
1. South Asian Terrorism Portal
2. Wikipedia

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

China’s String of Pearls Policy: A Perspective

The String of Pearls: The “String of Pearls” is not merely a naval or military strategy. Neither is it just a regional strategy. It is a manifestation of China’s ambition to attain great power status and secure a self-determined, peaceful, and prosperous future.

An examination and analysis of Chinese policy towards the South Asian region in general and India in particular shows that China has been making in-roads into India's neighbourhood by forging ties with countries in the sub-continent and South East Asia.

According to Lt.Col. Christopher J. Pehrson[1] The “String of Pearls” describes the manifestation of China’s rising geopolitical influence through efforts to increase access to ports and airfields, develop special diplomatic relationships, and modernize military forces that extend from the South China Sea through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean, and on to the Arabian Gulf.

There is a view that this geopolitical strategy has evolved because of increasing Chinese dependence on energy resources from Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Americas and the need for securing the energy supply routes and its maritime trade.

Each “pearl” in the “String of Pearls” is a nexus of Chinese geopolitical influence or military presence. For instance, Hainan Island with recently upgraded military facilities is a “pearl.” An upgraded airstrip on Woody Island, located in the Paracel archipelago 300 nautical miles east of Vietnam, is a “pearl.”

China and Pakistan signed an agreement of US$ 22.26 million for additional dredging of the Gwadar Deep Sea Port Project on March 24. The development of the port is regarded as a shining example of Pakistan-China cooperation and the port is expected to be ready for operation by 2007.[2]

Beijing has already established electronic eavesdropping posts at Gwadar. The posts monitor vessels passing through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea.

China has deepened ties with the Bangladesh government and built a container port facility at Chittagong. In that country, China has sought extensive naval and commercial access.

China has developed close ties with the military regime of Myanmar and has turned the country adjacent to the Malacca Straits, through which 80 percent of China’s total crude oil imports pass, into Beijing’s satellite.

In November 2003, China and Cambodia signed a military agreement on providing training and equipment. Cambodia has helped China construct a railway from southern China to the sea.

China may have economic interests which requires to be safe guarded. However, what is disturbing is the listening post in Coco Island (taken on lease from Myanmar in 1994). Coco Island and the northern-most tip of the Andamans are separated by just 18 kilometers of sea. Officials say that Coco is visible from the Andamans. The Coco Islands are thus an ideal location for monitoring Indian naval and missile launch facilities in Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the south and movements of the Indian Navy and other navies throughout the eastern Indian Ocean. Construction of the Great Coco Island station began in late 1992 with the emplacement of a 45-50m antenna tower, radar sites and other electronic facilities forming a comprehensive SIGINT collection facility. With China controlling the Myanmar ports of Akyab, Cheduba and Bassein, India's approaches to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be threatened.China has another listening post at Hainji Island.

China has been working aggressively towards building a blue water navy including acquiring aircraft carriers and long-range nuclear submarines. China's acquisition of Varyag, the ex-Soviet vessel, ten new destroyers, mostly from Russia and two Sovremennyy-class destroyers (now renamed the Hangzhou and Fuzhou, respectively) equipped with 200-km-range supersonic SS-N-22 Moskit Anti Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCMs) are part of the modernization programme undertaken to build a blue water navy.

The modernization of the PLA is a tangible manifestation of China’s growing national power. According to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, of the major and emerging great powers, China is considered to have the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could, over time, offset traditional U.S. military advantages. Regardless of China’s intent today, powerful and modernized armed forces provide China with military capabilities that the United States must consider. With near-term focus on Taiwan, PLA modernization efforts appear to be aimed specifically at combating U.S. maritime forces that might be called to defend Taiwan and at denying the United States access to regional military bases in locations such as Japan and South Korea. Many of China’s new weapon systems are applicable to a range of operations beyond the Taiwan Strait. The expanding capability of China’s military power threatens not only Taiwan—and therefore the United States—but also challenges U.S. friends and allies throughout the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Unchecked or disproportionate, China’s military modernization could lead to a major reordering of the balance of power throughout the Pacific. China began modernizing its armed forces and procuring sophisticated weapons after observing the overwhelming success and technological prowess of the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This was signaled by the PLAAF’s purchase of 24 Su-27 advanced all-weather fighters from Russia in 1992, China’s first venture into fielding a first-rate air force. In 1993, China began the acquisition of advanced surface-to-air missiles, towed-array anti-submarine sonar, multiple-target torpedo control systems, nuclear submarine propulsion systems, and technology to improve the range of its undersea launched cruise missiles. The Su-27s and these other military systems procured from Russia enhanced China’s power projection capability and heightened the threat to Taiwan. In 1999, China signed a contract with Russia for 40 Su-30 ground attack aircraft and a contract for approximately 40 more was signed in 2001.

In the 1990s, the PLAN expressed interest in acquiring aircraft carriers, and more recently military leadership has stated China’s intent to build aircraft carriers, true instruments of power projection. Rhetorical statements aside, there is no evidence of China’s furthering this ambition, either because of Chinese restraint and strategic forethought in accordance with the country’s overall “peaceful development’ strategy, or because the PLAN is not robust or mature enough to put a carrier to sea without incurring substantial risk. Deploying an aircraft carrier would not occur overnight, and the PLAN is certainly many years away from actually launching one. Since the inception of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 1949, submarines have constituted an important component of its fleet. The importance of the submarines increased, when in the 70s, China moved from a coastal-defence strategy to a blue-water strategy. In 1994, China began modernizing its submarine fleet with the purchase of four Russian Kilo-class attack submarines, followed by a subsequent agreement to purchase eight more in 2002. On 18th September 2007, the People’s Daily published photographs of China’s new class of nuclear powered submarine belonging to Shang Class (Type 093). According to naval experts, China started working on this class of submarines sometime in the 80s to replace the older Han-class (Type 091), which were considered to be very noisy. However, the research did not make any significant progress till the St. Petersburg-based Rubin Central Design Bureau for Marine Engineering were engaged to render assistance in the development. The new submarine was launched by the end of 2002 and commissioned in 2006. This new platform has noise reduction measures, underwater sensors and sophisticated bow-and flank-mounted sonar arrays. China is also reported to be working on the Jin-class (Type 094) submarines. With this new Jin-class submarine, the Chinese navy would be in a position to cover the Indian Ocean. These recent strides made by the PLAN will have to be seen in the context of the “string of pearls” surrounding India.
[1] String of Pearls: Meeting the Challenge of China’s Rising Power Across the Asian Littoral
[2] Daily Times, March 25, 2006

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Operation Orchard – How the Raiders Sneaked In?

The question is how did the fighters belonging to the Israeli Air Force manage to avoid detection by Syrian air defense? Neither F-15s nor F-16s used by the Israeli air force in the raids are fitted with stealth technology. The answer lies in the Suter or technology akin to Suter which may have been developed by the Israelis. According to U.S. aerospace industry and retired military officials Israel used a technology similar to the “Suter” airborne network attack system developed by BAE Systems and integrated into U.S. unmanned aircraft by L-3 Communications. The system is reported to have been used or at least tested operationally in Iraq and Afghanistan. The technology allows users to invade communications networks, see what enemy sensors see and even take over as systems administrator so sensors can be manipulated into positions so that approaching aircraft can’t be seen. The process involves locating enemy emitters with great precision and then directing data streams into them that can include false targets and misleading messages algorithms that allow a number of activities including control. It hacks into enemy air defense systems so that they can be taken over. Suter includes some powerful sensors for detecting a large assortment of electronic emissions. Computer software can identify the emitters based on a database of known emitters. Based on this information potential entry points into air defense systems can be exploited. Suter can monitor enemy emitters, mislead them or shut them down. Suter 3 was tested last summer to add the ability to invade the links to time-critical targets, such as battlefield ballistic missile launchers or mobile surface-to-air missile launchers. Aircraft involved in the Suter programs include the EC-130 Compass Call, RC-135 Rivet Joint and F-16CJ strike aircraft specialized for suppression of enemy air defenses.

A Kuwaiti newspaper reported that Russian experts were studying why the two state-of-the art Russian-built radar systems in Syria did not detect the Israeli jets entering Syrian territory. Syria reportedly recently bought two state-of-the art radar systems from Russia, reckoned to be Tor-M1 launchers that carry a payload of eight missiles, as well as two Pachora-2A systems. Iran recently bought 29 of these Tor launchers from Russia for $750m in order to defend its nuclear sites. Iran reportedly had asked the same question, since it was buying the same systems and might have also paid for the Syrian acquisitions. The failure of these systems in detecting and responding to the Israeli raid therefore poses questions for arms manufacturers and armies all the way from Damascus to Moscow and over to Tehran.

For Aviation Week's story click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Mystery Behind the Israeli Raid on Syria – Operation Orchard Unveiled

In 2001, Mossad was profiling Syria's new President Bashar al-Assad. Around the same time, Aman, Israel's military intelligence directorate was closely observing visits made by North Korean officials to Syria which focussed on advance arms deliveries. Aman was of the opinion that nuclear arms were being discussed. In 2004, US intelligence picked up several communications between Syria and Pyongyang and calls were traced to a Syrian desert location called al-Kibar. Israel's Unit 8200, a unit responsible for collection of signals intelligence and code-breaking, also started keeping a close watch on this location.

In April 2004, a massive explosion on a North Korean freight train headed for the port of Namp'o alerted the Israelis. Mossad learned that dozens of Syrian nuclear technicians travelling in a compartment adjoining a sealed wagon were killed in the blast. Their bodies were flown in lead encased coffins aboard a Syrian military plane.A wide area around the explosion site was cordoned off for days as North Korean soldiers in anti-contamination suits collected wreckage and sprayed the area. Mossad analysts suspected they were trying to recover weapons-grade plutonium. Since the explosion, the Mossad tracked about a dozen trips by Syrian military officers and scientists to Pyongyang.

The Daily Telegraph, citing anonymous sources, reported that in December 2006, a top Syrian official arrived in London under a false name. The Mossad had detected a booking for the official in a London hotel, and dispatched at least ten undercover agents to London. The agents were split into three teams. One group was sent to Heathrow Airport to identify the official as he arrived, a second to book into his hotel, and a third to monitor his movements and visitors. Some of the operatives were from the Kidon Division, which specialised in assassinations, and the Negev Division, which specialised in breaking into homes, embassies, and hotel rooms to install bugging devices. On the first day of his visit, he visited the Syrian embassy and then went shopping. Kidon operatives closely followed him, while Negev operatives broke into his hotel room and found his laptop. A computer expert then installed software that allowed the Mossad to monitor his activities on the computer. When the computer material was examined at Mossad headquarters, officials found blueprints and hundreds of pictures of the al-Kibar facility in various stages of construction, and correspondence. One photograph showed a North Korean nuclear official meeting with Ibrahim Othman, Syria's atomic energy agency director. Though the Mossad had originally planned to kill the official in London, it was decided to spare his life following the discovery.

A senior U.S. official stated that, in early summer 2007, Israel had discovered a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and that the Mossad then "managed to either co-opt one of the facility's workers or insert a spy posing as an employee" at the suspected Syrian nuclear site, and through this was able to get pictures of the target from on the ground." Two months before the strike, Israel launched the Ofek-7 spy satellite into space. The satellite was geo-positioned to watch activity at the complex. 

Intelligence and Planning:
Early in the summer, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had ordered the doubling of Israeli forces on the Golan Heights bordering Syria in anticipation of a possible Syrian retaliation in the event of air strikes by Israel. According to American sources, Israeli intelligence tracked a North Korean vessel identified as “Al Hamed", a 1700-tonne cargo ship that was previously owned by North Korea, purported to be carrying a cargo of nuclear material labeled “cement”. The vessel registered itself as a South Korean ship when it traveled through the Suez Canal. On 28th July the vessel docked at the Syrian port of Tartous. The ship returned on 3rd September and is said to have unloaded the cargo of “cement”. The Israelis continued to keep track of the cargo as it was transported to the small town of Deir ez-Zor, in north-eastern Syria near the Turkish border. Israeli sources revealed that the Israeli satellite Ofek 7, launched in June, was redirected from Iran to Syria. The satellite sent high quality images of the north-eastern area every 90 minutes enabling the air force specialists to spot the facility. Three days after the consignment arrived, the final phase of Operation Orchard got underway. According to Sunday Times, around mid-August 2007 a team belonging to Sayarat Matkal covertly raided the suspected Syrian nuclear facility and brought soil samples and other material back to Israel. This confirmed that the cargo was nuclear. Once the material was tested and confirmed to have come from North Korea, the Israelis decided to carry out the attack.

Such was the secrecy that the target of the attack was revealed to the pilots only while they were airborne. All that the pilots were told was that the target was a northern Syrian facility that was labelled as an agricultural research centre on the Euphrates River, close to the Turkish border. So also the pilots who were assigned to provide air cover for the strike jets were not briefed about the mission till they too were airborne. The air cover was not required; thanks to the stealth technology and the sophisticated electronic systems, Syria’s Russian-made anti-aircraft systems were blinded. There was speculation that Israel may have used technology similar to Suter airborne network attack system used by the US, to enable its aircraft to pass undetected by Syrian radar. This system makes it possible to feed enemy radar with false targets and even manipulate enemy sensors directly.

The Raid and After:
According to Times Online, just after midnight of 6th September 2007, the 69th Squadron of Israeli Air Force comprising of F-15Is and F-16s equipped with AGM-65 Maverik missiles, 500lb bombs and external fuel tanks crossed the Syrian coastline. The raiding team consisted of 8 aircraft including an ELINT aircraft. On the ground, Syria’s air defences went dead. Operation Orchard was underway. A daring attack on a Syrian target in Deir ez-Zor or Dayr az-Zwar near the village Tal Abyad in northern Syria near the Turkish border had begun.

At a rendezvous point deep inside Syrian territory, a commando team from Shaldag air force commando waited to direct their laser beams at the target for the approaching jets. The team had arrived a day earlier, taking up positions near a large underground depot. Shortly thereafter the target was destroyed.

The only piece of evidence which was left behind were two detachable tanks from an Israeli fighter were found just over the Turkish border (Hatav and Gaziantep provinces) which according to Turkey, belonged to a Raam F15I - the newest generation of Israeli long-range bomber, which has a combat range of over 2,000km when equipped with the drop tanks.

Though Israel did not issue any statement acknowledging or denying responsibility for the attack, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated that the IDF was demonstrating unusual courage. And added that it could not naturally reveal to the public everything.

Former officials familiar with both Syria and North Korea have pointed out that an almost bankrupt Syria has neither the economic nor the industrial base to support the kind of nuclear programme described, adding that Syria has long rejected going down the nuclear route.

At this point in time, it is difficult to verify the truth of the allegations against Syria - and Israel has a long history of employing complex deceptions in its operations - the message being delivered is quite clear: if Syria's ally, Iran, comes close to acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the world fails to prevent it, either through diplomatic or military means then Israel will stop it on its own. 

The Killing of Brigadier Suleiman
As mysterious as the raid, was the killing of Mohammed Suleiman, an officer in the Syrian Arab Army. Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman, 49, was shot dead on  the night of 1st August 2008 at his chalet in the Rimal al-Zahabieh luxury resort nine miles north of the port city of Tartous on the Mediterranean. He was shot in the head and neck by sniper/s from a yacht which was about 50 metres from the coast.

Suleiman had been a key aide to Assad since the mid-1990s, when Bashar was being groomed to succeed his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president. Suleiman, who belonged to the same Alawite religious sect as the Assad family, supervised several portfolios, and oversaw Syria's weapons research and development program. After Assad became president in 2000, Suleiman handled his intelligence affairs and was reportedly also in charge of arms transfers from Syria to Hizballah in neighboring Lebanon. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Damascus, published by Wikileaks in 2010, described him as "special presidential adviser for arms procurement and strategic weapons". He was probably targetted for his involvement in the uranium procurement and Syrian nuclear programme.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Mystery Behind Israel’s Air Strike on Syria

There has been speculation of sorts as to what happened in northern Syria on 6th September 2007. Reports emanating from Syria suggested that on 6th September 2007, aircraft belonging to the Israeli Air Force (Hel HaAvir) penetrated Syrian air defenses and dropped some ordnance in a deserted area some where in the north of the country. The aircraft then fled towards the Mediterranean. Turkey, later announced that two Israeli fuel tanks had been dropped inside its territory, one in Gaziantep province and the other in the Hatay province. Dropping of the tanks by the aircraft indicates that it (or they) had come under fire from Syrian air defences and the plane dropped the tanks to increase speed and maneuverability. Apart from these sketchy details, none of the parties, Israel, Turkey or Syria came out with any official statements on the incident. The United States which was probably aware of the goings on chose to keep mum.

A few weeks after the incident, leaks from the American side hinted that the operation was something more than mere testing of Syrian air defenses or reconnaissance. The leaks from the US indicated that a shipment which had been delivered to Syria from North Korea may have contained nuclear equipment. Speculation was rife that Israel was probably preparing for an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and that this was a dry run. Some reports even suggested that the target of the Israeli strike was shipment of arms from Iran to the Hezbollah or a nuclear installation being constructed with North Korean assistance. Israel undertaking such a mission fraught with risk only to destroy a shipment of arms is unlikely while in the latter scenario it was only to be expected.

According to a report appearing in the Sunday Times Israeli commandos were involved in a joint operation with its air force under the direct supervision of the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The operation was targeted against “nuclear material” provided by North Korea to Syria. The operation was reminiscent of a similar attack carried out by the Israeli Air Force on the nuclear facilities on the outskirts of Baghdad[1].

On 1st October 2007, the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad acknowledged that a strike had taken place and that an unused military building was hit.

Israeli silence on the incident was understandable. But what was intriguing was the Syrian silence. Normally, Syria would have been expected to cry hoarse over the Israeli incursion and would have threatened to take the issue to the UN Security Council and other fora. The inference that can certainly be drawn is that Syria was upto something sinister and hence did not raise this issue before any international forum. What? Was it working on its own nuclear program? Was it acting as a conduit for facilitating illegal transfer of nuclear material or equipment? If so, to which country? These questions will remain unanswered for a long time to come. But the fact remains that Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Arab state in its neighbourhood. And also that it would not hesitate to use force if its very existence is threatened.

All said and done, the attack was probably to send a strong signal to the Arab states, particularly those nursing ambitions of acquiring nuclear weapons, that Israel and the US would not tolerate the induction of nuclear weapons in the conflict-prone region. The raid also served a warning to Iran that its nuclear facilities were not safe against an Israeli strike (with or without US backing) and that it should desist from going ahead with its nuclear program.

[1] Operation Opera (also known as Operation Babylon and Operation Ofra) was a surprise Israeli air strike against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. On 7th June 1981, a squadron of Israeli F-16A aircraft with an escort of F-15As bombed and heavily damaged the Osirak reactor. The plant, which was intended for the production of nuclear weapons, was destroyed before it became operational; had Israel waited much longer, an attack would have caused radioactive fallout in the area around Baghdad. The attack removed the nuclear threat to Israel.