Friday, September 19, 2014

Krittika Biswas Case: An Update

The following is an update on the Krittika Biswas incident which took place in February 2011.

The case filed by Krittika Biswas, an Indian diplomat's daughter, against New York City and others, for wrongful arrest and detention on cyberbullying charges, was settled, according to her attorney Ravi Batra.

The incident occurred when Krittika was a 12th grade student at the John Bowne High School in Flushing, New York.

She was arrested February 8, 2011 after her school alleged that she had sent threatening and obscene e-mails to her calculus teacher Jamie Kim-Ross and Ivan Cohill, her gym teacher.

The real culprit, who was uncovered later, confessed to the crime, but was not criminally charged, the suit noted.

The civil suit sought at least $500,000 and $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages, respectively, as well as the termination of Howard Kwait, principal of the John Bowne High School, and teacher Jamie Kim-Ross, who retired recently.

The main defendants were the City of New York, the New York City Department of Education; Howard Kwait, who is employed by the Department of Education; Kim-Ross, a teacher employed by the DOE; Elayna Konstan, chief executive officer of the DOE Office of School and Youth Development; Margaret Maldonado, a police officer; and Larry Granshaw, another police officer.

Krittika joined the school in the 11th grade in 2009. She had differences with Kim-Ross about how many classes she would miss during a trip she was taking to India after her grandmother's death.

Kim-Ross, her math teacher, received the first threatening e-mail on November 8, 2010, and the second one on December 16. Her parents were called to the school and warned of severe consequence, even though Krittika maintained her innocence.

School officials claimed they traced the e-mail's Internet Protocol address to the apartment building where Krittika lived with her parents. Her proficiency in French added to the suspicion because the French word merde (murder) was used in the e-mail.

Kim-Ross and Cohill received two more threatening e-mails on February 6, 2011, after which the police were called in.

At the assistant principal's office, Granshaw questioned Krittika aggressively and asked her to confess to having sent the e-mails. According to the suit, the officer said that if she refused he would handcuff her and take her to 'jail with prostitutes and people with HIV.'

When Krittika did not confess, Granshaw handcuffed her tightly, so as make it extra painful for her, and continued the interrogation, the suit stated.

The next day, at the intervention of Batra, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown freed her without charges. "Judge Brown, as DA Brown is known, took the rare step to administratively dismiss all criminal charges against Krittika based upon my word -- such that Krittika never had to step into a criminal court and pled 'not guilty,' her file was 'sealed,' and she could legally say that she was never arrested," Batra noted.

Though exonerated by the legal authorities, the school insisted on more disciplinary action, suspending her in consultation with Department of Education authorities. According to the suit, Krittika was sent to a 'reform' school where 'alleged criminals' go for their constitutionally mandated education.

Later, she allegedly met the ostensible culprit who may have been upset because he had earlier been asked to leave a class as he had failed his trigonometry regents exam. But no action was taken against him and the suit noted discriminatory practices against South Asians compared to East Asians.

"Having completely won Krittika's case on the law, I advised, and Krittika agreed, with her diplomatic family's support, that in recognition of the warm relations between India and United States, that a just resolution of this case also needed to be mutually respectful in both tone and timing so as to enhance the bilateral relationship," Batra added.

[Source: 18.9.2014]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The ISI’s Lankan Connection – An Unfolding Spy - Terror Network

Arun Selvaraj or Selvarajan is no David Coleman Headley. He however, adopted modus operandi similar to Headley, namely, setting up a cover for the purpose of espionage and scouting targets for a possible attack to be carried out by Pak-sponsored terrorists. He and the other Pakistani spies had a task to lay the groundwork for the ISI to execute a 26/11 style attack in either Chennai or Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore).

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) along with its protégé the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) have either shifted their focus from Western India to the South of the country or have expanded their operations in the South. This is apparent from the arrests of ISI agents made by the Indian law enforcement agencies in the last few months. 

In April 2014, the law-enforcement agencies arrested a Sri Lankan national Sakir Husain in Chennai who revealed a Pakistani conspiracy to attack US and Israeli consulates in Chennai with help from two Maldivian nationals. Sakir Hussain, told his interrogators that he had been hired allegedly by an official in Pakistani high commission in Colombo as part of the ISI’s alleged plans to conduct reconnaissance of US consulate in Chennai and Israeli consulate in Bangalore. Hussain was arrested on April 29 in a coordinated operation involving various countries. (See wherein the threat posed from Maldives was highlighted) A month later, his associate Mohammed Sulaiman, another Sri Lankan, was arrested in Malaysia on similar charges.

Husain’s interrogation revealed that the ISI was planning to send two men from Maldives to Chennai and that he had to arrange for their travel documents and hideouts. He was chosen as he was engaged in human trafficking and in forging passports and smuggling fake currency.

Husain’s name cropped up during an investigation in a Southeast Asian country (possibly Malaysia) which tipped a security agency in India about possible attack on US and Israeli consulates, the sources said.

An immediate surveillance led the investigators to Husain who had been constantly shifting his base in neighbouring Sri Lanka prompting the sleuths to seek cooperation of the island nation, the sources said.

After Husain’s arrival in Chennai, he was picked up and subjected to sustained interrogation during which, the sources claimed, he spoke about a possible terror strike on the two consulates and that his handler was Amir Zubair Siddiqui, Counsellor (Visa) at the Pakistani mission in Colombo.

The sleuths recovered pictures of US and Israeli consulates showing various gates and roads leading to the two premises, the sources said, and claimed that these pictures had been mailed to his alleged handlers in Pakistan and its high commission in Colombo.

Cyber signatures showed that the pictures were downloaded at a computer within the premises of Pakistan high commission at Colombo and the same had been shared with Sri Lankan authorities, the sources claimed.

Arun Selvarajan, a Sri Lankan national and suspected to be a member of the Tamil Tigers was recruited by the ISI’s Amir Zubair Siddiqui, the handler of Husain and was arrested by National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Chennai. Selvarajan’s assignment was to carry out a recce of possible targets in and around Chennai (similar to what Daood Sayed Gilani better known as David Coleman Headley carried out in Mumbai to enable Pakistan to 26/11 attacks) for a possible repeat of Mumbai 26/11 in Chennai. The Times of India reported that Selvarajan had posed as a bartender at a dinner party organized for the Army Officers at the Officers’ Training Academy in Chennai in August 2009. For the party held in 2009, OTA had given the bartending contract to a star hotel in Chennai. NIA officials said Selvarajan tagged along a friend who worked in the star hotel for the officers' party. "He served drinks and managed to take some photographs of senior officers in the academy, using a pen camera. He downloaded these photographs and sent them to his handler called Shaji in Sri Lanka. Shaji worked for the Pakistan high commission in Sri Lanka. He carried out this ‘assignment’ before he set up an event management company called “ICE Events” as a cover for his espionage activities. The modus operandi has been more or less similar to that adopted by David Coleman Headley. While it is not clear when he was recruited, the very fact that he was operating since 2009, proves that he was able to evade scrutiny of the intelligence agencies. Another factor that possibly worked in his favour, like that of Headley, was he was a Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu and may not have aroused suspicion.

Selvarajan is also reported to have conducted reconnaissance of Kalapakkam nuclear plant site.

The other ISI spy Thameem Ansari, a native of Thajavur, was arrested pursuant to a joint operation carried out by the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB)-Q Branch of Tamil Nadu Police while he was on his way to Trichy airport carrying a digital dossier on defence installations in South India in the third week of September 2012. He was scheduled to catch a flight to Colombo the day he was arrested. Ansari was arrested after six months of surveillance in 2012.

A failed onion trader, Ansari was contacted by Pakistani agent Shaji when he was in Colombo. Pakistani diplomat Siddiqui was suspected to be their handler.
Ansari was caught with Compact Discs and a pen drive that had data on important military areas and also landing points on the southern coastline. He was carrying a DVD of training paratroopers landing in some desert and also a Signal Corps parade. He was also carrying visuals of the Indian Army insignia that army officers wore on their shirts which raised suspicion that it was meant to smuggle terrorists into Wellington and other sensitive places dressed like Indian army officers.

An official recalled that he was carrying CDs of extensive footage that he had shot of the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington and other military places.

Intelligence sources said, there was information that not only was ISI regularly recruiting youth from this troubled region of Sri Lanka for espionage and covert operations against India but even the LeT has set up a base and now wielded some sort of influence in the region. "The region has been in some ethnic turmoil of late and Pakistan has been fishing in troubled waters. For its intelligence-collection and covert action operations directed against India, ISI uses four external bases - Kathmandu, Dubai, Bangkok and Colombo. The last one has traditionally been used as a base to collect intelligence about developments in sensitive Indian nuclear and missile establishments, many of which are located in south India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But the last few arrests show that these elements could now be used to mount an attack. This is worrying," said a security establishment officer. 

In an unrelated development a leading Indian newspaper reported that a partially burn diary was found by a security guard of Hanging Gardens (a well known garden in South Mumbai) on the evening of 15th September 2014 warning the city police of a repeat of 26/11 attacks to avenge the deaths of ten Pakistani terrorists (who were killed in the 26/11 attack). A letter in the diary said that ten jawans (soldiers) of Pakistan would be assisted by five Indians, including three police personnel, in the attack. "The security guard told the police that a man informed him about a diary lying in the garden. When the security guard opened it, he found a two-page letter in Hindi. He suspected something suspicious and informed the police about it. However, the man who had informed the security guard about the diary had by then left," a police officer said.

The letter read: “You will feel the same pain the way my brother, Ajmal Kasab, was executed. You take care of Mumbai, we challenge you. Remember 26/11 when my brother Kasab and his associates proved to be tough for the Mumbai police. Forget 26/11 and remember a new date 26/9 (September 26, 2014). First blast at Taj (Taj Hotel) will be followed by strikes at Churchgate, CST, Airport, Dadar, Andheri RTO, Kurla, Tilak Nagar and between Church (probably referring to Churchgate) to Mira Road, anywhere, there could be an attack.”

The letter warned of a tehelka (sensation) at Byculla station between 10 am – 6 pm. “If the Maharashtra police is powerful enough, stop it,” it said. The letter said Aamir Kasab would win the war on 26/9. Sixteen names, including those of the attackers were mentioned. In the end, the letter mentioned about hoisting the green flag in Kashmir.

While the letter seems to be prank, it cannot be taken lightly for the following reasons: Firstly, the last week of September witnesses a very important Hindu festival of Dusshera which commences on 25th September. Being a festival which is celebrated on a mass scale where people in large numbers congregate in Puja Pandals and processions, a terror strike is certain to cause mass casualties and panic. Secondly, the Maharashtra state elections are scheduled to be held in mid-October and any 26/11 type attack will impact the polls and its outcome. Thirdly, the November 2008 attack (26/11) was to have been originally carried out in September 2008 (according to the late B. Raman on 26th September 2008) but was postponed due to various reasons. The security agencies in Mumbai cannot let their guard down in the light of the contents of the letter.   

Friday, September 12, 2014

An ‘Obamian’ Strategy to Combat the Islamic State

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to dither. To intervene or not to intervene; to strike or not to strike, be it in Libya or Syria or Iraq is a dilemma which has dogged the Obama Presidency.

Having drawn flak over not outlining any clear strategy yet on how to check the Islamic State's murderous advance, US President Barack Obama finally seems to have a clear “game plan” on ISIS offensive which he disclosed in a speech on 10th September.

Obama held a news conference on 5th September at the conclusion of the NATO Summit in Wales, touching on the crisis in both Ukraine and Iraq. Obama echoed the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that the U.S. was committed to “destroying” the extremist group within three years as he announced a plan for an international coalition to confront the group in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama unequivocally said that the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State must be dismantled, degraded, and "ultimately defeated," days after he earned criticism for saying the goal was to roll back the organization to a point it was “manageable”.
Appearing in an interview on the NBC's “Meet the Press”, Obama told the moderator Chuck Todd that the US has a capability to deal with the serious threat posed by the Islamic State and over a course of months, the US will manage to blunt, degrade and defeat the extremists.

“Over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em,” said Obama.

The broad grand strategy that is being conjured up by the US President is to form an international coalition and regional partnerships to attack the Islamic State in order to degrade and destroy its operations. What the President is indicating is that the US is committed to providing air support, logistics and training to its allies in the region. Period! The US will not take active part in ground combat. 

While agreeing to the fact that the US can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone, Obama said that it was not possible to "deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East".

"'We've got to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi...  and in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian," said Obama.

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” he said. Obama compared the new initiative to smaller-scale fights the United States has engaged in. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he said.

But the scope of the new operation — which will immediately involve expanded airstrikes, additional U.S. personnel in Iraq and new support for moderate Syrian rebels — is likely to overshadow those two efforts. In the 13-minute address, Obama did not give a fixed date for when the operation might end, and his top aides have suggested it might last beyond his time in office.

The US under Obama is embarking on a military campaign bereft of any strategic objectives. The planning too is cumbersome because it involves an international coalition of ten countries as well as the Arab countries of the region whose politico-military objectives may well be different from and in conflict with the US agenda. There is also mutual distrust and infighting amongst the Arab states which is not very encouraging for the anti-IS alliance.

Wars against insurgents are fought and won, if at all, on the ground, not in the air or not from the air. Proof of this is seen in Afghanistan (2001 onwards) Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011). But Obama's forces is likely to comprise, initially at least, of the remnants of Iraqi army troops (who were sent fleeing by ISIS during its spring offensive around Mosul), Kurdish peshmerga, Syrian rebels, Shia militias and, possibly, moderate Sunni tribal groups.  A thousand or more US service personnel who have been deputed to Iraq are involved in facilitating airstrikes and training local forces. An additional 475 personnel are likely to be sent to Iraq which is unlikely to make any qualitative difference on the ground.

Obama’s emerging strategy depends on cooperation and contributions from regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, besides the sustainability of a new government in Iraq.

A serious flaw is getting a motley group of ten nations (the US along with Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Australia, Italy and Turkey) to contribute and cooperate in militarily combating the IS. As to why Obama sought volunteers from the North Atlantic Alliance to form a coalition to fight the IS is anybody’s guess.  It is not clear why he thinks those NATO countries -- with the exception of Turkey -- will spend money and risk lives (and reprisals in the form of terror attacks) to contain the Islamic State. Turkey (which is following Pakistan’s policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds) which is presumably one of the members of this coalition has been accused of turning a blind eye to the IS’ activities along the jihadist highway that feeds the extremist elements in Syria. Jihadis transit Turkey to get into the ranks of ISIS, and the Turks buy millions of dollars worth of diesel fuel that the IS smuggle out.

In its obsession to remove Bashar al- Assad from power, Turkey’s ruling political dispensation did not bother to distinguish between moderate Syrian groups and jihadists like the IS. It was Ankara’s pro-Islamist policies in Syria (and Egypt) that paved the way for this catastrophe.

It remains to be seen how Turkey’s policies will alter the Obama administration’s relationship with Ankara, but the President’s choice of language in recent months has been increasingly accusatory and underlies the West’s sense of frustration. In his August 28 speech, Obama said: “The truth is that we’ve had state actors who at times have thought that the way to advance their interests is, ‘Well, financing some of these groups as proxies is not such a bad strategy.’”

Qatar, though not a partner in the coalition against the IS, is a long-time regional ally of the US and is known to have funded Islamist groups like the Hamas and Al Nusra and has had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. The German Development Minister, Gerd Muller recently hinted that Qatar may be funding the IS. According to the US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, Qatar has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability. Mr. Cohen also stated that press reports indicated that the Qatari government was also supporting groups in Syria. According to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Qatar is a “frenemy”. On one hand it hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East at Al Udeid; invests billions of dollars in the US and across the globe in a bid to make itself indispensable and acts as the ‘white knight’ intermediary in hostage negotiations.

Too many pitfalls

The principal problem with this grand strategy is that US is leading a coalition “from behind” – Obama has unequivocally stated that there would be no US boots on the ground; a small number of US troops would be involved in training the forces fighting the IS and the US Air Force would be involved in carrying out strikes in Iraq and Syria. President Obama’s comparisons with Somalia and Yemen are misplaced. No two conflicts can be fought with the same strategy or tactics. The situation in Iraq and Syria threatens to engulf the whole region in a conflict without end. This is not the case with the Al Qaeda in Yemen or al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The “regional partnerships” which the White House is trying to conjure is extremely fragile and ambiguous. For instance, Saudi Arabia has agreed to host and help fund the training program, according to White House officials. Saudi Arabia, while being supportive of the United States, worries that going to war with IS could provoke a backlash among Sunni extremists in its own population. Jordan has agreed to help with providing intelligence. Turkey, as stated above, is likely to be non-committal notwithstanding the fact that the IS holds 49 kidnapped Turkish diplomats as hostage. In June, Sunni militants with ISIS stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq, kidnapping the consul general and other members of his staff, and their families, including three children.

The Arab League pledged on Sunday to take steps to defeat the Islamic State, although it did not officially agree to back U.S. action against the terrorist organization. Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby asked the 22-member body to set aside regional infighting for possible military action against the Islamic State.

Another problem would be to act against the financiers of IS in the Gulf region. Stemming the flow of money that finances the Islamic State’s operations in Syria and Iraq is one of the top ways Arab countries can make a difference. Apart from Qatar, private individuals in the region provide a substantial amount of funding to the extremist groups. Direct monetary contributions are frequently disguised as charitable donations, and the Islamic State is adept at raising funds from ransoms and smuggling, according to Bloomberg.

Further any campaign against terrorism or insurgency is open-ended. The duration of such conflicts is uncertain; it may well be a war without end, like the one being waged against Al Qaeda or al-Shabaab. According to senior Administration officials, the campaign may take three years to end. If the conflict were to drag on for more than a year, it is debatable whether the coalition and regional partnerships would remain united in its resolve to defeat the IS.

Zvi Bar’el wrote in The Haaretz: “There is no sense even in arguing about the plan’s military benefit, since Obama is not suggesting a solution for the ideological threat that Islamic State poses. Obama is selling tickets to a long, expensive show that has no plot, a show he will be producing only because he received permission from the theater owners.” According to him no foreign force, even a well-equipped one, will be able to replace a strong, determined local power.

One only hopes that this military campaign does not end up degrading the US Presidency and that Obama does not leave behind a troubled legacy for his successor in 2017.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Countering the Islamic State

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to dither. The earlier post focused on possible intelligence shortcomings of the US on Iraq and the unbridled advances made by the Islamic State [known formerly as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)]. By August 2014, there was pressure from groups such as the Kurds on the US Government to intervene military in Iraq to counter the Islamic State.

In response to gains made by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq the United States began to deploy its military to Iraq to defend American assets (and interests) and to advise Iraqi government forces. In August 2014, the U.S. military began an aerial campaign directed against radical Islamists in northern Iraq. In addition to military efforts, the US also mounted a considerable humanitarian mission aimed at assisting ethnic minorities, particularly the Yazidis, in northern Iraq who were and continue to be under the threat of genocide by ISIS.

The consequences of US strikes

One of the most horrific consequences of US military intervention was the execution of a US national who was abducted two years earlier while on an assignment in Syria. This was not the first time that a US national had been taken hostage and executed by terror outfits. Hostages have been executed by radical Islamist groups operating in Lebanon in the eighties. James Foley, an American free lance photo-journalist working for the Global Post was abducted in November 2012 in north-western Syria by militants belonging to the ISIL/ISIS. In August 2014 he was executed by the terrorist outfit in response to the US airstrikes in Iraq.

According to White House sources he was believed to have been abducted by Shabiha militia (a shadowy outfit suspected to have been established by Namir al-Assad and Rifaat al-Asad operating in the Mediterranean region around Latakia, Banias and Tartous), and later reportedly held in a Syrian Arab Air Force intelligence complex in Damascus. It is not clear how or under what circumstances did Foley came under IS captivity. A US Special Forces operation was ordered by President Obama to rescue Foley and other hostages in July 2014 somewhere inside Syria. President Barack Obama ordered the secret operation, the first of its kind by the U.S. inside Syrian territory since the start of the civil war, after the U.S. received intelligence the Americans were being held by the extremist group known as Islamic State in a sparsely populated area inside Syria. The officials said that U.S. forces landed modified, heavily armed Black Hawk helicopters flown by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which works with both the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL commandos. The regiment is known as the “Night Stalkers.” After landing nearby and approaching the facility by foot, the force came under small-arms fire, to which it responded, the officials said. Several fighters of the Islamic State were killed in the exchange of fire. One member of the special operations forces team was shot and slightly injured, the officials said. However, Foley was not located. A case of inaccurate intelligence on the whereabouts of the hostages, perhaps! The operation was a secret but was revealed after Foley's death.

Foley's continued whereabouts were unknown until August 19, 2014, when ISIS posted a video to YouTube depicting Foley reading a prepared statement urging Americans to stop their support for the U.S. government for its bombing campaign against ISIS targets.

Tackling the Islamic State

The Islamic State or ISIS is a unique outfit; it cannot be termed as an insurgent group in the classical sense considering the kind of brutality that it has unleashed on minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians. At the same time, like insurgents and unlike terrorists, it has come to control large swathes of territory in parts of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is more or less in the mould of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). If that be the case, then countering this group is certainly going to be an uphill task. It took the Sri Lankan forces nearly three decades to wipe out the LTTE.

The use of air power by US and its allies will have limited impact on the capabilities of the Islamic State. Air power may deter IS to mount large-scale military offensives but will have hardly any impact on its ability to carry out suicide bombing, assassinations and hostage-taking. The US will be in a bind if its nationals are taken hostages and their executions are filmed and uploaded on the net. The US will have to come up with an effective counter-terrorism strategy which will deter the IS from targeting nationals belonging to the US and its allies. The US needs to borrow a page from that unconfirmed incident which took place in the mid-eighties in Lebanon when about four diplomats of the erstwhile Soviet Union were abducted by a radical Sunni Muslim outfit, the Islamic Liberation Organisation, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Alpha (or Alfa) Group was dispatched to Beirut in October 1985. By the time Alpha arrived, one of the hostages had already been killed. Through a network of supporting KGB operatives, members of the task-force identified each of the perpetrators involved in the crisis, and once identified, began to take the relatives of these militants as hostages. Following the standard policy of no negotiations with terrorists, some of the hostages taken by Alpha Group were dismembered, and their body parts sent to the militants. The warning was clear: more would follow unless the remaining hostages were released immediately. The message was “Release our people or you will get your people piece by piece”. The show of force worked and for a period of 20 years no Soviet or Russian officials were taken captive.

There is a great deal of apprehension that radicalized Western Muslims have been engaging and continue to engage in terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria as part of the Islamic State and will eventually return home. The fear is misplaced. For if, the West is determined to keep its soil free of Islamic extremists, the only solution is to physically prevent them from returning home. The other option is to neutralize them. And the last option is the Soviet option, the veracity of which incident has been questioned by some.

Softer options of incarceration or rehabilitation, howsoever democratic and fanciful, it may appear, will only give rise to more rabid militant outfits. Physical elimination will ensure that these elements will not be around to re-engage in any kind of terror activities and will have a deterrent effect on other like-minded individuals and groups who nurture such sinister ideas.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraqi Crisis: A Case of Intel Failure

Have the US intelligence agencies failed to assess the situation in Iraq? Is it time for the CIA and other agencies to revert to their traditional role and focus on intelligence collection and analysis?

The ongoing crisis in Iraq seems to have caught US intelligence agencies napping. It seems to be so considering the Obama Administration’s lack of a robust response to the ISIS, which has gone on an uncontrolled rampage through the towns and villages of Iraq.  It is increasingly clear that the intelligence gathering capabilities of the US spy agencies in the Middle East in general have been severely dented after the departure of the US troops from Iraq in December 2011. The spy agencies appear to have been surprised by the sudden move by the ISIS to seize Mosul and other cities. The Senate Intelligence Committee is reviewing data from the past six months to determine the extent of intelligence available to the various agencies and about the possibility of a major offensive.

According to Shane Harris “The speed and ease with which well-armed and highly trained ISIS fighters took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, have raised significant doubts about the ability of American intelligence agencies to know when ISIS might strike next, a troubling sign as the Islamist group advances steadily closer to Baghdad. And it harked back to another recent intelligence miscue, in February, when U.S. spy agencies failed to predict the Russian invasion of Crimea. Both events are likely to raise questions about whether the tens of billions of dollars spent every year on monitoring the world's hot spots is paying off -- and what else the spies might be missing.”

“The CIA maintains a presence at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but the agency has largely stopped running networks of spies inside the country since U.S. forces left Iraq in December 2011, current and former U.S. officials said. That's in part because the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command had actually taken the lead on hunting down Iraq's militants. With the JSOC commandos gone, the intelligence agencies have been forced to try to track groups like ISIS through satellite imagery and communications intercepts -- methods that have proven practically useless because the militants relay messages using human couriers, rather than phone and email conversations, and move around in such small groups that they easily blend into the civilian population.”

One hurdle is that much of the intelligence network the U.S. built up during eight years of fighting in Iraq has been dismantled, including a network of CIA and Pentagon sources and an NSA system that made available the details of every Iraqi insurgent email, text message and phone-location signals in real time, said John "Chris" Inglis, who recently retired as the NSA's top civilian.

Yet according to some US officials, there was some warning. Lt. Gen Mike Flynn of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had informed Congress in February that the ISIL "probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group's ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria."

Behind the scenes, intelligence analysts warned about the increasing difficulties Iraq's security forces faced in combating the ISIL, and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq's declining stability, a senior intelligence official said. They reported on the ISIL's efforts to spark uprisings in areas with substantial Sunni populations and how the Iraqi military's failure to counter ISIL gains in Mosul allowed the group to deepen its influence there, the official said.

Few US officials have admitted that the intelligence agencies’ assessment of the ISIS has been devoid of specifics that could have helped the Iraqis know when and where an attack could take place and prepare them to counter it.

Intelligence failure or failure of assessment is not a problem that happened overnight. The decay set in over a period of time post 9/11. The effect of 9/11 on the US Government was to make the CIA and the Pentagon shift primacy away from their traditional functions and towards black ops. At the CIA, this meant less attention being devoted to traditional intelligence gathering and more to targeted killings being conducted from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre (CTC). At the Pentagon, it resulted in the rapid rise of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

As the War on Terror got underway, it became evident—or at least seemed evident to those formulating policy—that traditional lines demarcating military action from intelligence collection were no longer relevant. The entire world became a battlefield, and the US needed to collect intelligence on threats and eliminate them quickly and fluidly, unconstrained by bureaucratic shackles. The CIA, from a traditional intelligence gathering agency evolved into a paramilitary organization. According to Philip Giraldi, a former CIA case officer “I would not say that CIA has been taken over by the military, but I would say that the CIA has become more militarized. A considerable part of the CIA budget is now no longer spying; it’s supporting paramilitaries who work closely with JSOC to kill terrorists, and to run the drone program.”

Former CIA Director General Michael Hayden (ret.) had opined in the wake of Petraeus’ resignation that the Agency was presented with the opportunity to return to its operational roots. Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said that the Agency has been “laser-focused on terrorism” for many years. Consequently, much of its operational output “looks more like targeting than it does classical intelligence”, he said. According to CIA’s former Acting Director, John McLaughlin, the most significant challenge for the post-Petraeus CIA “may be the sheer volume of problems that require [good old-fashioned] intelligence input”. For over a decade, argues Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, the CIA’s focus has been to fulfill covert-action tasks in the context of Washington’s so-called “war on terrorism”. But through this process, the Agency “has become too much of a paramilitary organization” and has neglected its primary institutional role, which is to be “the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers, using both open and clandestine sources”. 

It may be argued that the ISIS being a progeny of the al Qaeda, it would have been anyway under the scanner of the CIA’s War on Terror. However, the ISIS is not alone in the offensive; it has the backing of several Sunni jihadi groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils. The sectarian divide, the Syrian imbroglio and the Iranian influence on Baghdad and al-Maliki’s policies were largely responsible for strengthening and emboldening the ISIS. The ISIS, today, is seen more as an insurgent group fighting for a cause rather than as a terrorist group. Shia Iran on one hand and the Sunni Arab states on the other had turned Iraq into a proxy battleground. Had the CIA and other agencies focused on their traditional role, the Obama Administration would have been better placed to tackle the Iraqi crisis. It is high time that the CIA reverted to its role of intelligence collection and analysis.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Global Flash Point: Iraq

The crisis and the near civil war – like situation in Iraq is fast emerging as another global flash points of 2014 and beyond and this is apparent from the nature of conflict that is unfolding and the kind of brutality that is being perpetrated by the jihadi groups, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. India’s interests are likely to be affected by the turn of events in Iraq and a strategy needs to be in place in the event of a full-blown civil war and collapse of the state.

The government in Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era has been weak and to make matters worse, the Sunni-Shia divide has become more pronounced, though the sectarian angle is denied by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki’s spokesman. The influence of Iran, a predominantly Shia state over Baghdad has unnerved the Sunni dominated Arab states of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. The rise of ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or also known as ISIL – Islamic State of Iraq and Levant whose main objective is to establish a Sunni-Islamist state in the region should be viewed in the context of the internal politics as it obtains in Iraq as well as the sectarian divide and mistrust between the Sunnis and Shias. (The final "S" in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word "al-Sham". This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant).

ISIS was formed in April 2013 and grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda, but become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and is making military gains in Iraq. The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi aka Abu Dua and is considered today to be the world's most dangerous terrorist.

The ISIS came to prominence during the takeover of Fallujah in January 2014 and the following month Washington recognised ISIS as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, it has been overtly and covertly been supported by pro-Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. The funding of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, a group which has direct links with the Al Qaeda has given the ISIS more firepower.

On June 10, the ISIS captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. In a few hours, the city's security forces had dropped their weapons and uniforms and fled. Since then, the militants introduced a political charter in Mosul and marched south, seizing additional towns en route to the capital, Baghdad. ISIS gained as much as $425 million in cash, an unspecified quantity of gold bullion, huge amounts of light and heavy weaponry and probably hundreds of new recruits from three main detention centers.

It has descended — and at an alarming pace — from the northwest of the country and is taking town after town, reaching about 60 miles from the capital Baghdad. Such has been the pace of its advancement that by the time the international community took notice and condemned it the ISIS had made great progress.

The ISIS has also taken control of Saddam Hussein’s home town, Tikrit. Earlier they had taken control of Ramadi and Samarra—two important towns. PM Maliki has failed to bring even a semblance of democracy and governance in Iraq and there are groups that see the advance of ISIS as a reply to his misrule. The Mosul takeover has further weakened Baghdad’s influence in the northern regions. This has given the Kurds an advantage in its standoff with the Maliki government.

There were reports that the town of Tal Afar had also fallen to the ISIS. Tal Afar is strategically significant, straddling the main highway from Mosul, the provincial capital, to the Syrian border. However, assuming Tal Afar has indeed fallen to the militants, it does not mean they have a direct link to Syria - the border crossing at Rabia is controlled on the eastern side by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and on the western side by the Popular Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is fiercely hostile to ISIS.

This offensive has been coming for at least two years. After the last American military personnel withdrew from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the then-Islamic State in Iraq began its gradual but determined recovery -- befitting the organization's mantra of baqiya wa tatamadad ("lasting and expanding"). The strategy was meticulously planned and carried out in clear stages.

Principally, in Iraq the ISIS have spent two years breaking senior leaders out of prison and re-establishing a professional command and control structure; expanding operational reach, including into Syria, and exploiting rising Sunni discontent with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, thereby encouraging sectarianism.

ISIS has substantial roots in Mosul, where it has managed to remain a potent force during and after the U.S. troop "surge." This breakaway Al Qaeda affiliate has been raising substantial sums of money in Mosul through an intricate extortion network. This reality, plus Mosul's proximity to ISIS positions in eastern Syria, made the city a natural launching ground for this shock offensive in Iraq, which is ultimately aimed at Baghdad.

Besides the ISIS, there are many other armed Sunni actors involved in what has become, in effect, a Sunni uprising -- groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils.

ISIS may be the largest force involved (with about 8,000 fighters in Iraq), but its numbers are in sufficient to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating Sunni population. But this "relationship" is by no means stable and should not be taken for granted.
The militants' prospects are also dependent on the government and its supporters continuing to advance sectarianism -- something that encourages Sunni actors to accept ISIS. 

Unfortunately, this apparent sectarianism has been consolidated in recent days with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s call for a "volunteer army" encouraging the further reconstitution of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Brigades (three Shiite militias active during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which appear to be receiving a new boost in recruitment).

Further the call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's to Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS -- have increased the perception of sectarianism inside and outside Iraq.

Iran's role is crucial. Iran has spent recent years painstakingly trying to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq under a central authority in Baghdad. Already, the commander of Iran's external Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, has been in Baghdad, and Iraqi sources have reported 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel arriving in the capital and, allegedly, 1,500 Basij militiamen (Iranian paramilitary force) in Diyala.

Saudi Arabia has been making all out efforts to thwart the rise of Iran and its influence in Iraq. Syria and Lebanon always make for useful proxy battlegrounds, though a Sunni rebellion has little chance of actually toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Lebanon is too fragmented for any one regional player to claim a decisive advantage. The contest has thus shifted back to Mesopotamia, where Iran cannot afford to see its Shiite gains slip and where Saudi Arabia -- both the government and private citizens -- has maintained strong ties with many of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and Mosul provinces that have facilitated the Sunni uprising. All the same there is no love lost between the Saudis and the ISIS. In fact, the Saudis have branded it a terrorist organization and have even uncovered cells of the group on Saudi soil plotting against the kingdom.

Thus a variety of factors may have been responsible for the current situation in Iraq; but primarily the Sunni-Shia divide and a continuing battle for ‘influence’ fought through proxies between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states of the region have converted Iraq into a war zone and has brought it to the verge of collapse.

Impact on India

India’s immediate concern is the welfare of a sizable number of Indians working in Iraq; according to one estimate, as reported in an Indian daily, about 18,000 Indians are in Iraq. With the fall of Mosul, it has been reported that about 40 construction workers had been abducted by the ISIS. Also there are about 46 nurses from Kerala have also been stranded at Tikrit near Mosul. The nurses are claiming that they are safe and the Indian mission in Iraq is trying to evacuate them to safer places.

India is in the process of sending its former ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy to Baghdad to try and establish contact with the abducted Indian workers. Suresh Reddy, who has good contacts in Iraq, is likely to use his local contacts to trace the abducted Indian workers.

It is anybody’s guess as to how the Indian government will go about evacuating its citizens who are stranded and secure the release of the abducted workers as, as of date India does not seem to have much influence over the warring factions or the wherewithal to secure a safe passage from the embattled region. It is virtually impossible to conduct an evacuation exercise on a large scale considering the fighting in various parts of Iraq. And secondly, an evacuation of this magnitude will entail the deployment of armed forces in order to ensure safety of her citizens. If India chooses this option, then it needs to consider the possibility of an armed confrontation with the ISIS. Also an evacuation, if planned, will necessitate the deployment of Indian naval and air assets in and around Iraq.

ISIS, which is being suspected to be behind the abduction of 40 Indian workers in Mosul, has global ambitions and aims to create an Islamic World Dominion of which even India would be a part. A recently released world dominion map by the outfit had parts of north-west India, including Gujarat, shown as part of the Islamic state of Khorasan, a caliphate that the outfit aims to achieve. 

There have been inputs of jihadists from India fighting in both Iraq and Syria and some of these would eventually return and would then become the link between the Middle East outfits and the Indian subcontinent. That is a time, sources said, India needs to prepare for.

The offensive carried out by the ISIS and its allies bring back memories of the Taliban seizing Afghanistan which could increase instability in the entire region. Moreover, a crisis-ridden oil rich country in West Asia will adversely impact India’s energy needs and the deep economic ties which India has had with Iraq.

(At the time of writing this post, the Sunni extremists have reportedly taken control of most of Iraq's largest oil refinery, located in Baiji in northern Iraq. The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 per cent of the refinery," an official speaking from inside the refinery said).