Tag Archives: terrorism

Spies, State Terrorism and Government Credibility

Last weekend I finally got the time to catch up on a number of projects that were hanging over my head, and among the things that I desperately needed to get done was to write a column for the Faster Times on the biggest drama of the summer: photographer spies and terrorist patsies.

Were several freelance photographers secretly spying for the Russian government? Did Russia plant a bomb at the U.S. embassy and other locations? We don’t know, what we do know is that these two much ballyhooed cases have provoked serious questions about the Georgian government’s credibility.

When I first contacted journalists and NGO workers in Georgia about coming to this country in the summer of 2009, most said that it was poor timing.

“Everyone’s on vacation, it’s too hot to work, so, nothing really happens in Georgia in the summer,” they said, “except the occasional war.”

Still that was enough for me to buy the one-way ticket and I am now moving into my third eventful summer in the South Caucasus.

This year, while the Western world was gearing up for barbeques and summer movie blockbusters, Tbilisi was host to a fascinating spy scandal involving three freelance Georgian photographers. Two of them worked directly for the government, including one who was the president’s personal photographer. They were accused of being paid to transmit sensitive government documents – including the minutes of ministerial meetings, blueprints of government buildings, official itineraries, etc. to another country.

Meanwhile, more details emerged about a series of mysterious explosions the previous fall that had rocked Tbilisi – actually “rocked” is a bit of an overstatement. All of the devices were small, causing hardly any damage and no one in Tbilisi seemed to pay much attention to them.

Either way, it has been an interesting, if swelteringly hot, couple of months.

On the explosions, I actually happened to be at the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi to interview the ambassador the day after the strange explosion occurred outside their walls. Although I was there to discuss IDP issues, I asked every aide and employee at the place what they thought it was all about. Most shrugged, figuring it was some local digging for copper, who accidentally struck a natural gas line, or perhaps some sort of odd practical joke. Who knows.  These things happen in Georgia (in March, a Georgian pensioner allegedly cut off the internet for a significant portion of the South Caucasus – including nearly all of Armenia – while scavenging for buried cables).

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The most important things I forgot to talk about

Hey everyone, so after a busy week, I’m getting myself back into the blogging biz with a few things you may have missed.

Tans take time.

  • Mr. Saakashvili goes to Washington: Arriving Jan. 15 to participate in a memorial service for the late Richard Holbrooke, the Georgian president met with U.S. President Barack Obama for “more than 25 miutes” according to Saakashvili’s office. He also met with various other American legislators including  House Majority Leader John Boehner, which was quite an honor considering he has turned down multiple meetings with the U.S. President, and most recently declined to meet Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.
  • Russia’s North Caucasus Problems: Our friends at Evolutsia.net had a great piece on the two primary developments in North Caucasus: a tragic reminder of the struggle’s costs, and uncertain potential in the Kremlin’s new strategy. First, an suicide bomber at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, likely linked to North Caucasus militants, killed at least 35 people Jan. 24 and injured 168, reminding Russia and the world of the seriousness of its problems in the desolate North Caucasus. On the other hand, the Kremlin’s new envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, is beginning to get settled in. His ambitious plan to 400 billion rubles ($13.4 billion) to develop the devastated and underdeveloped region seems to have Russia headed on the right track, but Evolutsia and other Eurasia analysts worry that parallel — but not conjoined — economic and military efforts will still fail to address the problem. All the same, very few holistic approaches to impoverished regions beset by insurgencies have worked either (see Afghanistan).
  • Armenia and Azerbaijan shake hands again: The region’s two worst neighbors came back to the negotiating table yesterday (hopefully avoiding the Moscow airport) to discuss their ongoing dispute over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Hopefully, at least a symbolic agreement can be made that will cool down tensions that flared last summer, costing several lives and worrying the international community that all-out war might follow.
  • Three Kings and its partners are getting real: Last week we put out a survey to readers of English-language media on Georgia and the South Caucasus in preparation for a new media project of our own. If you haven’t gotten three minutes to fill it out yet, stop reading this and do so now at this link!
  • Even more important stuff: I’ll have more later today on the 13th casualty of Georgia’s participation in America’s wars and on the eviction of another 1500 Georgian IDP’s from the capital, Tbilisi.

Enemies in the Caucasus, Allies in Afghanistan

Most people paying attention to the gradual post-Bush thaw in U.S.-Russian relations and increase in bilateral cooperation likely see it as a logical development between two powers that can collaborate in mutually beneficial ways. And I agree.

However, observing this from the vantage point of the Caucasus, it’s hard not to note the flakes of absurdity that shake off of the policy.

Last month was a good one for U.S.-Russian relations. First, executives from Google and other tech companies arrived in Russia as a part of a delegation led by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to examine Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s efforts to spur the emergence of a “Russian Silicon Valley.” Schwarzenegger called Medvedev an “action president” and declared that the U.S. “wants to be friends with Russia.”

Medvedev for some reason thought it was good symbolism to drive the Governator to Russia's innovative new business school in a old Soviet luxury car. Photo by Mikhail Klimenyev/Agence France-Presse

Both sides were also remarkably civil both publicly and behind the curtains when the Kyrgyz went to vote in parliamentary elections Oct. 10, in what could have made for a nasty proxy battle over a poor country that hosts both Russian and American military bases.

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Why Moscow may be playing Iran smarter than Washington

The debate hasn’t changed much in the nine years since September 11:

The U.S. cannot allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists, and the prospect of Iran, a country that the U.S. hasn’t recognized diplomatically in three decades, becoming a nuclear power is totally unacceptable.

The options haven’t changed much either:

Sanctions may be able to force the Iranians into a corner, but without the participation of China and Russia, economic sanctions would lack any real bite. That leaves only one option, best elaborated on in John McCain’s hit single “Bomb, bomb Iran.” At best that option would merely set back the Iranian program a few years and would probably come at a “tremendous, unpredictable cost” according to a recent war game that played out the scenario.

In that war game, conducted this winter by experts and former policymakers representing Israel, the U.S. and Iran, they gave the Israelis the best case scenario — about 100 Israeli jets strike and take out the entirety of Iran’s nuclear facilities with one fell swoop.

The problem is that then eliminates any reason for the Iranians to issue restraint with their response — the crown jewels already being gone, and the people rallying to support the government to retaliate. By the end of the one-week war game Iran had crashed Israel’s economy with a constant rain of its own missiles and those fired by its proxies forcing millions of Israelis to flee or dig in. Israel in turn prepared to invade Southern Lebanon and Gaza once again to take out missile sites. And, after Iran mined the Straits of Hormuz to economically punish the Saudis and Americans for backing Israel, American warships gathered in the Indian Ocean set to engage the Iranian navy in the largest naval battle since World War II.

And that’s as far as they got in gaming the “clean” military option. The alternative is a full invasion and occupation of Iran, which would play out similar to the war in Iraq — that is to say bad — only it would be worse given that Iran is larger, more populated and more anti-American.

So why don’t the damn Russians and Chinese get on board with the sanctions?!

From the Russian perspective there are at least two good reasons not to blockade Iran. First, the baseline of Russia’s relations with Iran is far different than that of the U.S.. While their agendas do not always align, Russia has gotten along fairly well with Iran since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian businesses have also thrived in Iran therefore trashing the relationship asks a lot more of them that it does of anyone in the West.

And second, because Iran is also an influential member of Russia’s turbulent neighborhood. As this week’s tragic event in Moscow made clear, Russia still faces a serious problem with terrorism from insurgents and Islamic extremists in its restive south. Americans automatically make the connection between Iran and terrorism through its allied movements Hezbollah and Hamas, which is all the more reason for the Russians to seek to not piss off the Iranians too, as Iran could easily exert the wrong kind of influence in the already troubled regions of Russia’s North Caucasus.

Additionally, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, speaking on NPR’s On Point, Russia has more or less come to the conclusion that Iran is likely to go nuclear no matter what anyone else does. It’s not clear that sanctioning Iran would dissuade the Iranian regime from continuing to seek out a bomb, what is clear for the Russian’s though, is that helping the West isolate the Islamic Republic would instantly make Iran an additional Russian enemy — and possibly a nuclear one.

State Department officials continue to claim they are gradually convincing Russia to get on board with the idea of sanctions, but I find that hard to believe despite recent progress on issues like nuclear non-proliferation. At best I think the West can expect to Russia not to veto a sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council.

Furthermore, I’m no longer seemingly the only person to make the case that a nuclear Iran won’t necessarily mean apocalypse. Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria wrote in February:

Iran, we’re told, is different [from North Korea, the Soviet Union, China, etc.]. The country cannot be deterred by America’s vast arsenal of nukes because it is run by a bunch of mystic mullahs who aren’t rational, embrace death and have millenarian fantasies. But this isn’t and never was an accurate description of Iran’s canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite.

The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power [...] [W]e know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work.

All of the scary things we are told that make it a global death wish to allow Iran to go nuclear continue to be true about Pakistan. Iran maintains ties to terrorist organizations (Hezbollah, Hamas), so does Pakistan (the Taliban, Lashkar e-Taiba — responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai). Iran is at the brink of war with another nuclear-armed American ally (Israel) – so is Pakistan (India).

All things considered, Moscow may be hedging its bets in a constructive way for the long term. Fred Kaplan from Slate made the point that Iran can’t handle nukes because they lack the control mechanisms limiting authority over the weapons and preventing accidental launches that were in place other nuclear countries including Pakistan.

But Pakistan only learned a good system of control devices (wherein a rogue general can’t decided to nuke Finland at any moment) with the help of an experienced nuclear power – the U.S.. Russia has already proposed various ways in which they could participate in compromises involving Iran’s use of nuclear technology – including a deal in which Russia would enrich all the nuclear fuel itself and also take the left over waste. Therefore there’s no reason to believe that if Russia maintains at least a neutral relationship towards Iran, that they couldn’t help make Iran’s nukes more secure as well.

Moscow fails to stop the bleeding as North Caucasus violence spreads

Chechen refugees in the town of Duisi, Georgia.

Chechen refugees in the town of Duisi, Georgia.

Although the South Caucasus has calmed down to relatively normal levels since the August 2008 war, the North Caucasus exploded over this last year.

Just after the Kremlin announced progress, a sharp rise in violence in the North Caucasus and the first terror attacks against Russians outside the region in five years put an end to regional and international confidence in Moscow’s strategy.

The troubling part is that no one I talked to — not even the Chechens themselves — see any prospect for stability on the horizon.

All the difficulties the United States now faces in Afghanistan — hyperlocalized tribal identities, lack of legitimate government, lack of a history of effective central authority, and a culture of revenge and retribution — are all at play in Chechya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Luckily for the United States, Afghanistan isn’t within our borders. We can just walk away if we feel like it.

Russia doesn’t have that going for them, and they’ve already tried the “walk away” plan too. See years 1996-1999. I’l give you a preview: it didn’t go so well.

Now Moscow is seeing it’s Plan C (or D or E) go terribly awry. The idea was to empower local leaders with enough money and support to take the fight to the insurgents and hopefully do some rebuilding themselves. It was clear that he heavy-handed Russian occupation wasn’t pleasing anyone and was provoking uncontainable violence against Russian civilians across the Federation.

So, Moscow figured, as long as the local authorities could do all the killing and dying and limit the violence to the region, that was about as close to success as they were going to find. So much for that plan.

In my recent piece in the Washington Diplomat I discuss the year’s regression, and how it has even stoked diplomatic flames with Russia’s southern neighbor, Georgia.

This April, Russia proudly announced that its 15-year conflict in Chechnya was over and that all further counter-insurgency operations by federal troops would cease.

Russia had struggled to control Chechnya, an autonomous republic in the south of the country, even after two wars and several handpicked local regimes. Finally, after empowering Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to fight the insurgency with whatever means necessary, violence in the region slowly abated.

“It would be difficult to describe Chechnya as peaceful. But Kadyrov has achieved ‘stability’ in the Russian and Chechen definition of the word,” Sergei Markedonov, of Moscow’s Institute for Political and Military Analysis, wrote in the Moscow Times in April.

But within months of the announcement of the conflict’s conclusion, violence in Chechnya and its two neighboring regions, Ingushetia and Dagestan, had rebounded to the highest levels seen in years as assassinations of local officials and devastating suicide attacks pierced the relative calm.
More recently, after a Chechen insurgent group claimed responsibility for a train bombing near St. Petersburg that killed 26 and wounded some 100 people on Nov. 27, it became clear the situation was no longer under control.

Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the gradual deterioration of the security situation across Russia is a direct result of the Kremlin’s North Caucasus strategy.

“This is a policy basically of neglect. The Kremlin does not deal with local problems, entrusting them with those rulers who are fully loyal to the Kremlin and who ensure the desired election results. Each time there is an election — whether local or federal — these leaders can be relied on that [the pro-Kremlin United Russia party] not just wins the election, but wins usually in those territories something like an 80 to 90 percent majority,” she said.

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U.S. intelligence acknowledges diminished role for America in future

Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst, said today that the United States will have a drastically reduced presence in the world in 2025.

Fingar’s speech, which is to be followed by a formal report, confirms the assertions of political analysts like Fareed Zakaria, who have concluded that American power will wane in the coming century.

What is most interesting is that the report represents a view, clearly endorsed by the intelligence community, that is far ahead of opinions and policies of contemporary politicians. For example, the report states that the U.S. intelligence community has “accepted the consensual scientific view of global warming” despite the fact the Bush Administration, and much of America’s conservative wing has thus far refused to do so.

Fingar also said national security threats are in major transition. While both presidential candidates have focused on defeating terrorism as a America’s biggest national security objective the report downplayed al-Qaeda’s strength, and instead warned of problems in the areas of energy security and climate change.

Since the last such report, the intelligence community has projected a declining role for al-Qaeda, which was deemed likely to become “increasingly decentralized, evolving into an eclectic array of groups, cells, and individuals.” Inspired by al-Qaeda, “regionally based groups, and individuals labeled simply as jihadists — united by a common hatred of moderate regimes and the West — are likely to conduct terrorist attacks,” the 2004 document said.[. . .]

Energy security will also become a major issue as India, China and other countries join the United States in seeking oil, gas and other sources for electricity. The Chinese get a good portion of their oil from Iran, as do many U.S. allies in Europe, limiting U.S. options on Iran. “So the turn-the-spigot-off kind of thing — even if we could do it — would be counterproductive.”[. . .]

The predicted shift toward a less U.S.-centric world will come at a time when the planet is facing a growing environmental crisis, caused largely by climate change, Fingar said. By 2025, droughts, food shortages and scarcity of fresh water will plague large swaths of the globe, from northern China to the Horn of Africa.

For poorer countries, climate change “could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Fingar said, while the United States will face “Dust Bowl” conditions in the parched Southwest. He said U.S. intelligence agencies accepted the consensual scientific view of global warming, including the conclusion that it is too late to avert significant disruption over the next two decades. The conclusions are in line with an intelligence assessment produced this summer that characterized global warming as a serious security threat for the coming decades.

Floods and droughts will trigger mass migrations and political upheaval in many parts of the developing world. But among industrialized states, declining birthrates will create new economic stresses as populations become grayer. In China, Japan and Europe, the ratio of working adults to seniors “begins to approach one to three,” he said.

Full article here.

Not a million, no! Just 400,000 names on terror list

In an editorial published in the Washington Post today, Leonard Boyle, director of the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center reacted to the recent media coverage of the terror watch list and defended the list for its effectiveness.

He said myths abound about the list specifically that there are now one million names on it, as reported by the ACLU. These data were misinterpreted he said. There are over one million entries into the list, but those correspond to a mere 400,000 individuals “that represent a tiny fraction of the more than 6.6 billion people on our planet.”

Point taken, but it still can’t be argued that intelligence services are therefore going by a pinpoint approach. With that many names you could incorporate the entire nation of Iceland or Mongolia.

U.S. terror watch list hits one million names – ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union, a Washington-based legal organization, has been monitoring the government’s reports about the list of suspected terrorists and says today that the list reached one million names.

“Members of Congress, nuns, war heroes and other ‘suspicious characters,’ with names like Robert Johnson and Gary Smith, have become trapped in the Kafkaesque clutches of this list, with little hope of escape,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Congress needs to fix it, the Terrorist Screening Center needs to fix it, or the next president needs to fix it, but it has to be done soon.”

Fredrickson and Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, spoke today along with two victims of the watch list: Jim Robinson, former assistant attorney general for the Civil Division who flies frequently and is often delayed for hours despite possessing a governmental security clearance and Akif Rahman, an American citizen who has been detained and interrogated extensively at the U.S.-Canada border when traveling for business.

“America’s new million record watch list is a perfect symbol for what’s wrong with this administration’s approach to security: it’s unfair, out-of-control, a waste of resources, treats the rights of the innocent as an afterthought, and is a very real impediment in the lives of millions of travelers in this country,” said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU Technology and Liberty Program. “It must be fixed without delay.”

“Putting a million names on a watch list is a guarantee that the list will do more harm than good by interfering with the travel of innocent people and wasting huge amounts of our limited security resources on bureaucratic wheel-spinning,” said Steinhardt. “I doubt this thing would even be effective at catching a real terrorist.”

Explosions rock Abkhazia

Four explosions were reported at various parts of the de facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia today, according to Al-Jazeera.

The initial explosions reportedly took place in the village of Rukhi. A fourth bomb exploded under a police vehicle, wounding the local police chief after he arrived to investigate.

These explosions come as a series of violent events have bristled nerves and upped tensions in the region. The border between Abkhazia and Georgia was closed suddenly July 1 after explosions in the Abkhazian capital city Sukhumi injured eight people, including a Russian. In South Ossetia, another Georgian break away region, mortar exchanges between the Georgian army and separatist forces turned deadly for the first time in many years (for more from Three Kings: June 5, June 6).

Abkhazian authorities claim these attacks have all been perpetrated by Georgia, which seeks to hurt the local economy during the tourist season. Sukhumi is a popular resort town for Russians seeking to relax along the Black sea. The Russian Tourist Industry Union claims that tourism in the area is likely to decrease by 20 percent due to recent violence.

I myself was about an hour away from Sukhumi in Sochi, Russia in May. Having looked into the Abkhazian situation while studying in Saint-Petersburg, a classmate and I sought to travel to the city and see look at the situation with our own eyes. A Russian friend of ours went ahead and asked about the safety of Americans traveling in the area, and whether or not we’d be let in. She reported back that they said “Americans would be let in, but not let out.” It wasn’t clear exactly what that meant, but I was on vacation and didn’t particularly want to spend part of my week off either dead or kidnapped.