President Barack Obama is close to a decision on a number of US military steps for thwarting the march of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is now halted at Samarra, 70 km short of Baghdad. In a comment Thursday night, June 12, he said: “We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.” He added that he was thinking of “short-term military things.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been appealing to the White House for months for Apache helicopters and Hellfire air-ground rockets to fight terrorists. These Obama may now release, as well as considering token US drone attacks on ISIS targets in Iraq, for which he is most reluctant.
Thursday afternoon, Iran’s most powerful gun, the Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, arrived in Baghdad to take over the push against ISIS, in the same way as he has managed Bashar Assad’s war in Syria, and pull together the demoralized and scattered Iraqi army.
Those steps by Washington and Tehran pave the way for the US and Iran to cooperate for the first time in a join military endeavor.
Since the ISIS forces, albeit boosted by tens of thousands of armed Sunnis flocking to the black flag, are not capable of capturing Baghdad and have halted outside the city, President Obama and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have won a small space for deciding how to proceed.
Khamenei must determine whether Gen. Soleimani with the help of American weaponry can stop al Qaeda, save Maliki from collapse and prevent the fall of Baghdad and whether it is worth sending an Iranian army division over to Iraq. Our intelligence sources have sighted what looked like preparations for this deployment.
What is decided in the coming hours in Washington will depend very much on the moves made by Tehran.
The big winner of the ISIS onslaught on Iraq, apart from Al Qaeda is the semiautonomous Kurdish republic in the north. When the Iraqi army 12th division assigned with defending Kirkuk and its oil fields scattered to the four winds Thursday, the Kurds Peshmerga army rolled right in and snatched the city and the oil fields from the control of the Baghdad government, fulfilling an old Kurdish dream.
When ISIS fighters smashed through northern, central and eastern Iraq this week, knocking over city after city in three days – June 9 -11, they showed the world a new breed of Al Qaeda, savage terrorists with high military capabilities.
The first shock was the fall of Iraq’s second city, Mosul on June 9, into the hands of the Al Qaeda’s Islamist State of Iraq and Syria, followed the next day by the Baiji oil refinery and power center of Baiji, then Hawajah and Tikrit. Thursday the Islamists said they were ready to march on Baghdad, 170km away but have halted at Samarra. (Click HERE for enlarged map)
Their previous conquests were Baquba, East Samarra, Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, capital of the western province of Anbar, taking in much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
For the most part the million-strong Iraqi army collapsed and scattered in the face of the advancing Islamist juggernaut.
This Islamist blitz in Iraq has changed the face of the Middle East in more ways than one:
1. The conquest of Mosul alone was Al Qaeda’s most strategically important victory in its 27 years of existence.
2. It brought ISIS and its chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi closer than ever to realizing their ambition to found a vast independent Islamic state stretching from Al-Raqqah in north-central Syria to the southern edge of Baghdad, some 750 kilometers away.
Al Qaeda gains its first high-value real estate
No single military force in the vicinity can hope to beat down the tens of thousands of Al Qaeda fighters controlling this territorial expanse, already dubbed by some military and counterterrorism experts “The Black Hole of the Middle East.”
While rival branches of Al Qaeda are at loggerheads in some places – in Syria, for instance, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have battled it out – in Iraq, the two groups work in harness.
The jihadi army also has a large foreign component of 12,000 Muslims from the US, China, Europe, Russia and Asia.
(See DEBKA Weekly 638 of June 6, “Europe Jittery over ‘Blond Islamists’ – Western Agencies Grope in the Dark without Databases or Technology.”)
The real estate Al Qaeda-Iraq has captured in the last few days is immensely more valuable than any other Al Qaeda assets. It lies in the heart of the most fertile regions of the Middle East, rich in water and oil – in contrast to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP)’s haunts in the deserts of Yemen or Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM)’s stamping grounds in the Sahara and Sahel.
Al Baghdadi fights for a caliphate, but also threatens America
3. Without admitting this openly, the leaders of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia are uneasily conscious of the Al Qaeda threat lurking in Iraq, on top of Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Tehran too is looking nervously over its shoulder across the border.
Al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, the terrible Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, led Al Qaeda’s war of terror in Iraq from 2002-2007, until he was cut down by US bullets. But then, the US military was present in Iraq as a buffer that kept the Islamist menace at bay from its neighbors. Al-Zarqawi declared he would defeat the Americans in Iraq – against the will of Al Qaeda boss Ayman Zawahiri.
But Baghdadi is different: He wants it all. He is fighting to win an Islamist state that straddles Iraq and Syria, with one hand, while vowing to hit the US in America and the West on European soil, with the other. And nothing so far has stood in his way.
Osama Nujaifi, Speaker of Iraq’s parliament and prominent Sunni politician, described the desperate situation in Mosul on Tuesday at a news conference in Baghdad:
"When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the [Iraqi] troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it easy prey for the terrorists," he sad. "Everything is fallen. It's a crisis. Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region."
Kurds offer asylum to fleeing Sunni officials, former oil rivals
No one knows who ordered thousands of Iraqi soldiers to quit Mosul Monday night, abandoning their weapons and military vehicles. By Tuesday, the city administration had collapsed and mountains of weapons, including missiles, artillery and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles were dumped ready for Al Qaeda to collect.
Local government and Sunni officials, whose escape route to the western Anbar was blocked by the Islamists, sought safe haven in Mosul’s eastern district which is home to a large Kurdish population and long protected by the Peshmerga army sent over from Irbil by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
In an ironic twist, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s greatest adversary for control of the country’s oil – the Kurds – is now the only group able to offer asylum to the fleeing Iraqis. Around three-quarters of a million refugees have fled Mosul since June 7, with only what they could carry, landing a fresh refugee problem on the region.
(For more details on the bidding for Iraq’s oil, see a separate item in this issue).
While Al Qaeda’s clean sweep of Mosul was a shocker, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources say it had been on the cards since January, after its capture of Fallujah in western Iraq and parts of Ramadi.
Since March, three Iraqi Army divisions, including the elite Presidential Republican Guard, have been in position opposite Fallujah. None struck out against Al Qaeda forces in the town, opting instead for scattered, ineffectual bombardments from a safe distance.
US gains in Iraq erased by Al Qaeda blitz
The strides made by the Islamists in the past six months - and this week in particular – have wiped out with lightening speed the gains made by America in its eight-year Iraq war, and made naught of the US effort to endow the country with a stable government and a military capable of curbing Al Qaeda. Those gains, achieved at a cost of 4,500 lives and $1.7 trillion in national treasure, have been erased in a few short months.
As we write this, ISIS forces are expanding the Iraqi areas under their control north, west and east of Baghdad up to and including a large stretch of northern Syria. From those strongholds, they send gangs of suicide bombers into Baghdad to terrorize the population with exploding cars across the city, including the central area abutting on the Green Zone seat of government.
One exploded in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City Wednesday killing at least 16 people.
Al Qaeda’s partial occupation of the central Iraqi town of Samarra and its thrusts into sections of Baquba and the eastern Diyala Province near the Iranian border, are beginning to pose a real military threat to Shiite Iran.
(See a separate item in this issue on Iran vs. Al Qaeda).
Getting a grip on Iraq’s eastern and western borders
Al Qaeda’s occupation of Fallujah and Anbar tightens its grip on Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan.
In the first hours of Iraq’s national emergency, the Obama administration appeared to pin its hopes on the Al Qaeda catastrophe spurring the rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to come together and pool their resources for repelling its lightening thrust. This hope was echoed Wednesday in a desperate appeal by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
But DEBKA Weekly’s Al Qaeda and Iraq watchers seriously doubt Iraq’s squabbling leaders are capable of burying their differences and investing in a common national army capable of defeating Al Qaeda and lifting the sense of doom and crisis enveloping the country.
It is more likely that the Sunnis and Kurds will seek separate local truce deals with Al Qaeda, which the Islamists will exploit to full advantage to promote their caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
ISIS has never launched an offensive this expansive in Iraq. It is very possible that it could fall prey to the over-exuberance normal for a military seeing success beyond its dreams.
ISIS could be over-extending itself, in that case, making it vulnerable to rapid counter-offensives or even to the rise of angry citizenry in its rear areas—a phenomenon that we have already begun to see to some extent in Mosul and that is well-known in ISIS’s main Syrian base in ar-Raqqa.
But ISIS has also conducted sophisticated, multi-phased maneuver campaigns in Deir ez-Zour, Syria, showing it is capable of integrating deception operations with movement in order to seize its objectives.
In his keynote address at the May 28 West Point graduation, US President Barack Obama spoke at length about the war on terror, but failed to dedicate one word to Iraq, where Islamist extremists were fast gaining ground by then.
“Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism,” Obama said. “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do – through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our Embassies in 1998 to face justice; or drone strikes, like those we have carried out in Yemen and Somalia.“
The president emphasized that “in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.
We need a strategy that matches this “diffuse threat,” that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.
Obama hedges action round with ifs and buts
The US president’s detailed catalogue of “ifs” and “buts” effectively holds America back from any thought of military involvement in the war on terror – except perhaps sending over a small parcel of arms for Iraqi soldiers and instruction in their use. The lightening advances made by Al Qaeda’s Islamist State for Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are taking place on a different planet from the site of the White House in Washington.
DEBKA Weekly's Washington sources report that the Obama administration has applied to Al Qaeda’s systematic advance in Iraq in the last since months the same non-intervention policy as it has in the Syrian civil war – with one major difference. In Syria, the administration tried to differentiate between the “bad” rebels, supposed Islamists or a Qaeda associates, and the “good” rebels who were allotted a grudging quantity of US weapons.
In Iraq, the Americans faced a quandary: Their response to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s appeal for weapons to counter terrorists was even more grudging, lest he use them to arm Shiites to fight Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds.
In early May, US Special Forces opened a training camp in Jordan for Iraqi officers and soldiers who will be countering Al Qaeda. But this gesture cannot obscure the fact that, among the Iraqi Army’s 1 million US-trained officers and soldiers, none are willing or able to take on Al Qaeda or any other serious enemy, or risk life and limb for the sake of Maliki’s corrupt regime.
Even 1,000 US troops could have stalled the ISIS advance
The swift fall of Mosul and Tikrit has called into question the American logic of concentrating its anti-Al Qaeda efforts in Syria on its southern border around Deraa and Quneitra, with the aim of establishing a pro-Western enclave to secure the Jordanian and Israeli borders. For if Al Qaeda manages to control the length of the Iraqi-Syrian border, including territory in eastern Syria itself, the danger presented by Syrian President Bashar Assad and his forces will take second place to Al Qaeda’s.
The Syrian rebels the US has been backing and using as its proxies in southern Syria are not trained or equipped for direct confrontation with jihadis.
Obama’s West Point speech described the situation on the ground in Jordan, where the border with Iraq has become a potential hotspot following the massing of ISIS fighters in the western Iraq province of Anbar.
But a large-scale military drill dubbed Eager Lion 2014 has brought 13,000 troops to the Hashemite Kingdom next door - mostly Marines and members of special forces, as well as 9,000 troops from Jordan and 21 other countries, mostly Gulf and other Muslim nations. The US-led international alliance for fighting the war on terror is therefore already on site and in working order.
Ground, air and naval forces are at the ready, including a special naval force for taking on ISIS fighters on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
With the go-ahead from Obama, the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian kings and some Gulf rulers, the war game could be rapidly transformed in to a full-scale military operation, crossing into western Iraq and opening a second front to the rear of the ISIS.
Even 1,000 American troops, had they been sent across into Iraq in time, could have put the brakes on the ISIS’s rapid momentum through the Sunni heartland of Iraq after the surprise fall of Mosul, DEBKA Weekly’s military experts maintain.
Money train allies on front lines, but no US boots on the ground
However, all these forces, while combat-ready, will stay where they are because Obama won’t give the order to advance against the Islamist terrorist threat engulfing Iraq, or go back on the doctrine he set forth at West Point.
“When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq,” the president told the graduates in that speech. “We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counter-terrorism efforts were focused on Al Qaeda’s core leadership. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq.”
Obama then recalled, “I proposed a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."
He made it clear that this money will not translate to boots on the ground so long as he sits in the White House up to January 2017.
This aloof approach to the galloping Iraqi crisis was reflected in the frosty reply State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki made Wednesday, June ll – after the fall of Tikrit - to urgent reporters’ questions:
“We are concerned by this deteriorating security problem,” she said, refusing to be drawn any further.
No help from Iran, which has its own secret Al Qaeda ties
By mid-week, the gravity of the Iraq crisis began to sink in for the administration and there was quiet talk about leveraging the ISIS disaster to salvage the nuclear talks with Iran.
Those negotiations reached yet another dead end this week, despite Obama’s appointment of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan to spearhead a rescue operation for diplomacy.
This sent a signal of desperation to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and betrayed US readiness for further concessions.
The administration considered a Tehran-Washington partnership to battle ISIS (see item in this issue on the Iranian position on regional developments). In any event, it seems likely that a final agreement will lead to US-Iran cooperation at least in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, DEBKA Weekly's sources say that this remedy was swiftly wiped off the table when it became apparent on June 10 that the nuclear talks had stalled. White House advisers also pointed out that Tehran is not an ideal partner for fighting ISIS, given its own network of clandestine Al Qaeda connections.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden, by spilling the beans on the US National Intelligence Agency’s snooping on the cellphones of 36 foreign leaders, forced would-be investigators like the German federal prosecutor to venture into terra incognita - the arcane world of cyber warfare and defense technology for solutions, says DEBKA Weekly’s cyber expert.
Last Wednesday, June 4, German federal prosecutor Harold Range announced that, after finding “sufficient factual evidence that unknown members of US intelligence services spied on the mobile phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel," he had ordered a formal investigation.
"The operation of a foreign intelligence service's secret agents is a criminal offense in Germany," Range told reporters, whether it is conducted by a friend or some other nation.
The chancellor’s cell phone number had been on a special list of an NSA unit known as the Special Collection Service (SCS) since 2002. Merkel expressed outrage at the time of the discovery and accused Washington of a grave breach of trust.
Federal prosecutor Range will have his work cut out for him, because he can’t expect much cooperation from his own country’s intelligence services, the BFV for internal threats and the BND for external threats, because they, like every other world agency, have their own games of reciprocal espionage to conceal, many played in close rapport with the US. Quite simply, they are all, friends and foes alike, spying on each other.
The key is planted in Germany’s own communications networks
Nonetheless, if the German federal prosecutor is intent on going ahead with his probe, in response to the chancellor’s anger and popular resentment, he is advised by our cyber expert to start digging for the key and core of the NSA system of invasion inside the personal computers of the engineers of the main four cellular communication companies (Deutsche Telecom, Vodaphone, KPN and Telefonica), one of which the Chancellor most likely uses.
He is likely to uncover NSA infiltration capabilities secretly planted in many of those computers, particularly those belonging to engineers with high levels of daily access to the technological systems.
By that device, the invader has turned the engineers’ computers without their knowledge into “bridgeheads” which opened the door for US espionage and intelligence agencies to stroll straight into Germany’s engineering cellular core networks.
Those engineers were in fact recruited willy-nilly as NSA agents – simply by unknowingly replacing hardware components in their networks with parts made in the USA that were secretly pretreated by the US agency for use in eavesdropping.
Or they may have unwittingly opened an email to which an “interesting” link was attached and again, unintentionally, helped the NSA covertly invade the local cellular networks, by planting a malicious program in their cellular system.
A map of Merkel’s connections and full SIGINT picture
As soon as the bridgehead was set up, NSA engineers could make free of Germany’s cellular networks: Snoop on Chancellor Merkel or anyone else’s phone calls on that network; obtain GPS information on a user’s precise whereabouts or, still more radically, plant Malware from afar, by sending a seemingly innocuous SMS to the Chancellor’s cell phone and thus permanently “enslaving” it to the NSA.
Once the hostile takeover of Merkel’s phone was completed, her communications were an open book to NSA engineers spying from afar: Every call could be tapped, every message perused, along with all her emails, transmitted images and their entire browsing history.
The phone’s location and its user could be tracked at all times, providing priceless inside information on whom the Chancellor speaks to, when, and for how long – so as to draw a detailed map of her connections and other personal data.
This information would flow to NSA headquarters instantaneously, ready to be decrcypted, analyzed, recorded and preserved.
By this technological penetration of all four German cellular communications systems, gave the United States total control of all networks (barring military communications) and a complete picture of one of the most critical facets of SIGINT (communications data).
Germany targeted as European communications hub
There are other ways to follow a single cell phone and intercept its content. But interception of the chancellor’s communications, which are protected by high-level state security, was a special challenge. Deep penetration of the German Internet and communications networks was essential for the US to obtain a full SIGINT picture, from the cyber perspective, of the German government and its leaders, its economy and its military.
Germany is a major communications hub and the volume of its Internet traffic is tremendous. Centers in Hamburg, Frankfurt, Cologne and Dusseldorf serve 80 million Germans as well as millions more people over a large swathe of Europe.
The extra-high security of these Internet junctions, as well as their efficiency and high-performance, attracts, in addition to local ISP (Internet Service Providers), many customers from around the world, whether as a substitute for the substandard services in their own countries, or as reliable backup for important and sensitive messaging supplied by a DRP (Disaster Recovery Plan).
This massive computer and communication’s system is stored in vast spaces deep underground and given the tight protection of highly-classified facilities that are kept off-limits to unauthorized entry.
Secret Berlin parliament probe of blanket surveillance
The companies that store and relay the German Internet information (including CETel and IABG which were mentioned in the leaked Snowden document) are connected to the worldwide information highway, as well as to internal German infrastructure, by an extensive network of fiber-optic cables backed up by satellite antennas.
Essentially, all of Germany’s Internet traffic, as well as that of much of Europe, passes through these communications centers, which is why they are a main target for US espionage agencies.
The leaked Snowden document mapped the “access roads” to these Internet and communications junctions and noted the need to recruit engineers and system administrators to unwittingly serve as back door to the heart of the German Internet system under the unseen direction of NSA agents.
Federal prosecutor Range decided against a formal inquiry into the massive surveillance performed from Germany by US and British intelligence, for “lack of proof.” But separately, the German parliament earlier this year launched a secret probe into documents leaked by Snowden about blanket surveillance by America’s "Five Eyes" network — which also includes Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Very little of this spying is done with the knowledge and approval of the German government; most is carried out in “darkness.”
The NSA’s Malware catalog of “implants” for “injection”
Another document leaked by Snowden indicated that the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations-TAO, in charge of finding SIGINT solutions for modern intelligence needs, supplied the tools, methods and know-how for this complex intelligence operation.
A top-secret “catalog” is available to select NSA employees for Malware programs (one was called “fox acid” and accompanied by a comical drawing) for “injection” into targeted complex computer systems to enable their takeover by remote control.
The catalog terms these devices “implants” – computer components that have been “pre-treated” in NSA laboratories and then implanted in the network to allow back door access to NSA engineers into the data bases and computer systems at the main German Internet crossroads.
Since most of the hardware used in the IT-Information Technology world is American made – by IBP, HP, Cisco and other companies - it would be relatively easy for US intelligence agencies to gain access to them and install implants.
The TAO’s symbol is actually featured on the front page of its catalog of products: “TAO Inside” (with the logo and graphics “borrowed” from the “Intel Inside” label). The slogan and logo alone attest to US spy agencies’ activities as invaders of entire computer systems.
The White House and National Security Council conceded June 11 that they had been caught unawares by the fall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, to Al Qaeda, and were further flustered by the Islamists’ advance towards Baghdad. No one in Washington had imagined that one million Iraqis under arms would collapse in a couple of days, clearing the path for Al Qaeda to go forward with its plan to establish a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were grabbing Mosul and Tikrit on June 10, the United States was otherwise engaged 3,000 km away. Its intelligence and counterterrorism agencies and special forces in the Middle East were busy in Libya, trying as they have for nearly a month now to establish a semblance of central government in Tripoli. There is no intention of diverting a major part of any of these US resources from Libya to Iraq.
Washington was not alone in being caught napping by the Islamist tempest overtaking Iraq; Tehran too didn’t see ISIS coming. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Al Quds Brigades and the man in charge of Iranian and Iraqi Shiite fighting forces in Syria, missed the ease with which Al Qaeda was able to sever the land link over Iraq between Iran and Syria, which he had worked so hard for three years to secure.
Iran caught unready by the jihadis, while Israel’s army chief is prepared
The new Sunni front opened up to the rear of the Iranian, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias fighting alongside the regime’s forces in Syria. Tehran also faces Al Qaeda in control of its western border with Iraq.
ISIS has inflicted what is easily the most devastating strategic setbacks on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have suffered in recent years.
They are caught, furthermore, without reserves for sending over to save Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s regime, or even reinforcing its own positions. Tehran is abandoning Iraq’s Shiite majority, which comprises 70 percent of a population of 38 million. With its military, intelligence and financial resources tied up in the Syria war and bolstering Hizballah, Iran never took into account that its assets in Iraq would take such a hit.
The Israeli military establishment sounded more prepared to deal with ISIS’s triumphs and threats.
On June 6, just before Mosul and the Nineveh province fell to the Iraqi Al Qaeda assault, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz remarked cryptically: “the Israeli Air Force will next month dramatically change its mode of operation.”
He was suggesting that the Israeli Air Force would begin directing its fire power at military and terrorist targets in Syria and Iraq. This fire power – including warplanes, long-range unmanned drones and helicopters – will be directed at Al Qaeda forces massing very close to Israel’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
Conventional military organization scrapped for small commando units
On May 28, foreign sources were quoted as reporting that the IAF had shut down its last AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters squadron, which had largely been used for strikes against armored and ground targets. Lighter and cheaper drones have been commissioned to replace the helicopters.
Asked to elaborate on the “dramatic change in the IAF’s mode of operations,” Gen. Gantz replied: “A different kind of enemy is at our door. It is “more mobile, better at concealment and comes from farther away.”
Gantz is the only military commander in the Middle East who was prescient enough to ready Israel’s armed forces for dealing with the events in Iraq.
In December 2011, he founded the Depth Corps of the Israel Defense Forces for coordinating long-range IDF operations at a distance or deep behind enemy lines.
The corps is equipped with new naval units and a squadron of Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft. Israeli military intelligence combat units were dismantled and reconstructed to suit the new military command’s modes of operation.
Modifications were also made on other IDF special ops forces like the Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, and Shayetet - or Flotilla 13, which is the Israeli naval commando unit equivalent to US Navy SEALs.
Until the reboot, IDF special combat units were structured according to conventional brigades, battalions and companies. They are now split into small teams of no more than 15-20, and trained to operate autonomously thousands of kilometers from home.
Political constraints keep top-notch Israeli units in their barracks
This revolution in the IDF’s structure, modes of operation and objectives make it the only Middle East army capable of operating in Syria and Iraq, should this become necessary. Their only constraints are dictated by the political interplay in government.
The Depth Corps commander, a major general, answers to just three officials and is subject to their nod for any operation: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and the chief of staff.
An additional constraint derives from Washington’s demand for early warning about Israeli operations deep in any part of the region. This demand was brushed off by Netanyahu for some years, but by the early 2014, he had relented and agreed to give the Obama administration a heads-up shortly before any such missions and give the Americans the option of revising his military plans.
The only other regional army which has proved itself capable of fighting Al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq is the Royal Army of Jordan. King Abdullah is commander in chief of its special units. The trouble is their size. Shortage of manpower and equipment keep those units down to less than 2,000 soldiers which are largely dependent on the US or the Israeli air force for rapid transport.
Like Israel, Jordan has small intelligence units capable of surviving in the field for extended periods of time. But the kingdom still lacks the advanced military technology its allies have at their disposal – notably drones – which prevents Amman from becoming a major player on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq.
An Israeli general’s unprecedented loquacity was responsible for the release this week of unpublished details about the Stuxnet worm that ravaged Iran’s nuclear program the 2009-2010. His disclosures raised an uproar in US and Israeli intelligence and cyber warfare circles.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Professor Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, a retired senior developer of combat measures for the Israeli defense establishment, and the head of its civil cyber defense body, who was responsible for breaking the consensus of silence over that episode in an address on June 9 before a Tel Aviv panel on cyber warfare and Israel’s innovations in the field.
The US and Israel have consistently treated their joint virus attack on Iran’s nuclear program computers as a taboo topic. All of a sudden, Prof. Ben-Israel’s audience were startled to hear him describing in detail how that operation was carried out:
“Since the Stuxnet attack on the centrifuges of the Iranian nuclear program, there have been three misapprehensions about how it was carried out.,” he said.
“First, that cyber threats only affect data – In fact, Stuxnet damaged physical machinery and centrifuges in the nuclear reactor.
“Second, computers don’t just sit on the desk at the office or at home, but also [operate] cellular communications, traffic lights, power outages and more. Today, just about every mechanism is vulnerable. Also, the pipeline to an attack is not limited to the Internet – the control plant for the centrifuges in Iran was not connected to the net at all, neither internally and certainly not to the World Wide Web, yet it was still attacked.
That was possible by means of purchased hardware, updating software or planting a virus via a disc-on-key [known also as an “external flash drive”].
Prof. Ben-Yisrael broke a long-held US and Israeli taboo
Ben-Yisrael was the first military man to offer a precise description of the targets chosen for the Stuxnet attack and how it was accomplished, a process that until then had been shrouded in deep secrecy.
He made a number of revelations about its targets, the optional routes available for reaching them and the various methods of planting the virus.
DEBKA Weekly's cyber warfare expert reports that the object of the Stuxnet operation was clearly to slow down nuclear activity. To this end, a careful study was made of the production stages in the process of uranium enrichment, in order to single out the critical element in the process, namely the PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), which manage the industrial mechanical components, such as pumps and compressors, as well as the motors.
It was calculated that a “smart” strike at these PLCs could disrupt the targeted production process while leaving hardly any trace to its source.
Since Iran carefully protects its data and vulnerable security installations by refraining from linking them to the Internet, it became necessary to install the selected malware directly by a human agent.
The decision on how to plant Stuxnet in Iran’s nuclear production was predicated on two fundamental premises:
Two methods of planting malware were considered
One, that each stage of the nuclear process is closely supervised and carefully filmed and recorded.
Two, the small group of engineers with physical access to the PLC are loyal government servants and would be highly resistant to aiding in a sabotage operation.
Like in any other Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) operation, the decision-making process is like “a tree” with many branches, the most important of which are the goal of the attack – the slowdown/crippling of Iran’s nuclear capacity; and the method – air strike, assassination of program personnel, covert sabotage of a link in the production chain, remote attacks, or the planting of malware by means of an external flash drive.
Ben-Yisrael disclosed two ways of sabotaging hardware without an Internet connection: a) through updating the software or b) by inserting a virus via an external flash drive:
a) Iran’s PLCs are manufactured by Siemens Germany and could be implanted with malware before they reach their destination. This operation would have required intimate knowledge of the German manufacturing plant and the logistics of its route of transportation to the Iranian nuclear reactor in Natanz.
This method had the advantage of the work for infecting the system with a malwork being carried out in a friendly environment outside Iran, reducing the potential danger to the agents involved.
On the other hand, the window of opportunity was small and, furthermore, without knowing exactly which PLC would eventually control the Iranian reactor, the virus would have to be distributed among several points of the program, thereby increasing the chances of exposure.
Stuxnet was planted by means of an external flash drive
b) Planting the virus physically by means of an external flash drive after the PLCs are installed in the Iranian nuclear program.
This would necessitate putting an agent on the ground to insert the drive. Finding the right Iranian to perform this task would be difficult and take time. Most Iranian nuclear engineers are not allowed to leave the country, so recruiting and handling any of their number as an agent of sabotage would be too delicate and dangerous to be practical.
Nevertheless, Ben-Israel’s disclosures made it obvious to his audience, says DEBKA Weekly’s cyber expert, that US or Israeli intelligence, acting separately or together, opted for the recruitment of an agent for physically planting Stuxnet in Iran’s nuclear program.
An agent of this kind must be powerfully motivated by personal, religious, patriotic, ethnic or financial considerations to undertake this high risk. Or else he acts under duress or fear of some sort of personal exposure.
The right agent must have been qualified for the task he performed not just by motivation, but by his skills and familiarity with the targeted nuclear facilities. His mission was a success, but the risks entailed in the lone agent method are enormous. He may be caught, for one, or if he is a double agent, he may give the game away to the enemy and so betray his mission and its instigators.
June 6, 2014 Briefs
June 7, 2014 Briefs
Egypt’s president punishes Hamas, Jihadi Islami in Gaza, fires up strife in Palestinian government
7 June. President of Egypt Abdul-Fattah El Sisi, before taking the oath of office Tuesday, June 10, became the first regime head to strike out at the Palestinian unity government installed in Ramallah on June 24. He has strengthened the siege on Hamas in the Gaza strip and insists that the Rafah crossing stays shut unless Hamas hands control over to the Palestinian Authority, which will never happen. debkafile: This places the reconciled Palestinian partners at odds over who calls the shots in the Gaza Strip, the first major test of their unity government.
June 8, 2014 Briefs
US delegation told by White House: Don’t leave talks with Iran without an “improved” interim deal
8 June: The US delegation to the bilateral talks with Iranian officials taking place in Geneva on June 9-10 is directed by the White House not to leave empty-handed. Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, the lead negotiators, were told to give Iran enough incentives to accept an “improved interim accord.” This would help the administration disguise the impasse reached by the P5+1 negotiations, with a slim chance of a nuclear accord by the July 20 deadline – or even by the extended timeline of Jan. 15, 2015 (first revealed by debkafile on May 24.) Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has forbidden President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif to make any further concessions.
June 9, 2014 Briefs
Gantz: IDF gets set to target 50,000 Al Qaeda fighters piling up around Israel in Syria and Iraqi
9 June: IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz’s cryptic remark Monday, June 6 that “The Israeli Air Force will next month dramatically change its mode of operation,” meant that a decision has been taken to start directing the IAF’s fire power against military and terrorist targets in the Syrian and Iraqi arenas – in particular the Al Qaeda forces foregathering ever closer to Israel’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The general meant not just warplanes, but also Israel’s long-range unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters. A different kind of enemy, which he estimated at 50,000, is at our door. It is “more mobile, better at concealment and comes from farther away.” He spoke of reshaping the army and intelligence units in accordance with the new needs.
June 10, 2014 Briefs
Reuven Rivlin wins the presidency in a run-off vote
10 June. Reuven Rivlin, 75, Likud stalwart and twice Knesset Speaker, was elected Israeli’s tenth president by the Knesset on Tuesday, June 10, against four contenders. After failing to draw a majority in the first round of voting, he won 63 out of the 120 Knesset votes against his runner-up MK Meir Sheetrit. Rivlin’s victory is one up for his party’s right-wing: he is against territorial concessions in Jerusalem and wants Israel to keep the West Bank. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opposed the Rivlin candidacy but came around to it at the last minute. The election is seen as a political blow to the prime minister.
Al Qaeda-ISIS conquers Iraqi Mosul, links up with Syrian front for core of Islamist state
10 June. Al Qaeda in Iraq (ISIS) captured the northern Iraqi oil city of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city Tuesday, June 10, after the Iraqi military caved in. Iraqi ministers have sent desperate appeals to the Obama administration to save Baghdad. debkafile: Army command facilities in Mosul are ablaze and soldiers’ bodies lying in the streets. Fleeing convoys were destroyed With Mosul’s capture, ISIS chief Bakr Al-Baghdadi takes a flying leap towards his goal of an independent Islamist state in Iraq and Syria - a direct threat to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and Israel.
June 11, 2014 Briefs
Al Qaeda forms up to march on Baghdad, gathering up Iraqi Sunni insurgents
11 June. Under its commander, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Al Qaeda’s Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – ISIS - formed up Wednesday night, June 6, to march on Baghdad in two columns from Tikrit and Tuz Khormato, south of Kirkuk. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the last two divisions and six mechanized brigades still operational with 50,000 men, out of his million-strong army, to build a defensive line to save Baghdad.
Disaffected Iraqi Sunnis, including retired members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath, are joining Al Qaeda’s march and turning it into an insurgency against the Shiite-led government. Maliki accuses them of treasonably conspiring with the Islamists against his government.
Wednesday alone, in a lightening push, ISIS fighters captured the Iraqi oil refinery and electricity power center of Biji (Baiji), 200 km southeast of Mosul, torched the court and police buildings and warned local police and soldiers not to challenge them. They next moved south to seize Hawajah and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, 140 km northwest of Baghdad.
After Mosul, Al Qaeda seizes 38,000 sq. km of Iraqi territory, division-size armored vehicle fleet
11 June. After occupying the northern Iraqi oil town of Mosul, Al Qaeda’s ISIS (Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant) went on to seize more slices of Nineveh province. By Wednesday, June 11, they were in control of around 38,000 sq. km. or one-tenth of Iraqi territory and 3.5 million inhabitants. They have also taken over the main Iraq-Syrian crossing at Yaaroubiyeh. The Islamists rode out of Mosul Tuesday with 260 new armored vehicles of various types – enough to arm a full division – and put half a million refugees to flight.
June 12, 2014 Briefs