Category Archives: covert action

An Affordable and Risk Free Way to Kill: Drones

Armed drones have become ubiquitous in the Middle East, say Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, in a recent report. America has jealously guarded the export of such aircraft for fear that they might fall out of government hands, be turned on protesters or used against Israel. America has also been constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an arms-control agreement signed by 35 countries, including Russia, that restricts the transfer of particularly capable missiles and drones (both rely on the same underlying technology).

China…has sold missile-toting drones to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All are American security partners…. Other countries, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, have filled the gap with their own models.  America wants to muscle its way back into the market. In April 2018 the Trump administration began loosening export rules to let countries buy armed drones directly from defence companies rather than through official channels. Drones with “strike-enabling technology”, such as lasers to guide bombs to their targets, were reclassified as unarmed. American drones are costlier and require more paperwork than Chinese models, but are more capable. ..The flood of drones into the market is already making an impact—sometimes literally. Ms Tabrizi and Mr Bronk say some Middle Eastern customers see drones as an “affordable and risk-free” way to strike across borders… 

Drone Bayraktar made by Turkey

Non-state actors are unwilling to be left out of the party. The jihadists of Islamic State often used drones in Iraq and Syria. Hizbullah used drones when it hit 23 fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Syria in 2014. The Houthi drone that bombed Al-Anad looked a lot like an Iranian model. Last year the Houthis sent a similar one more than 100km (60 miles) into Saudi Arabia before it was shot down. ..

Excerpts from Predator Pricing: Weapon Sales, Economist,  Mar. 9, 2019

The Secret Powers of Saudi Arabia — Murder not Included

In 2016 Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, announced the latest stage of “Saudisation”—the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi ones. It now appears the policy does not stop at swapping out bankers and bakers, but extends to ballistic missiles.  Satellite photos analysed by researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and reported by the Washington Post, appear to show that Saudi Arabia has been building a factory for rocket engines, at an existing missile base in al-Watah, south-west of Riyadh. It seems to be configured for solid-fuel rockets, which can be launched more quickly than liquid-fuelled ones….he rocket factory was “designed, equipped and constructed by an outside entity”. Saudi Arabia has “no capacity” for such a project. The facility, he notes, closely resembles a Chinese one in Lantian.

Saudi Arabia is no newcomer to missiles. Having watched Iran and Iraq fling them at each other during the 1980s, it bought a few dozen df-3 missiles from China in 1987. It came close to unleashing them after being struck by Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf war in 1991. In the 2000s it probably picked up a batch of newer, more accurate Chinese df-21s.

Iran, the kingdom’s arch-rival, has been honing its missile force despite Western opposition and un rebukes, conducting 135 test launches since 1990. On December 1st, 2018  it tested one thought capable of comfortably reaching any corner of Saudi soil….Nor is Iran the only concern. Hizbullah, a Lebanese militant group nurtured and armed by Iran, has a growing arsenal of missiles; some can already reach the north-western parts of Saudi Arabia. Israel is also armed to the teeth. Though Prince Muhammad is on good terms with the Jewish state, satellite images published in 2013 reportedly showed that one of the Saudi df-3 launching pads at al-Watah was set in the direction of Tel Aviv.

Because missiles are ideal delivery systems for nuclear weapons, news of the plant has also revived worries about Saudi Arabia’s atomic intentions…Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb,” warned Prince Muhammad last March, “we will follow suit

So the Saudis may turn to other nuclear friends. Western diplomats and spooks have long been concerned that Pakistan, whose own nuclear programme was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, might be a ready supplier of know-how, fuel or bombs. In 1999 Saudi Arabia’s then defence minister horrified American officials by touring Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and meeting A.Q. Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Ties remain close. Prince Muhammad was due to agree on $14bn of investment in Pakistan during a visit to the country on February 16th.  2019. ….

Excerpts from Protection rocket Saudi Arabia’s missile race, Economist, Feb. 16, 2019

How Iranian Oil Escapes US Sanctions

 At least two tankers have ferried Iranian fuel oil to Asia in February 2019 despite U.S. sanctions against such shipments, according to a Reuters analysis of ship-tracking data and port information, as well as interviews with brokers and traders.  The shipments were loaded onto tankers with documents showing the fuel oil was Iraqi. But three Iraqi oil industry sources and Prakash Vakkayil, a manager at United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipping services firm Yacht International Co, said the papers were forged.  The people said they did not know who forged the documents, nor when.

“Some buyers…will want Iranian oil regardless of U.S. strategic objectives to deny Tehran oil revenue, and Iran will find a way to keep some volumes flowing,” said Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.  While the United States has granted eight countries temporary waivers allowing limited purchases of Iranian crude oil, these exemptions do not cover products refined from crude, including fuel oil, mainly used to power the engines of large ships. Documents forwarded to Reuters by ship owners say a 300,000 tonne-supertanker, the Grace 1, took on fuel oil at Basra, Iraq, between Dec. 10 and 12, 2018. But Basra port loading schedules reviewed by Reuters do not list the Grace 1 as being in port during those dates.  One Iraqi industry source with knowledge of the port’s operations confirmed there were no records of the Grace 1 at Basra during this period. 

Grace 1 oil tanker

Reuters examined data from four ship-tracking information providers – Refinitiv, Kpler, IHS Markit and Vessel Finder – to locate the Grace 1 during that time. All four showed that the Grace 1 had its Automatic Identification System (AIS), or transponder, switched off between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2018, meaning its location could not be tracked.  The Grace 1 then re-appeared in waters near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh, fully loaded, data showed. The cargo was transferred onto two smaller ships in UAE waters in January, from where one ship delivered fuel oil to Singapore in February 2019.  Shipping documents showed about 284,000 tonnes of fuel oil were transferred in the cargoes tracked by Reuters, worth about $120 million at current prices…

One of those vessels, the 130,000 tonne-capacity Kriti Island, offloaded fuel oil into a storage terminal in Singapore around Feb. 5 to 7. Reuters was unable to determine who purchased the fuel oil for storage in Singapore.  The Kriti Island is managed by Greece’s Avin International SA… Avin International’s Chief Executive Officer George Mylonas told Reuters. Mylonas confirmed the Kriti Island took on fuel oil from the Grace 1.There is no indication that Avin International knowingly shipped Iranian fuel oil. Mylonas said his firm had conducted all necessary due diligence to ensure the cargo’s legitimate origin….

Kriti Island oil tanker

Excerpts from Roslan Khasawneh et al, Exclusive: How Iran fuel oil exports beat U.S. sanctions in tanker odyssey to Asia, Reuters, Mar. 20, 2019

How to Save the Rhino? Torture and Kill Civilians

In national parks across Asia and Africa, the beloved nonprofit WWF  with the cuddly panda logo funds, equips, and works directly with paramilitary forces that have been accused of beating, torturing, sexually assaulting, and murdering scores of people…WWF has provided high-tech enforcement equipment, cash, and weapons to forces implicated in atrocities against indigenous communities…Villagers have been whipped with belts, attacked with machetes, beaten unconscious with bamboo sticks, sexually assaulted, shot, and murdered by WWF-supported anti-poaching units, according to reports and document

 WWF has provided paramilitary forces with salaries, training, and supplies — including knives, night vision binoculars, riot gear, and batons — and funded raids on villages…The charity has operated like a global spymaster, organizing, financing, and running dangerous and secretive networks of informants motivated by “fear” and “revenge,” including within indigenous communities, to provide park officials with intelligence — all while publicly denying working with informants.

The charity funnels large sums of cash to its field offices in the developing world where staff work alongside national governments — including brutal dictatorships — to help maintain and police vast national parks that shelter endangered species. But many parks are magnets for poachers, and WWF expends much of its energy — and money — in a global battle against the organized criminal gangs that prey on the endangered species the charity was founded to protect.  It’s a crusade that WWF refers to in the hardened terms of war. Public statements speak of “boots on the ground,” partnerships with “elite military forces,” the creation of a “Jungle Brigade,” and the deployment of “conservation drones.”  WWF is not alone in its embrace of militarization: Other conservation charities have enlisted in the war on poaching in growing numbers over the past decade, recruiting veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to teach forest rangers counterinsurgency techniques

The enemy is real, and dangerous. Poaching is a billion-dollar industry that terrorizes animals and threatens some species’ very existence. Poachers take advantage of regions ravaged by poverty and violence. And the work of forest rangers is indeed perilous: By one 2018 estimate, poachers killed nearly 50 rangers around the world in the previous year. But like any conflict, WWF’s war on poaching has civilian casualties.

Indigenous people living near one park in southeast Cameroon described a litany of horrors incuding dead-of-night break-ins by men wielding machetes, rifle butt bludgeonings, burn torture involving chilis ground into paste, and homes and camps torched to the ground. Their tormentors in these accounts were not poachers, but the park officials who police them. Although governments employ the rangers, they often rely on WWF to bankroll their work.  …Documents reveal WWF’s own staffers on the ground are often deeply entwined with the rangers’ work — coordinating their operations, jointly directing their raids and patrols alongside government officials, and turning a blind eye to their misdeeds.

Iindigenous groups — both small-fry hunters and innocent bystanders — say they suffer at the hands of the rangers.  Nepal’s park officials were given this free rein decades ago, shortly after WWF first arrived in Chitwan in 1967 to launch a rhinoceros conservation project in a lush lowland forest at the foot of the Himalayas. To clear the way, tens of thousands of indigenous people were evicted from their homes and moved to areas outside the park’s boundaries..

The park’s creation radically changed their way of life: Now they must scrape together money to buy tin for their roofs, pay hospital bills, and farm new crops. They also live in fear of the park’s wild animals, which, while rising in number thanks to anti-poaching efforts, have destroyed crops and mauled people to death.  Rhinoceros horns can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market. Professional poachers offer a tiny portion to locals who assist them, which can be hard for impoverished residents of villages to turn down.

Chitwan’s forest rangers work alongside over 1,000 soldiers from the park’s army battalion. Nepalese law gives them special power to investigate wildlife-related crimes, make arrests without a warrant, and retain immunity in cases where an officer has “no alternative” but to shoot the offender, even if the suspect dies….. Indigenous groups living near Chitwan have long detailed a host of abuses by these forces. Villagers have reported beatings, torture, sexual assaults, and killings by the park’s guards. They’ve accused park officials of confiscating their firewood and vegetables, and forcing them into unpaid labor.

WWF’s work with violent partners spans the globe. In Central Africa, internal documents show the charity’s close involvement in military-style operations with both a repressive dictatorship and a notoriously fierce army. …The park’s management plan says WWF will help organize raids, known as “coup de poings,” on local villages suspected of harboring poachers. A confidential internal report found that such missions, frequently conducted in the dead of night with the help of police units, were often violent.

Excerpts from WWF Funds Guards Who Have Tortured And Killed People, BuzzFeed News

US Special Forces in Africa: the G-5 Sahel

The number of attacks in Burkina Faso  have increased as al Qaeda- and ISIS-linked groups have established a presence there, attacking remote gendarmerie outposts and expanding their reach from Mali and Niger in attempt to take advantage of what they see as a permissible environment.  The number of violent incidents in Burkina Faso linked to the local affiliates of al Qaeda JNIM* and ISIS (Greater Sahara) rose from 24 in 2017 to 136 in 2018, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

 US Special Forces that train the Burkina Faso military told CNN in March 2019 that the US was considering deploying surveillance drones to Burkina Faso in order to help the country better monitor threats…The Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad, make up the G-5 Sahel, a multinational task force charged with combating transnational terrorists….A Burkinabe officer told CNN on Monday that terror groups had managed to recruit locals in the north of the country by exploiting the economic situation in the region, where many live in povert

**the local branch of al Qaeda, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), commands over 800 fighters while ISIS in the Greater Sahara has approximately 300 members.

Excerpts from US Forces Train in African Nation Facing Twin Terror Threat, CNN, Mar. 2, 2019

US Military Leaves but CIA Remains: Syria

Is there a way for the United States and its allies to remain in northeastern Syria, even after President Trump pledged in December 2018 to withdraw U.S. military forces there? Officials are struggling to devise such a “workaround” strategy…One possibility, according to U.S. and foreign officials, would be to have paramilitary officers from the Central Intelligence Agency take over the training and advising of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since 2015, those duties have been carried out by U.S. Special Operations forces.  This approach, still in the discussion stage, would allow Trump to claim he is delivering on his pledge to withdraw troops from Syria, without creating a vacuum in the northeast that would be exploited by Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime…

This new option, in the language of government lawyers, would mix Title 10 overt military operations and Title 50 covert action. Reduced military activity could continue under Title 10 authority, to provide air cover and logistical support for U.S. and allied troops on the ground, but the SDF’s advisers might be CIA officers. The CIA operatives, like existing Special Forces personnel, wouldn’t be involved directly in ground combat…

A paramilitary advisory force, operating under Title 50, would have some significant disadvantages…. Current U.S. military forces in Syria can deter adversaries because they carry the U.S. flag, literally and figuratively. A paramilitary force wouldn’t have that same deterrent capability, or the ability to deconflict operations with other forces in the area, such as Russia and Turkey. ..

Given the U.S. and European policy muddle, SDF commanders must weigh whether to make their own accommodation with Russia and the Syrian regime. The United Arab Emirates is said to favor such an approach, and some longtime SDF supporters say a deal with the regime would be safer for the Kurds than depending on a fickle United States and a gun-shy Europe.

Excerpts from David Ignatius, How the U.S. might stay in Syria, and leave at the same time, Washington Post, Feb. 16, 2019

The Nine and their Nuclear Weapons

Nine nationst control the roughly 14,200 nuclear weapons in the world… But What makes a good nuclear arsenal?  First, a good nuclear doctrine. Will a country strike first, or only in response?  Second, safety. Are the nukes secure? Does the country participate in nonproliferation treaties?
Third, do the nukes work as intended? Is the arsenal sufficient? Can the nukes survive an initial attack?…Business Insider has weighed these questions with the help of Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, to rank the world’s nuclear arsenals.

9. North Korea: North Korea fails by virtually every metric used to measure nuclear arsenals… Because Pyongyang can never hope to defeat any of its enemies in conventional fighting, it turned to nukes as a guarantor of its security.  Weapons count: estimated 60. North Korea has a number of short- to intercontinental-range ballistic-missile systems thought to operate off the backs of mobile missile launchers.  One analyst has warned that North Korea’s mobile launchers may simply distract from the real threat of hidden nuclear silos, but no evidence of such silos has ever appeared in US intelligence reports made public.  It’s completely unknown if North Korea keeps its nuclear weapons mated or with the warhead affixed to the missile.

8. Pakistan: Pakistan built nuclear weapons in response to its bitter regional rival, India, testing and proceeding with a relatively simple nuclear mission: deter or defeat India….Pakistan has links to Islamic extremists with connections to global terror networks. Experts have long feared not enough has been done to secure Islamabad’s nukes against these threats.  Additionally, “Pakistan has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use,” by building smaller, tactical nuclear weaponsWeapons count: 150.  Pakistan has ballistic missiles with ranges just long enough to hit anywhere in the country of India….The US has specifically given Pakistan permission to modify its F-16 fighters to drop nuclear weapons…Pakistan is thought to keep its nuclear warheads separate from its missiles and delivery systems.

7. India: “India is still a nuclear posture that’s still in vivid development,” Just as Pakistan fears India’s greater strength and numbers, India has come to fear China’s growing and modernizing conventional forces.  But unlike Pakistan, India has sworn off nuclear first strikes and not looked into tactical nuclear weapons. ..But India’s submarine fleet remains a dream at the moment, lowering its overall score.  Weapons count: 140 (stored)  India recently launched its first nuclear-powered submarine..As it stands, the missiles and submarine India has picked out for its underwater nuclear deterrent can’t range China’s vital points or most of Pakistan.

6. Russia: “Russia seems to sort of be driven by a frantic exploitation of different options,”   Weapons count: 6,850 (1,600 deployed; 2,750 stored; 2,500 retired).  Russia has the full nuclear triad with constantly modernized bombers, land-based missiles, and submarines. The triad is a true 24/7/365 force with submarines on deterrence patrols at all times.  Additionally, Russia has a high number of tactical nuclear weapons with shorter-range and smaller-explosive yield…Russia’s Poseidon underwater 100 to 200 megaton nuclear torpedo is the biggest nuclear explosive device ever built…The weapon would essentially set off tidal waves so large and an explosion so radioactive and punishing that continents, not countries, would pay the price for decades.  The US has not found it useful to respond to these doomsday-type devices.  Russia stores its nuclear warheads mated to missiles and ready to fire. Additionally, it has surrounded Moscow with 68 nuclear-tipped missile interceptors meant to protect the city from a US strike.

5. Israel:   “Israel is interesting because it’s a semi-dormant nuclear program, but it’s not dormant,” …Israel’s conventional military, with its top-of-the-line air force and close coordination with the US, easily overpowers its regional foes in traditional fighting.  Instead of reaching for nuclear weapons to threaten a more powerful foe, Israel has a “very relaxed nuclear posture, truly what you could call a last resort posture,”  Weapons count: estimated 80..Truly, nobody knows what weapons Israel has or doesn’t have, and that’s the way they like it.

4. UK:   Weapons count: 215 (120 deployed; 95 stored)  During the Cold War, the UK labored to create its own nuclear weapons and delivery systems, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the UK has withdrawn from that posture and essentially become a client of the US.  The UK operates four nuclear submarines that fire can fire 16 Trident missiles made by the US. That’s it. The UK won’t get an “arsenal” page for this reason. The warheads on these patrols are mated to missiles.

3. France:  France has a long history with nuclear weapons, like the UK, but has maintained more independence and control over its stockpile and doctrine.  Weapons count: 300 (290 deployed; 10 stored)..France has four nuclear-powered submarines, one of which stays on a constant deterrence patrol ready to fire mated nuclear missiles.  While it’s not a nuclear weapon outright, outside of the US, only France operates a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

2. US: Weapons count: 6,450 (1,750 deployed; 2,050 stored; 2,650 retiredd)Today the US’s nuclear arsenal has narrowed down to a triad in constant stages of modernization.  The US operates two nuclear-capable bombers, the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the B-52 Stratofortress, originally built in the 1950s and slated to fly for 100 years.  The US operates a fleet of nuclear submarines, which it keeps on constant deterrence patrols.  The US also has nearly 400 intercontinental-range missiles in silos around the country, mostly aimed at Russia’s nuclear weapons for an imagined “mutual destruction” scenario.  Recently, the US has come under intense criticism for President Donald Trump’s proposal to build more smaller or tactical nuclear weapons. Experts say these weapons make nuclear war more likely.  The US has tactical nuclear weapons stored around Europe and Turkey, which, like the bigger strategic weapons, are stored mated.


1. China:   China has just 280 nuclear warheads, and none of them are mated to delivery systems. China flies bombers and sails submarines that it calls nuclear-capable, but none of them have ever actually flown with nuclear weapons.  China’s nuclear doctrine forbids first strikes and centers around the idea that China would survive a nuclear strike, dig its bombs out of deep underground storage, and send a salvo of missiles back in days, months, or years.  This essentially nails the idea of “credible minimum deterrence.” Everyone knows China has nuclear weapons, that they work, and nobody doubts China would use them if it first received a nuclear attack.  China has nuclear-capable submarines and bombers, but they do not ever travel with nuclear weapons on board.  China relies on a growing and modernizing conventional military to assert its will on other countries and virtually never mentions its nuclear arsenal.

Excerpts from Alex Lockie,  We ranked the world’s nuclear arsenals — here’s why China’s came out on top, Business Insider, Jan. 25, 2019