Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Yet Again...

In a sense, it was inevitable, but that didn't lessen the shock or grief.

ISIS struck again yesterday, killing at least 31 people in twin suicide attacks against the airport and a subway station in Brussels.   Belgian intelligence and security forces had been on heightened alert for weeks, after one of the terrorists responsible for November's deadly attacks in Paris fled to their country.  Anti-terror units finally caught up with Salah Abdeslam on 18 March, in a raid on a Muslim neighborhood where he had been hiding.  Residents reportedly threw rocks at police after Abdeslam was captured.

The arrest raised new fears about imminent attacks by jihadists, and on Tuesday, those fears came true. Believing that Abdeslam might give authorities information about planned operations, at least one terror cell put their plans in motion, with deadly effect.  At least two suicide bombers detonated their vests just outside the American Airlines counter at the Brussels' Zaventum Airport; the third in a crowded subway car about an hour later.  The carnage was, predictably, horrific.  Along with those who died, more than 250 people were injured, including several Americans.

In the aftermath, the Belgian capital has been placed on a Level Four lockdown, with residents being told to remain indoors and limit cell phone traffic to text messages--among other restrictions.  Meanwhile, authorities focused their initial search on the suspected ISIS bomb maker, Najim Laachraoui, who prepared the vests for the Brussels attacks and last fall's deadly rampage in Paris.  However, sources tell Fox News that Laachraoui was apparently one of the suicide bombers who targeted the airport.

Almost immediately, there were questions about intelligence warnings that went unheeded.  Haaretz reports that the Belgian security services, along with other western intelligence agencies, had "advance and precise" information about the planned strike in Brussels:

The security services knew, with a high degree of certainty, that attacks were planned in the very near future for the airport and, apparently, for the subway as well.

Despite the advance warning, the intelligence and security preparedness in Brussels, where most of the European Union agencies are located, was limited in its scope and insufficient for the severity and immediacy of the alert. 

Sources (read: the Mossad) also tell Haaretz that the attack was planned at ISIS Headquarters in Raqqa, Syria, indicating that the group's senior leaders remain active, despite periodic western airstrikes.  

And unfortunately, the trail of missed--or ignored--intelligence clues began months ago.  Turkey claims it warned Belgium about one of the suicide bombers last summer (emphasis ours).  

Ibrahim El-Bakraoui, a petty criminal born and raised in Brussels and suspected of being the bomber who blew himself up at Zaventem Airport, killing at least 11, was nabbed crossing into Turkey from Syria nine months ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan said. Turkish officials said they told their counterparts in Brussels of his likely involvement with ISIS, which has claimed credit for Tuesday’s attacks. 

To be sure, some of these revelations represent a certain degree of posterior-covering by various intelligence services, particularly Turkey's MIT, which plays both sides of the game in Syria.  But it's equally clear that various western agencies were asleep at the switch, overwhelmed, hamstrung by political correctness, or some combination of all three.  

How did the Belgians arrive at this sorry state of affairs?  A little history, from the estimable John Schindler, writing at the New York Observer:  

None of this is new. A quarter century ago, back in the early 1990s, Belgium developed robust clandestine networks of jihadists, heavily of North African origin, dedicated to supporting the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, an early joiner with Osama Bin Laden’s global movement) and its bloody war back in Algeria. Belgian intelligence paid less attention to GIA networks than later seemed warranted because the jihadists were plotting terrorism elsewhere—seldom if ever in Belgium—and Belgian spies knew that GIA “ratlines” in their country were heavily watched, and at times manipulated by Algerian intelligence, which had no interest in blowing up Belgium.

Thus when Belgian-based terrorists caused mayhem in France in the mid-1990s, including a wave of bombings in Paris, Brussels helped French intelligence catch the bad guys but undertook no serious dismantling of jihadist networks in Belgium. Over time this problem metastasized, and with the rise of ISIS in recent years, including hundreds of Belgian citizens going to the Middle East to wage holy war for the Islamic State, the threat has grown exponentially.

The game changer was last November’s horrific attacks in Paris, the bloodiest events on French soil since the Second World War. These turned out to have a significant Belgian footprint, with several of the attackers linked to Molenbeek, a notorious Brussels suburb that’s half-Muslim and known to authorities as a hotbed of radicalism. For the police, Molenbeek has been a no-go area of sorts for years, leaving jihadists free rein to raise funds, collect arms, and plot mayhem elsewhere.


Belgian intelligence has long been short of funds and personnel and above all any political will to do anything substantive about the country’s vast jihadist problem. Belgium’s chronically dysfunctional politics have played a toxic role, as has the general Western European tendency to avert eyes and hope for the best regarding the growing radicalism of whole swathes of young people in the Muslim ghettos that exist in most of their cities now.

Obviously, these problems are not unique to Belgium.  Decades of lax immigration laws; minimal assimilation and cradle-to-grave welfare benefits have created fertile breeding grounds for jihad in western Europe.  At the same time, the burden of expensive social programs meant reduced funding for the military and intelligence services.  

Now, those same organizations are desperately playing catch-up, amid the realization that additional jihadis are on the way--to reinforce those already in place--and carry out more attacks.  The Associated Press reported late today that ISIS has trained up to 400 fighters to execute waves of deadly strikes across the continent.  With European spy agencies and security organizations operating far behind the power curve, the odds of another major strike (over the near term) are decidedly high.  And there's not much they can do about it, except arrest everyone with a link to suspected cells and hope they get lucky.  

In the wake of the massacre in Brussels, some American counter-intel types were shaking their heads about the "poor tradecraft" exhibited by their Belgian counterparts.  That little exercise in self-congratulations is not only delusional, it's hypocritical to boot.  To be fair, there are hundreds of dedicated CIA and FBI agents and analysts who have prevented countless attacks since 9-11.  But those successes must be squared against failures at places like Fort Hood, Chattanooga and most recently in San Bernardino.  In each case, clues were missed and innocent Americans paid with their lives.  

Then again, it's hard for the security and intel agencies to get the resources they need when the commander-in-chief spends barely a minute addressing the Brussels attack, and adjourns to a baseball game with Raul Castro.    

Our real reckoning with ISIS is yet to come. 
ADDENDUM:  The Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Devin Nunes of California, believes the Brussels attack was targeted "to some degree" at Americans.  There is an element of truth in that claim, given the large number of U.S. tourists who pass through the country each year, and the hundreds of military personnel assigned to NATO Headquarters, located 30 miles from Brussels.       



Friday, March 11, 2016

Today's Reading Assignment

..Max Boot, writing on a "cringe-worthy presidency" at Commentary.  A few excerpts:

"I see Obama as another Jesper Berg, the fictional prime minister of Norway in the great TV series “Occupied” (viewable on Netflix), another handsome, intelligent politician who is also transfixed by the threat of global warming and is nonchalant when the Russians start to invade his country in order to seize its oil production. (Berg had tried to shut down the entire oil industry because he thought it contributed to global warming.)


When it comes to stopping Russia, Obama adopts a defeatist mindset.  “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he told Goldberg, and then proceeded to offer one of his trademark straw man arguments: “Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it.”

It’s a good thing that Ronald Reagan didn’t have this mindset. Otherwise he would never have provided arms to the mujahideen. Instead, he would have taken the attitude that because Afghanistan is next to the Soviet Union, Moscow is destined to dominate there unless the United States was willing to go to war with the USSR. Of course, Reagan didn’t take that attitude and his active support for the Afghan resistance helped to bring down the Soviet empire. 

Mr. Boot also notes Obama's proclivity for transferring blame on others.  He now refers to Libya as a "s--- storm," and holds British Prime Minister David Cameron largely responsible.  Never mind that Obama, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were eager to topple Qadhafi, with little regard for what might come next.  

The article is actually a critique of a piece that appeared in The Atlantic, where Obama defends his foreign policy decisions, in a series of conversations with Jeffrey Goldberg.  The interviews occurred over several years; it's very clear that Mr. Obama and his national security team wanted to give a front-row seat to a friendly writer, and the long piece goes out of its way to balance criticism of the president's disastrous policy decisions.  But throughout the Goldberg article, the tenents of the "Obama Doctrine" are painfully evident: the strawmen arguments; his failure to recognize serious threats (i.e., ISIS), his willingness to blame problems on someone else, and his refusal to get tough with rogue regimes around the globe. 

But most disturbing is Obama's resolute insistence that he has made the right choices.  To be fair, it's difficult to get any commander-in-chief (current or former) to admit a mistake, but Mr. Obama truly believes he is the smartest guy in the room, promulgating a national security "vision" that will make the nation more secure, while allowing Iran to get the bomb; failing to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with ISIS and his refusal to confront adversaries who truly threaten our global interests and our way of life.  

And there's more than a touch or irony in that.  At one point, Obama admits gushing admiration for President George H.W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, for adeptly handling a series of international crises during their watch, including Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the fall of communism.  

Of course, Mr. Obama--predictably--fails to recognize the difference between Bush #41 and his own administration.  The elder Bush never ran from a global challenge and wasn't afraid to use overwhelming military force in support of U.S. policy aims.  Likewise, he worked hard to build and maintain relationships with key U.S. allies.  Bush #41 would never trade relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States to gain a reckless nuclear deal with Iran, and he certainly wouldn't sell out Israel because of a personal tiff with the sitting prime minister.  

To be fair, Mr. Bush's foreign policy was hardly perfect; Chinese leaders were welcomed and toasted just weeks after Tinanmen Square.  But given our current amateur who has presided over debacle upon debacle over the past seven years, recollections of a competent national security team are enough to provoke nostalgia.                                  

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Across the DMZ

ROK Navy units train near Pohang during the annual Foal Eagle exercise, which began yesterday (AFP image via the Washington Post)

U.S. and South Korean forces have launched their annual spring exercises, triggering the usual round of bluster and threats from Pyongyang.

The field portion of the allied drills, nicknamed "Foal Eagle," began on Monday and will continue for up to eight weeks.  According to the Washington Post, early elements of the exercise rehearsed precision strikes against key targets in the DPRK:

"The exercises will revolve around a wartime plan, OPLAN 5015, adopted by South Korea and the United States last year. The plan has not been made public but, according to reports in the South Korean media, includes a contingency for surgical strikes against the North’s nuclear weapons and missile facilities, as well as “decapitation” raids to take out North Korea’s leaders. The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper reported that Kim Jong Un would be among them. 

The joint forces will also run through their new “4D” operational plan, which details the allies’ preemptive military operations to detect, disrupt, destroy and defend against North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, the Yonhap News Agency reported. “The focus of the exercises will be on hitting North Korea’s key facilities precisely,” a military official told the wire service."

Nothing particularly revealing about those disclosures; as nuclear weapons become an increasingly important asset for Kim Jong-un, it's logical that the U.S. and South Korea would develop plans aimed at mitigating that threat.  The same calculus applies to Pyongyang's large missile force, capable of targeting all of South Korea, Japan and even the western portion of the CONUS.  Analysts are divided as to whether North Korea can put a nuclear warhead on its missiles, but even in a "best case" scenario (from an American perspective) acquisition of that capability is no more than a few years away.  

Despite the initial emphasis on precision strike, much of the training conducted Foal Eagle and Key Resolve--the companion command post drill--is defensive in nature, aimed at reacting to a potential attack by the DPRK.  

Predictably, the North Korean propaganda machine treats the annual allied exercises as a prelude to an invasion.  Monday's official reaction from Pyongyang was particularly bellicose, accusing Washington and Seoul of planning a "beheading operation," aimed at removing Kim Jong-un and his regime. 

Of course, there was a certain, bitter irony in that decapitation claim.  In January 1968, North Korean commandos slipped through the DMZ and headed to Seoul, planning to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee at the Blue House, his official residence.  Along the way, the DPRK team captured four South Korean civilians, who stumbled across their camp.  Instead of killing their captives, the commandos gave them a long lecture on the benefits of communism, releasing them with a warning not to tell the authorities.  The ROK civilians--all members of the same family--made a beeline for the nearest police station, prompting South Korea and U.S. forces to begin a massive search for the infiltrators.  

Despite a heavy security presence, the commando team still managed to make their way to Seoul and got within 100 yards of the Blue House before being detected.  A massive firefight ensued, and the North Koreans scattered.  Only two members of the group, dubbed Unit 124, survived.  One was captured by ROK soldiers; was later pardoned and became a Presbyterian minister; the other officer made it back to North Korea and was eventually promoted to general.  The daughter of the ROK leader targeted by the commandos is now President of South Korea.  

Fifteen years later, Pyongyang tried again, targeting ROK President Chun Doo-hwan, during an official visit to Burma.  Chun was scheduled because his motorcade was running behind, but three members of the South Korea cabinet died when DPRK agents detonated bombs at the shrine the ROK president was scheduled to visit. Even in recent years, concerns about potential decapitation plots from Pyongyang prompt ROK security officials to dispatch multiple aircraft and vehicles for a presidential visit, with the chief executive choosing his transportation at literally the last moment.  

Beyond the ever-present assassination threats, ROK leaders must also worry about North Korea's nuclear arsenal.  Pyongyang conducted its latest underground nuclear test in January, and just last week, Kim Jong-un ordered his military to "be ready to use nuclear weapons at any time," given the "gangster-like" sanctions imposed after its most recent round of sabre-rattling, including the nuclear test.  At this point, no one is really sure how many nuclear devices Kim has, or how he could actually deliver them.  But given the density of South Korea's population--more than 12 million live in Seoul--and proximity to the DPRK, threats about creating "lakes of fire" below the DMZ must be taken seriously.  

Which brings us to another matter, one that is usually ignored during the annual rhetoric games that accompany allied exercises in South Korea.  While media outlets on the peninsula (and elsewhere) dutifully print Pyongyang's claim that Foal Eagle is simply the run-up to an invasion, they ignore that fact that North Korea is conducting its own drills, on a scale far larger than the U.S.-ROK exercise.  

It's a yearly event called the Winter Training Cycle or WTC.  From late November until the end of March, the DPRK conducts its most important military training of the year.  Beginning with small unit drills, the WTC steadily builds through the winter months and concludes with a national-level exercise in mid-to-late March.  In some years, Pyongyang likes to punctuate the nationwide drill with a special event highlighting North Korean military power.  Last fall, some analysts speculated that Kim Jong-un might conduct a nuclear test to cap the WTC, but that event was held in January.  That has generated new concerns about some other "capstone" event in the coming weeks, but there are no firm indicators that it will occur, or what it might be. 

This much is certain: during the winter months, the real military action in Korea takes place north of the 38th parallel.  And the same pundits and media types who worry about how Foal Eagle will be viewed in Pyongyang ignore the importance of the WTC.  True, the overall level of North Korean military activity during the winter months has declined over the past 20 years, reflecting the economic problems that affect the Hermit Kingdom.  But the WTC remains the most important military event of this--or any other year--in the DPRK and what's going on beyond the DMZ is our best barometer of North Korean capabilities and intent.  
ADDENDUM:  As we've noted in the past, DPRK military training drops off dramatically with the arrival of spring, when most units are assigned to "agricultural activities."  Put another way, if the military doesn't devote time and resources to growing its own food, they will go hungry in the winter.  If Kim Jong-un wants to send a military message to Seoul and Washington (beyond an artillery attack on a ROK-controlled island or another missile launch) his window of opportunity is closing rapidly.  And, given Pyongyang's displeasure over the latest round of sanctions, it's a fair bet that the current WTC may end with a bang, rather than a whimper.                                                        

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Raptors to Poland

Here's one of the more intriguing defense items in recent days, courtesy of a Polish newspaper and reprinted by The Aviationist:

According to the Polish “Rzeczpospolita” Daily, that quotes the U.S. General David W. Allvin, Director, Strategy, and Policy, Headquarters U.S. European Command, the Americans may permanently deploy F-22 Raptor jets to Poland.

Rzeczpospolita claims that Allvin came up with an idea of reinforcing the Polish airbases with a U.S. presence instead of establishing a permanent US military infrastructure within the territory of Poland, which may violate the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE).

The idea, already proposed by the Pentagon, needs to be approved by the US Congress now.

Would the U.S. station a small detachment of its most advanced fighter jets on Russia's door step?  At first blush, it's easy to dismiss these claims.  True, a pair of Raptors stopped briefly at Lask Airbase, near the city of Lodz, during a recent European deployment.  And yes, the Pentagon is making infrastructure investments at various Polish airfields, to improve inter-operability with U.S. and NATO forces.  

But $8 million won't come close to funding the facilities upgrades needed to base F-22s at Lask--or any other Polish airfield.  Multiply that figure by a factor of 20 or 30 and you'll be closer to the actual price tag for creating a Raptor FOB in Europe.  

On the other hand, that $8 million might be an initial down payment, with more funding to follow.  It's no secret the Defense Department is ramping up spending in Europe to counter growing Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin.  Last month, the Obama Administration announced plans to spend an additional $3.4 billion on military forces in Europe through 2017--roughly a three-fold increase over previous budgetary proposals.  Much of the additional funding will be used to maintain the equivalent of an armored brigade in eastern Europe at all times, with some of the equipment prepositioned in the Baltic States.  The three small republics--Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania--are NATO members, and increasingly worried about a Russian-sponsored proxy war, similar to the on-going conflict in  Ukraine.              

Testifying before the House Armed Service Committee last month, General Philip Breedlove, the commander of U.S. forces in Europe, described Russia as an "existential threat" to the United States and said the era of trying to make Russia a partner is "over."  Breedlove also noted that Moscow's military modernization has left NATO scrambling to upgrade its forces.  

It's also worth noting that General Breedlove is an Air Force officer--one of the few airmen to lead EUCOM over the past 40 years.  Obviously, he understands the importance of airpower in countering the renewed Russian threat, and he would probably support the idea of having fifth-generation fighters continuously available in his theater.  Putting F-22s in the Baltics is probably a non-starter; that's a little too close to Russian territory and they would be vulnerable in a surprise attack.  On the other hand, a Raptor detachment in Poland would put them close enough to the Baltics, while appearing slightly less provocative.  

Still, there's the matter of how far Mr. Obama is willing to go in challenging his Russian counterpart.  If Syria is any indication, the President will likely stop with the spending increase and stationing the armored brigade equivalent in eastern Europe.  During General Breedlove's testimony last month, the HASC chairman, Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, dryly noted that the presence of the armored unit would hardly "leave the Russians quaking in their boots."  The same political calculus would probably prevent a permanent Raptor presence in eastern Europe. 

Stationing F-22s in Europe would also place a further strain on fighter fleet that is severely size constrained.  The U.S. is already paying the price for capping Raptor production at 187 airframes.  Operational squadrons at Langley AFB, VA; Tyndall AFB, FL, Elmendorf AFB, AK and Hickam AFB, HI are constantly deployed to hotspots in the Middle East, Far East and elsewhere.  Putting F-22s in Poland or elsewhere in Europe would mean transferring jets from one of those locations--and making fewer available for other deployments.   

However, the prospect of some sort of Raptor basing arrangement in Europe cannot be ruled out.  The Poles--and other eastern European allies--are watching the Russian resurgence with alarm and are actively pressing NATO for a greater presence.  And, military leaders like General Breedlove and JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford understand that a political change is in the offing.  A Republican win in November--while hardly assured--would create a more favorable environment for U.S. military deployments in eastern Europe, including the money to pay for base upgrades, training ranges and other required infrastructure.  Poland in particular provides an excellent venue for combined arms training, without many of the airspace and noise restrictions found in places in Germany and Italy.  

In the interim, keep an eye on the F-22 deployment schedule.  It will be interesting to see how often they return to Europe and if future visits include longer stays at places like Lask.  The $8 million investment in Polish airbases is also worth tracking, pparticularly if that initial outlay (literally budget dust in Pentagon terms) is followed by some real upgrades, tailored towards the F-22 and F-35.