Friday, 29 July 2011

US accuses Iran of aiding al-Qaeda

Today's Washington Post reports on serious accusations leveled by the US Government against Iran:
The Obama administration said Thursday that Iran is helping al-Qaeda funnel cash and recruits into Pakistan for its international operations, the most serious U.S. allegation to date of Iranian aid to the terrorist group.

Documents filed by the Treasury Department accuse Iran of facilitating an al-Qaeda-run support network that transfers large amounts of cash from Middle East donors to al-Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan’s tribal region.

A Syrian national who directs the network has been allowed to operate in Iran since 2005, and senior Iranian officials know about money transfers and allow the movement of al-Qaeda foot soldiers through its territory, administration officials said.

Although U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of assisting al-Qaeda, links between the two have been difficult to prove. Al-Qaeda regards the Shiite denomination, the dominant branch of Islam in Iran, as heretical, and Iran has sought at times to crack down on the terrorist group, deporting some operatives and holding others under house arrest.

U.S. officials asserted that the alleged network offered new evidence of Iranian support. “By exposing Iran’s secret deal with al-Qaeda, allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism,” said David S. Cohen, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The new allegations against Iran come as the administration is seeking to increase international pressure on the Islamic republic. The White House has successfully pushed for additional sanctions against Iranian companies while renewing accusations that the country’s leaders support militias inside Iraq that carry out attacks against U.S. forces.

On Thursday, Iran denied any links to terrorism. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, accused U.S. officials of attempting to tarnish Iran’s reputation with “baseless allegations.”

“Iran itself has been a victim of acts of terrorism in the past which have resulted in the loss of hundreds of innocent Iranian lives,” Miryousefi said. “Iran has always opposed supporting and financing terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.”

The allegations of a Iran-to-Pakistan network center on a Syrian operative, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil. Khalil has directed the flow of cash and recruits from Persian Gulf states to Pakistan through Iran, according to U.S. officials and documents.

The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Khalil and five other alleged operatives, including Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a senior al-Qaeda leader on the Pakistani end of the pipeline. Rahman, a top spiritual adviser to al-Qaeda, was a longtime aide to Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader slain this year in Pakistan, and he once served as a bin Laden-appointed emissary to the Iranian government.

Individual operatives collected large amounts of cash, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the money passed through Iraq by way of couriers or informal transfer systems known as hawalas, U.S. officials said. Much of the money was collected in Kuwait and Qatar, two countries that administration officials say have been relatively lax about stanching the flow of money from wealthy Arab donors to al-Qaeda.


Many U.S. counterterrorism officials think that al-Qaeda has been weakened by the death of bin Laden and other top leaders, but the flow of money into the group’s coffers has allowed it to continue to operate, the official said. “Al-Qaeda is not destitute, but it is not flush,” he said. “Now is the time to be tightening the screws.”

Although Shiite-led Iran and Sunni-dominated al-Qaeda are theologically opposed, Iran’s ruling clerics have occasionally aided al-Qaeda, particularly in permitting its operatives to travel through Iranian territory. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Obama administration’s new choice to head the CIA, told Congress last year that al-Qaeda was using Iran as a “key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaeda’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.”

“And although Iranian authorities do periodically disrupt this network by detaining select al-Qaeda facilitators and operational planners, Tehran’s policy in this regard is often unpredictable,” Petraeus said in written testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

China’s Plan to Beat USA: Missiles, Missiles and More Missiles

Wired's Danger Room series carried an interesting article yesterday, revealing the weaknesses not-so-immediately apparent in China's developing military strength—as well as the Chinese attempts to 'plug the gaps':
China is militarily weaker than many people think, especially compared to the United States. This, despite lots of showy jet prototypes and plenty of other factory-fresh equipment.

But Beijing has a brutally simple — if risky — plan to compensate for this relative weakness: buy missiles. And then, buy more of them. All kinds of missiles: short-range and long-range; land-based, air-launched and sea-launched; ballistic and cruise; guided and “dumb.”

Those are the two striking themes that emerge from Chinese Aerospace Power, a new collection of essays edited by Andrew Erickson, an influential China analyst with the U.S. Naval War College.
Today, the PLA possesses as many as 2,000 non-nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles, according to Chinese Aerospace Power. This “growing arsenal of increasingly accurate and lethal conventional ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles has rapidly emerged as a cornerstone of PLA warfighting capability,” Mark Stokes and Ian Easton wrote. For every category of weaponry where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lags behind the Pentagon, there’s a Chinese missile to help make up the difference.

The need is clear. Despite introducing a wide range of new hardware in recent years, including jet fighters, helicopters, destroyers, submarines and a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier, China still lacks many of the basic systems, organizations and procedures necessary to defeat a determined, well-equipped foe.

Take, for example, aerial refueling. To deploy large numbers of effective aerial tankers requires the ability to build and support large jet engines — something China cannot yet do. In-air refueling also demands planning and coordination beyond anything the PLA has ever pulled off. As a result, “tanker aircraft are in short supply” in the PLA, Wayne Ulman explained.

That’s putting it lightly. According to Chinese Aerospace Power, the entire PLA operates just 14 H-6U tankers, each carrying 17,000 kilograms of off-loadable fuel. (The U.S. Air Force alone possesses more than 500 tankers, each off-loading around 100,000 kilograms of fuel.) So while the PLA in theory boasts more than 1,500 jet fighters, in reality it can refuel only 50 or 60 at a time, assuming all the H-6 tankers are working perfectly.

In an air war over Taiwan, hundreds of miles from most Chinese bases, only those 50 fighters would be able to spend more than a few minutes’ flight time over the battlefield. Factoring in tankers, China’s 4–1 advantage in jet fighters compared to Taiwan actually shrinks to a roughly 7&ndash1 disadvantage. The gap only grows when you add U.S. fighters to the mix.

The PLA’s solution? Missiles, of course. Up to a thousand ballistic and cruise missiles, most of them fired by land-based launchers, “would likely comprise the initial strike” against Taiwan or U.S. Pacific bases, Ulman wrote. The goal would be to take out as many of an opponent’s aircraft as possible before the dogfighting even begins.
The PLA could take a similar approach to leveling its current disadvantage at sea. Submarines have always been the most potent ship-killers in any nation’s inventory, but China’s subs are too few, too noisy and their crews too inexperienced to take on the U.S. Navy. Once the shooting started, the “Chinese submarine force would be highly vulnerable,” Jeff Hagen predicted.

And forget using jet fighters armed with short-range weapons to attack the American navy. One Chinese analyst referenced in Chinese Aerospace Power estimated it would take between 150 and 200 Su-27-class fighters to destroy one U.S. Ticonderoga-class cruiser. The entire PLA operates only around 300 Su-27s and derivatives. The U.S. Navy has 22 Ticonderoga cruisers.

Again, missiles would compensate. A “supersaturation” attack by scores or hundreds of ballistic missiles has the potential of “instantly rendering the Ticonderoga’s air defenses useless,” Toshi Yoshihara wrote. Close to shore, China could use the older, less-precise, shorter-range missiles it already possesses in abundance. For longer-range strikes, the PLA is developing the DF-21D “carrier-killer” missile that uses satellites and aerial drones for precision targeting.

The downside to China’s missile-centric strategy is that it could represent a “single point of failure.” Over-relying on one weapon could render the PLA highly vulnerable to one kind of countermeasure. In this case, that’s the Pentagon’s anti-ballistic-missile systems, including warships carrying SM-3 missiles and land-based U.S. Army Patriot and Terminal High-Altitude Air-Defense batteries.

Plus, missiles are one-shot weapons. You don’t get to reuse them the way you would a jet fighter or a destroyer. That means, in wartime, China has to win fast — or lose. “China’s entire inventory of conventional ballistic missiles, for example, could deliver about a thousand tons of high explosives on their targets,” Roger Cliff explained. “The U.S. Air Force’s aircraft, by comparison, could deliver several times that amount of high explosives every day for an indefinite period.”

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

UK recognises Libyan rebels, expels Gaddafi's London staff

The Guardian is just one of several newspapers today that carries the lead UK story regarding the ongoing conflict in Libya. This article reports on a significant shift in recognition by HM Government, with no small significance for Gaddafi's legitimacy and Libyan sovereignty:
Britain is expelling the Libyan chargé d'affaires and all eight remaining Libyan embassy staff in London after David Cameron and William Hague ruled that Libya's national transitional council (NTC) was now the "sole governmental authority" in the country.

The chargĂ© was summoned to a meeting at the Foreign Office, where he was given three days to leave Britain. Other diplomats at the Libyan People's Bureau, in Knightsbridge – which has been under heavy police guard since the launch of the military campaign in March – have been told to leave over the course of the summer.

Hague announced the expulsions at a Foreign Office press conference on Wednesday as he invited the NTC to nominate an ambassador and other diplomats to take over the Libyan mission. The foreign secretary said: "The prime minister and I have decided that the United Kingdom recognises and will deal with the national transitional council as the sole governmental authority in Libya.

"This decision reflects the national transitional council's increasing legitimacy, competence and success in reaching out to Libyans across the country.

"Through its actions, the national transitional council has shown its commitment to a more open and democratic Libya, something that it is working to achieve in an inclusive political process. This is in stark contrast to Gaddafi, whose brutality against the Libyan people has stripped him of all legitimacy."

Hague said Britain – which has temporarily closed its embassy in Tripoli – now runs its largest diplomatic mission in north Africa after Cairo in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi. This will be designated as an embassy if the NTC requests an upgrade.

The decision to recognise the NTC as sole governmental authority led to the unfreezing of £91m in UK assets belonging to the Arabian Gulf Oil Company, a Libyan oil firm under the NTC's control. Foreign Office sources said the assets were unfrozen after the NTC gave assurances that the funds would be used to purchase fuel and not arms, which would be illegal under UN security council resolutions.
There's a video of the announcement as well...

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Economist Daily Chart: Armied to the hilt

The Economist's Daily Chart today has a useful graph illustrating comparative strengths (in terms of gross numbers of personnel) amongst the world's largest armed forces:
The world's biggest armed forces

On July 18th the British government announced a reduction to the country's army from 101,000 troops now to 84,000 by 2020. Altogether Britain's active armed forces—ie, excluding reserves—numbered 178,000 in 2010, placing it a fairly modest 28th in a global ranking of 161 countries for which data are available. Indeed, its European counterparts Germany and France actually maintain larger armed forces of 251,000 and 238,000 respectively. In absolute numbers, rich and populous countries such as America, China and India keep the biggest militaries. Countries that have seen war (Iran, Vietnam) or are situated in strife-torn regions such as the Middle East also feature prominently. The most heavily militarised country of all is North Korea, where there are 49 military personnel for every 1,000 of its people.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Guardian: Counter-terrorism strategy driven by 'cyberjihad'

The Guardian reports today on the Home Secretary's latest announcement regarding the UK's approach to counter-terrorism:
Home secretary Theresa May promises new generation of technology to tackle extremists' rapidly changing strategies
A new generation of scanning technology, watchlists, no-fly lists and databases to track terrorist travel was promised by the home secretary, Theresa May, on Tuesday as she published the government's new counter-terrorism strategy.

She indicated that the Home Office will no longer rely on seeking "difficult to negotiate" general agreements of no torture and no ill-treatment with countries such as Algeria in order to deport foreign terror suspects, but instead will try to strike individual deals in each case.

The updated strategy will try to improve the chances of prosecuting terror suspects arrested in Britain by bringing into force powers to allow suspects to be questioned after they are charged.

The home secretary said this would allow police and prosecutors to build a more robust case against suspects where further substantial evidence emerged after the 14-day limit within which those arrested for terrorism must be charged or released.

A fresh effort is to be made by a Privy Council group to find a practical way of enabling intercepted evidence from calls and emails to be put before a jury without compromising intelligence sources.

May said a combination of factors – including the Arab spring and the death of Osama bin Laden – has reduced the immediate threat from al-Qaida. But she said there remained a serious threat to Britain from associated groups based in countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria and from "lone wolves" backed by substantial computer attacks – known as "cyberjihad".

The new strategy identified the rapidly changing technological environment in which terrorism is operating. May, in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute, said online technology, such as Google Earth and Street View, was increasingly being used for attack planning.

"Ahead of its attempted aviation attacks, al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula used commercial systems to allow air mail to be tracked in real time – we can speculate that this was to detonate a device over a particular city, to maximise casualties, or perhaps over a particular country, to maximise the political fallout," she said of the Christmas day Detroit-bound airline attack in 2009.

She added that "peer to peer networks" were being used to distribute files and information rapidly and securely. Cloud computing, which allows material to be encrypted and configured to work with mobile devices, offered a new means of distributing information and left little or no trace of the data.

The new document confirms the government's intention to bring forward new legislation to regulate the ability of the security services and the police to access such communications data and track the use of mobiles, email and other such data transfers.

But the home secretary confirmed in a Home Office briefing that the legislation to introduce what has been called the "interception modernisation programme" would not be introduced this year. She said the parliamentary timetable was already crowded. This meant that this particular ambition of the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, based in the Home Office, will remain a medium-term rather than an immediate objective.

May said: "We will also respond to recent threats to aviation security with new scanning technology, new watchlisting, new non-fly procedures and a new push, which I am leading within Europe, to use passenger name records to track terrorist travel."

The home secretary has persuaded EU home affairs ministers to back her over Europe-wide plans to track and store the travel details, including credit cards, of all passengers on "high-risk" routes within and to and from Europe.

She has been involved in similar agreements to track and store for up to 15 years such personal travel details of those flying to and from the US and Australia. The civil liberties implications have provoked strong protests from the European parliament.

Monday, 11 July 2011

BBC News: UK terror threat level reduced to 'substantial'

BBC News reports on a significant announcement made today by the Home Office:
The UK terror threat level is being reduced from "severe" to "substantial", the home secretary has announced. The new alert level means the risk of a terrorist attack is considered to be a "strong possibility" and "might well occur without further warning".

Theresa May said: "The change in the threat level does not mean that the overall threat has gone away.

"There is still a real and serious threat to the UK and I would ask the public to remain ever vigilant."

She said the decision to downgrade the terrorist threat level was made independently of ministers by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC) and was based on the very latest intelligence, considering factors such as "capability, intent and timescale".

The threat level last changed in January last year where it was raised to "severe". The threat level is under constant review and can change quickly in response to events.

UK terror threat levels
  • Critical - attack expected imminently
  • Severe - attack highly likely
  • Substantial - attack a strong possibility
  • Moderate - attack possible but not likely
  • Low - an attack unlikely
Source: Home Office

It was first made public on 1 August, 2006, when it was set at "severe". The level was then raised to critical ten days later after a series of arrests over an alleged plot to blow up a transatlantic aircraft. It was lowered to "severe" again the following week.

The threat level was last set at critical in June 2007, following the attack on Glasgow Airport and the failed car bombings in central London.

BBC home affairs correspondent June Kelly said the threat to the UK comes from both Islamist extremists and Irish dissident groups.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

BBC News: US 'within reach of strategic defeat of al-Qaeda'

... that's the optimistic headline being reported by BBC News in an article published yesterday afternoon:
New US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the US is "within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda". Mr Panetta said that following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, key leaders in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere had been identified and would be targeted. He offered the upbeat assessment during his first visit to Afghanistan since taking over at the Pentagon last week.

.... Mr Panetta arrived in the Afghan capital, Kabul, on a previously unannounced visit. Speaking to journalists, Mr Panetta revealed that US analysts had determined that following the death of Bin Laden in May, killing or capturing "around 10 to 20 key leaders" of al-Qaeda and its offshoots would cripple the network.

"We're within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda," he said. "The key is that, having gotten Bin Laden, we've now identified some of the key leadership within al-Qaeda, both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas."

"If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack," he added. "That's why I think it's within reach."

Mr Panetta declined to name all the key leaders, but said they included Bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the radical American Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent, Anwar al-Awlaki, who US officials claim is a senior leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Zawahiri was believed to be hiding in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan, he added, while Awlaki is thought to be living in a remote, mountainous part of central Yemen under the protection of his tribe. Mr Panetta also said he believed the replacement of several key US officials in Afghanistan, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, would reset the deteriorating relationship with President Karzai.

"Hopefully, it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we've had over the last few years," he said. He said the biggest challenge for the US in the country remained training Afghan forces so they can take over security responsibility by 2014.

"We've made good progress on that, but I think there's a lot more work to do of being able to transition responsibility to them," he added.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

South Sudan becomes an independent nation

The big news this morning, of course, lies in the realisation that every world map previously published is now out of date... Considerable coverage is being given across all channels on South Sudan's declaration of independence as a new and separate country from its northern counterpart.

BBC News captures the essentials in its main article, which also includes maps and excellent video on both the South Sudanese declaration of independence and the story behind it:
South Sudan has become the world's newest nation, the climax of a process made possible by the 2005 peace deal that ended a long and bloody civil war. Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are among international dignitaries attending celebrations in the capital, Juba.

Sudan earlier became the first state to officially recognise its new neighbour. The south's independence follows decades of conflict with the north in which some 1.5 million people died.

Celebrations in Juba began at midnight (2100 GMT). A countdown clock in the city centre reached zero and the new national anthem was played on television.

South Sudan became the 193rd country recognised by the UN and the 54th UN member state in Africa.

Officials had planned for people to hold quiet celebrations at home, with the formal declaration of independence due later on Saturday. But the people clearly couldn't wait. Two hours before midnight and lines of cars zoomed around town packed with people waving flags and waiting to celebrate. When the final countdown arrived, the atmosphere was wild. Groups ran down roads, dancing to drum beats. Soldiers and policemen joined in too, waving paper flags and laughing. A sign read: "Congratulations, free at last, South Sudan." But the people didn't need to read the message - they were already dancing and leaping with happiness.

"It is a shout of freedom," said Alfred Tut, lifting his head back and screaming.

The BBC's Will Ross in Juba says the new country's problems are being put aside for the night, and there is an air of great jubilation. People are in the streets, cheering, waving South Sudan flags, banging drums and chanting the name of President Salva Kiir Mayardit, he adds.

A formal independence ceremony is due to be held later on Saturday. The Speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly, James Wani Igga, is expected to read out the Proclamation of the Independence of South Sudan at 1145 (0845 GMT). Minutes later Sudan's national flag will be lowered and the new flag of South Sudan will be raised.

In addition to Mr Bashir and Mr Ban, attendees will include former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the US permanent representative to the UN, Susan Rice, and the head of the US military's Africa Command, Gen Carter Ham.

Under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a referendum was held on independence, which was favoured by more than 99% of voters. The new country is rich in oil, but one of the least developed countries in the world, where one in seven children dies before the age of five. Unresolved disputes between the north and south, particularly over the new border, have also raised the possibility of renewed conflict.

On Friday, Sudan's Minister of Presidential Affairs, Bakri Hassan Saleh, announced that it recognised "the Republic of South Sudan as an independent state, according to the borders existing on 1 January 1956", when Sudan gained independence from Britain.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Guardian: Pakistani generals 'helped sell nuclear secrets'

The Guardian provides new insights into nuclear profliferation in an article today, recycling in summary form news broken by the Washngton Post :
The story of the world's worst case of nuclear smuggling took a new twist on Thursday when documents surfaced appearing to implicate two former Pakistani generals in the sale of uranium enrichment technology to North Korea in return for millions of dollars in cash and jewels handed over in a canvas bag and cardboard boxes of fruit.

The source of the documents is AQ Khan, who confessed in 2004 to selling parts and instructions for the use of high-speed centrifuges in enriching uranium to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Extracts were published by the Washington Post, including a letter in English purportedly from a senior North Korean official to Khan in 1998 detailing payment of $3m to Pakistan's former army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, and another half-million to Lieutenant General Zulfiqar Khan, who was involved in Pakistan's nuclear bomb tests.

Both generals denied the allegations. "What can I say. [These are] bits of old info packaged together. [There is] not an iota of truth in the allegations against me. [There is] no reason on earth for anyone to pay me for something I could not deliver," Karamat wrote in an email to the Guardian. Lt Gen Khan told the Washington Post that the documents were "a fabrication".

The issue is seen as critically important by western governments. Seven years after Khan, the godfather of the Pakistani nuclear programme, made his public confession on Pakistani television, there is still uncertainty over the extent to which he was a rogue operator or just a salesman acting on behalf of the Pakistani state and its army. Western officials are also unsure whether the covert nuclear sales are continuing.
 There's more, though nothing fully substantiated - make sure you take a look!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Economist Video: Hans Blix on Nuclear Disarmament

A residue of uncertainty...

In this video interview for The Economist, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency discusses intrusive inspections, carrots and sticks, and a world without wars: