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Telegram: the Mighty Application that ISIS Loves

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

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Authors: Ahmet S. Yayla & Anne Speckhard

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]SIS has been the most successful terrorist organization in history using social media and the Internet for distributing its propaganda, dissemination of its news and more importantly to communicate. There is no doubt that the frequency and quality of ISIS posts on the Internet, including their videos, memes and online journals are of a quality to make many professional editors and producers envious and they also receive much attention[1].

ISIS usually does not host its posts on dedicated servers but uses several free and open mediums including Google drive, Cloud.mail.ru, Yandesk, YouTube, Sendvid.com, Dailymotion.com, Drive.ms, Archive.org, Justpaste.it, Bitly.com and some other recent platforms. Of course, hosting is not enough; hosted posts need to be distributed to followers, the target audience and the public. At this point, several social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, WhatsApp, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Viber, and WeChat are utilized by ISIS to circulate their posts so that the target audience and public are made aware and can watch or read them by clicking on the web addresses posted to those mediums.

Among these social media platforms Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram were previously heavily utilized by ISIS, but since takedowns on these sites, ISIS currently favors Telegram where ISIS users maintain a presence in several different languages. ISIS has assigned administrators in several languages who are in charge of ISIS social media accounts including Telegram. When interviewing ISIS defectors[2], we also learned that female foreign fighters are specifically tasked for the administration of social media accounts, and they have special offices in Raqqa to carry out their tasks under the control of their emirs. A Belgian female defector recently recounted being recruited upon her arrival to ISIS to serve as an Internet seductress, a role she declined[3]. Indian police also told us that most of their ISIS recruitment occurs via the Internet and consists of female seducing males into the group[4]. Indeed, American Mohamad Khweis appears to have been seduced in this way, marrying his ISIS bride when he arrived to Istanbul and then traveling into ISIS territory with her[5].

At ICSVE, our researchers closely follow ISIS’s Telegram posts on a daily basis and download any relevant videos, journals, memes, pictures or anything else useful for our research. While the terrorist organization utilizes several different platforms to distribute their posts, the most reliable medium of late for their purposes has been the Telegram social media application. This is because other platforms usually quickly take down posts or shut down the accounts posting the links to these hosts. Hosting mediums also delete posts as soon as they realize they are ISIS content. As a result, Telegram has become the main social media platform for ISIS members and followers primarily because, so far, Telegram administrators do not usually shut down ISIS accounts, and when they do, the frequency is far less when compared to other social media accounts. For example, Twitter or Facebook take down ISIS accounts in a day or most two in many cases, and when the same account owners open new accounts, they block them even sooner. However, there are Telegram accounts opened or used by ISIS members that stay active for months or basically never get closed.

Telegram was launched in 2013 by two brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who also founded Russia’s largest social network Russian VK. The Telegram Messenger LLP is registered as an independent nonprofit company in Berlin, Germany. The founders claim that Telegram is “faster and safer” than other apps and more importantly the “messages sent through Telegram cannot be bugged by third parties.” [6] Indeed, Telegram is an encrypted social media application that is very difficult for law enforcement to penetrate or eavesdrop.

Apart from accounts not being closed as often as other ISIS social media accounts, there are two other advantages to ISIS for using Telegram. The first is that while in most cases the links to hosts are distributed in Telegram groups where there are several members or directly sent to individual accounts, they become useless as soon as the hosting companies realize they are ISIS posts and take them down, making them dead links. However, Telegram’s large file-hosting feature becomes very handy in this case because almost all files pushed through Telegram with links are also uploaded to the Telegram channels, and those files remain as long as the channels are open or the user who posts does not delete them. Therefore, even if a file is not available as a link, if it is uploaded to Telegram, it will exist there unless it is deleted or the channel is closed. Furthermore, Telegram allows uploading large files simultaneously consequently allowing the ISIS social media accounts to simultaneously upload videos with four or five different resolutions and sizes beginning from the largest to the smallest, such as a video in full HD from which would be 1.5 gigabytes to smaller resolution versions such as 800 megabytes, 500 megabytes, 200 megabytes and 50 megabytes. The smallest size versions would be for mobile devices.

The other advantage of Telegram is providing users a forum to be able to communicate in a secure way through a secure algorithm. While Telegram chat rooms are usually open to all members, one-to-one communications are secret and cannot be seen by others. There have been several attacks where it was later established that ISIS members communicated internationally about the attacks before they took place. For example, the Istanbul Reina club attacker got his orders from his Emir in Raqqa, Syria through Telegram and communicated over Telegram with his Emir both before and after the attack[7]. The same was true of the Paris attacks[8]. Telegram has thus become one of the main communication apparatus of ISIS, particularly with foreign fighters deployed outside of ISIS territories.

In addition to all these advantages, like all other applications, Telegram is convenient and mobile as it can be installed on cell phones, Windows PCs, and IOS computers, therefore, making it available on many different devices.

Joining Telegram is easy. The only requirement on the side of Telegram, to sign up, is having a cell phone number and verifying that number after the registration through a text message verification step. In some cases, some Internet proxy phones (phone accounts created over the Internet) work as well, omitting the requirement of a cell phone number as long as the Telegram system does not recognize the number provided as a proxy Internet number. Telegram, therefore, only requires a cell phone number to verify the user and once a user is verified, the user does not need to maintain the phone number, enabling users to use a number once to verify an account without the necessity to keep that number. In fact, the one of the cell phones ICSVE staff use to track ISIS telegram accounts was registered through a cell phone number and that number has been inactive since 2015, but the account has still been in use without any problems. This feature becomes a great tool for ISIS terrorists as they do not need to reveal their real identities or provide anything to be traced other than a phone number which they don’t need to maintain.

On the side of ISIS, in most cases, there is no vetting to join their public channels or groups, but private ones do vet potential members with a range of questions, sometimes having to do with the basics of Islam such as cleansing before prayer (wudu) etc. If ISIS members need to connect over the Telegram without physically being in touch, they either use other known members to reach and connect to the desired members or for their foreign fighters, they pre-arrange known passwords and indicators to vet the people they are communicating with to ensure the authenticity of the parties.

As a user interface, Telegram is no different than many other similar mediums such as WhatsApp and Twitter. When it comes to peer-to-peer communication, it is more like WhatsApp where users can message each other, share documents, links, videos and voice messages similar to the chat features of many social media platforms. There are even time stamps indicating when the messages were sent and if they were read or not. Telegram channels are a different from common social media groups as followers are not allowed to interact with the others in the channel openly unless authorized by the administrator. Members are only able to read and download posts shared in the channel unless they have permission for greater access. Posts flow on the timeline chronologically and with time stamps and an indicator “eye” acting as a counter showing how many times a post was downloaded by the channel members. Telegram groups, as opposed to channels, are just like other social media groups where members can interact with each other and their individual posts, therefore, making it possible to communicate with sometimes thousands of people at once. Based on our experience at ICSVE, several channels and individual accounts in the same languages are usually run by the same administrators, or there are a handful of administrators who appear to share the same posts simultaneously.

Reaching out on to ISIS members via Telegram channels is a significant challenge for beginners. First of all, as the Telegram application is installed, the application copies all the contact numbers on one’s cell phone and connects the users with any of his contacts who are already registered with Telegram. However, to connect with ISIS members, channels, or groups, the key is knowing what channels are ISIS channels and what their names or addresses are. ISIS usually does not require verification for its public channels, therefore if one knows the name or address of an ISIS channel, joining those channels is simple—locate the channel and click the join button. As soon as one joins a channel all that channel’s posts are available to the new user. For peer-to-peer communication, however, the users must know each other’s registered phone numbers or user names. If a user is not originally recorded in one’s downloaded phone connections, in order to connect with that user over Telegram, one of the users has to provide the other his registered cell phone number. This process is useful for ISIS foreign fighters operating abroad as they often switch phones and need to reconnect with their emirs or middlemen and can easily do so even with a new burner phone, using their original login credentials. ISIS members may also open accounts before traveling and exchange those accounts beforehand so when they need to use them they can easily install Telegram on whatever device they are currently using and log into Telegram with their credentials to communicate with their ISIS peers.

ISIS frequently posts on new and backup channels with different names for different purposes including: media and video sharing, book and journal sharing, news and daily updates, hisbah (morality police) office, accounts of personal well-known ISIS members, pamphlets and meme accounts, ISIS Amaq News Agency and several other channels or groups with different names. These lists are frequently shared on different social media platforms alerting users to subscribe to new or backup accounts in the case an account is closed or expected to be closed. While being banned and dropped in other social media mediums occurs to ISIS endorsers, supporters and distributors quite often, Telegram, as mentioned previously, does not frequently close ISIS accounts. However, the backup or spare ISIS channels usually function as a mirror of the original channel or simply are ready to be facilitated if an original channel is closed. ISIS cross shares the lists of their Telegram channels as they appear and reappear via different social media accounts. For example, they post their new or existing Telegram channel addresses on Twitter or Facebook, and then in their Telegram channels, they provide their Twitter, Facebook or Instagram account names and encourage their members to follow those accounts as well to be updated of any changes when channels are taken down. In that manner, they efficiently migrate their followers from Telegram channel to channel. ISIS social media administrators also often share bulk ISIS Telegram account lists both in regular social media and also in their Telegram channels, by which users are alerted to join channels or follow individuals simply clicking the links of those accounts. If someone starts to follow an ISIS Telegram account, it is thus very easy to update and enrich their ISIS network of account collections and lists by simply subscribing to the post lists or by following the users who post to the groups and simply by looking at the forwarded posts and reaching to the original post owners with a few clicks. Therefore, following or communicating with ISIS Telegram accounts is an easy task as long as one understands how they work and basically keeps following the posts to update their related contact lists. Even if one completely loses ISIS Telegram channels on Telegram, it is still easy to reach out to those channels again by simply following ISIS related Twitter and Facebook accounts.

ISIS users or administrators are not shy about their posts, and they are usually aware of the fact that many of their followers in the channels are not ISIS members, but are intelligence members or researchers. In fact, it happened several times with our ICSVE Twitter posts sharing some important incidents or updates from the ISIS Telegram channels we follow, that they would then openly post into the same channels saying “We know you are here and you are sharing our posts on your Twitter account. You are an infidel, and we don’t care if you are following us.” Strangely enough, ISIS administrators have never banned or blocked us from their channels thus far, perhaps enjoying the attention and being a threatening presence. Of course, there are strategies behind that as well. Simply put, the terrorist organization is using its Telegram channels to disseminate its propaganda and the narratives they would like to share, and they are aware of the fact that outsiders may be the ones who also become conduits for their shares to the outer world.

There are countless channels and groups on Telegram, not only related to ISIS but also to other Salafist-jihadi terrorist organizations as well. If one does not know the specifics of different terrorist organizations, one would very easily confuse other Salafist terrorist organization’s channels with ISIS channels as they promote very similar thinking. While ISIS dominates the Telegram terrorism cyber-space, other groups use the same medium as well and just like ISIS, maintain groups and channels in different languages, probably more than twenty.

One may witness a variety of things in ISIS channels. First of all, regular known ISIS channels or groups maintained by well-known recognized ISIS members such as Khilafah News, the Strangers, Mr. State, al-Firdaws English or Mr. Killer, share ISIS related breaking news, videos, memes, propaganda campaigns, brochures, new ISIS journals including Rumiyah and others, nasheeds, pictures or stories, or anything they would like to push. However, theme specific channels or groups only share related posts. For example, ISIS video channels would periodically post new or old ISIS videos in different resolutions or sizes, book channels would only post books or booklets mostly in pdf forms, news channels would only post news or news articles and so on. Therefore, based on the type of the channel or group, it is possible to reach and follow groups in different categories.

Another important feature of Telegram is being able to search the channels posts, group messages, individual messages or any kind of communications or posts in one’s account. This feature is available for both cell phone applications and the Web-based Telegram interface making it possible to reach any content by simply searching. This basically makes Telegram one of the largest free ISIS databases available to the public especially considering the fact that many other mediums including Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook are continuously taking down ISIS posts.

Telegram has enabled ISIS to create, without much effort, its grand propaganda machine to further its reach beyond it’s so-called “Caliphate” to the whole world with only the click of a button, pushing its new media content constantly and reaching to its targets momentarily, and most importantly communicating with its fighters abroad to direct them for new attacks or facilitate their operations in different countries[9]. The nature of the Telegram application with a secure algorithm providing protection from the outside world and making it almost impossible, or very difficult, for law enforcement to trace back to the original users, also has become a magnificent advantage for the terrorist organization in terms of the anonymity of its users and for carrying out terrorist operations via secure communications. These two qualities are the most valuable qualifications, or gifts, for a terrorist organization like ISIS. Thanks to Telegram, ISIS has now been using their application very heavily almost without any interruptions with great success when compared to other social media applications.

While other social media platforms have since 2014 taken strong stances to institute takedown policies when it comes to ISIS, the stand of the Telegram application when it comes to allowing ISIS to use its platform without interference is quite different and difficult to understand. Recently, Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, European Union’s policing body, condemned Telegram owners for failing to join the fight against terrorism. Wainwright said that Telegram’s reluctance to work with anti-terrorist authorities was causing major problems[10] considering the fact that the application is in widespread use among the target population of ISIS.

Telegram has become the choice of the ISIS due to its specifications—providing secure encrypted communications and allowing users to share large files and act with their accounts operating with impunity. While Telegram administrators claim, they favor speech free of interference; it is time for the owners of Telegram to thoroughly consider the existence of ISIS presence and activities on their digital platform. Telegram has become the ultimate tool for the bloodiest terrorist organization in history, carrying and spreading its terrorist ideology around the world, recruiting and even directing cadres to carry out attacks globally. Recently, the families of the San Bernardino shooting sued Facebook, Google, and Twitter, claiming that these social media companies permitted ISIS to flourish on these social media platforms[11]. It may soon happen that Telegram will also have to deal with several legal actions as ISIS cadres continue to utilize their application for their terror operations and communications.

Reference for this Article: Yayla, Ahmet S. & Speckhard, Anne (May 5, 2017) Telegram: the Mighty Application that ISIS Loves, ICSVE Research Reports, http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/telegram-the-mighty-application-that-isis-loves/

References

[1] Speckhard, Ph.D., Anne; Shajkovci, Ph.D., Ardian; and Yayla, Ph.D., Ahmet S.. “Defeating ISIS on the Battle Ground as well as in the Online Battle Space: Considerations of the “New Normal” and Available Online Weapons in the Struggle Ahead.” Journal of Strategic Security 9, no. 4 (2016): 1-10.

[2] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

[3] Speckhard, Anne research interview Brussels, Belgium January 2017

[4] Speckhard, Anne research interview New Delhi, India March 8th, 2017

[5] Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (March 20, 2016) American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean-Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations. ICSVE Brief Report http://www.icsve.org/american-isis-defector—mohamad-jamal-khweis-and-the-threat-of-clean-skin-terrorists-.html

[6] Editorial, “Russia’s Zuckerberg launches Telegram, a new instant messenger service,” Reuters, August 30, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUS74722569420130830

[7] Yayla, A.S., “The Reina Nightclub Attack and the Islamic State Threat to Turkey” CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol 10, Issue 3, pp. 9-16, March 2017.

[8] Evan Perez & Shimon Prokupecz, “First on CNN: Paris attackers likely used encrypted apps, officials say,” December 17, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/politics/paris-attacks-terrorists-encryption/

[9] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2017). The ISIS Emni: The Origins and Inner Workings of ISIS’s Intelligence Apparatus. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(1). Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/573

[10] Dominic Kennedy, “Message app used by Isis refuses to fight jihadists,” May 4, 2017, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/message-app-used-by-isis-refuses-to-fight-jihadists-jrddv7c93?utm_content=buffer2b755&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[11] Dan Whitcomb, “Families of San Bernardino shooting sue Facebook, Google, Twitter,” May 4, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-sanbernardino-attack-lawsuit-idUSKBN1802SL

Ahmet S. Yayla is an assistant professor at the DeSales University Homeland Security Department and faculty member at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is also a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Dr. Yayla previously served as a full professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013.

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March to Tripoli, or a Third Civil War in Libya: Initial Results

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The military offensive of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal (according to the House of Representatives sitting in Tobruk) Khalifa Haftar on Tripoli that began on April 4, 2019 had finally petered out by mid-May, having achieved none of its goals. On the eve of the offensive, the military leader announced that he planned to install a new Government of National Accord by the middle of April. However, these attempts failed. The LNA was not able to breach the inner areas of the Libyan capital due to the fierce resistance it faced on the approaches the city. The blockade of Tripoli was also a failure, as reinforcements continued to arrive from the east (from Misrata) and the west (from Zawia). The Libyan Army that is loyal to the legitimate transition bodies — the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Presidential Council led by Faiz Sarraj — repelled the attempts of K. Haftar’s militants to enter the city and even carried out successful counter-strikes of its own.

K. Haftar deployed almost all of his combat-ready troops in the offensive to capture Tripoli, including regular units such as the Al-Saiqa brigades (one of the commanders of these brigades is Mahmoud al-Werfalli, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court), and the 106th Brigade led by K. Haftar’s son, Khalid. A number of the LNA’s elite units, which are made up primarily of Salafists, were also deployed in the Libyan capital, including the Tariq Bin-Ziyad Brigade, the 73rd Brigade (formerly the Khalid ibn al-Walid Battalion) and others. However, the only asset that the LNA managed to lay claim to was the intersection of the road connecting Tripoli with the Jabal Nafusah Region controlled by forces loyal to the Government of National Accord and by Tunisia. The LNA blockade also included the strategic port city of Zuwara, which became possible after the LNA established control over Garyan and Sabratah.

Old and New Allies of K. Haftar in Tripolitania: The Only Factor for Success

At the same time, we should bear in mind the fact that almost all of the LNA’s territorial acquisitions in Western Libya were not the result of successful military operations and the defeat of the enemy, but rather the defection to K. Haftar’s side of local forces that had previously been loyal to him. Many of them have long been called “Trojan horses” in Tripoli, meaning that their alliance with the field marshal was a foregone conclusion.

For example, the city of Sabratah to the west of the Libyan capital serves as the base for K.Haftar’s long-term allies, namely, the Salafists from the Anti-ISIS Operations Room and the Al Wadi Brigade. These forces were considered “sleeper cells” of the LNA in Western Libya, and shortly after K. Haftar’s offensive began, they announced that they had severed connections with the Government of National Accord and become part of the LNA.

The town of Bani Walid, which also fell under the control of the LNA, is the main base of the Gaddaffists. The town has always enjoyed independence and was hostile to the Misrata Brigades, the main military force of the Government of National Accord. Shortly after Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli, the Bani Walid sheikhs and the local council declared their neutrality, but allowed the LNA to use its transport infrastructure, including its airfield. The 60th Infantry Brigade, which was established in Bani Walid, joined the LNA.

K. Haftar’s biggest successes in Tripoli were achieved thanks to defection of the former 7th Brigade of the Presidential Guard from the city of Tarhunah. The unit was renamed the 9th Brigade after joining the LNA. These forces led a mutiny against the Government of National Accord in the summer and autumn of 2018 and had some fierce battles with the so-called Big Four brigades in Tripoli for control of the international airport and other suburbs of the Libyan capital. In April, the forces of the 7th/9th Brigade resumed their operations against the Libyan Army from its positions at the international airport, as well as in Ain Zara and Wadi Rabea, but under the flag of the LNA. Reinforcements in the form of K> Haftar’s supporters soon arrived from the east of the country. The conditional front line between the 7th/9th Brigade and the Big Four in Tripoli was transformed into a front line between the LNA and the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord.

K. Haftar’s hopes to enlist the support of the Zintan clans came to nothing, even though the Zintan Brigades were the main allies of the LNA during the Second Libyan Civil War in 2014—2015. While some sheiks in the region declared their support for K. Haftar, their armed units nevertheless refused to participate in the military operations, as other Zintan clans were fighting on the side of the Government of National Accord, and one of its most charismatic leaders — Commander of the Western Military Zone Osama al-Juwaili — is effectively leading the defense of Tripoli. The respect that al-Juwaili commands likely played a large role in the refusal of most of the elders to support K. Haftar.

K. Haftar could not take advantage of the loyalty of the people in Jafara and Aziziya, home to the Warshefana tribal association that has allied ties with Tripoli. Aziziya has been the main base of K. Haftar’s supporters at Tripoli since 2014. However, in late 2017, the 4th and 26th LNA brigades, which are made up of fighters from the Warshefana tribes, were defeated by al-Juwaili’s forces. At the start of the current operation, the LNA managed to enter Aziziya on a number of occasions but was repelled every time. By mid-April, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord had a firm grip on the city, turning it into an operational base. With Aziziya under its control, the government troops are able to exert constant pressure on Tripoli International Airport by covering it from the flanks, while at the same time continually attacking the LNA communications infrastructure that runs through Gharyan. By maintaining a foothold in Aziziya, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord may be able to carry out an operation to encircle the LNA forces operating in the areas of Wadi Rabea and Ain Zara at some point in the future. Therefore, without establishing control over the region, any attempts to advance the LNA into Tripoli along other routes would be extremely risky, as the forces operating there may get trapped. This explains why the fiercest battles (most of which have been won by the pro-government forces) have been for the Aziziya District. During these battles, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord showed that it was able to act within the framework of a general operational plan, and its units demonstrated a high degree of coherence in their actions. The current campaign is likely to further bolster the influence of Major General Osama al-Juwaili, who is heading up Operation “Volcano of Anger” to repel LNA aggression.

“Yes” to an Islamist Militia, “No” to a Military Dictatorship

Even though a few factions that have declared their support for K. Haftar, most people living in Tripolitania would prefer the lesser evil of the “dominance of armed Islamic groups,” which is precisely what K. Haftar is trying to eradicate, to his “hard hand” and military dictatorship. What is more, many Tripolitans rushed to join the militants and fight against the LNA with weapons in their hands. It was precisely this ability to mobilize forces in Western Libya, as well as the willingness of these forces to speak out in support of the extremely unpopular Government of National Accord, that took K. Haftar by surprise.

The military operation contributed to the consolidation of the Misrata forces, which bore the brunt of the fight against the LNA. A maximum of 6000—8000 fighters were located in Misrata and the Misrata District during the relatively peaceful period between the civil wars. Now, they are capable of mobilizing up to 18,000 troops, thereby practically nullifying the numerical superiority of the LNA. Before the start of the campaign, there was no unity among the Misrata clans. For example, some factions from this region and their representatives (for example, the Minister of Interior of the Government of National Accord Fathi Bashagha) called for a dialogue with Field Marshal K. Haftar and were even prepared to consider the possibility of offering him a position in the cabinet. Now they are working together with his staunch opponents from the Bunyan al-Marsous coalition in Misrata. The Misrata groups that had until recently been opponents of Sarraj and were even subject to international sanctions for rallying against him started to provide military support to the Government of National Accord. We are talking here about the “national guard” of the alternative National Salvation Government, which has since sent its troops to protect Tripoli and now acts in lockstep with the government forces.

The Libyan Amazighs (Berbers) who control vast territories in the west of Libya, as well as the port city of Zuwarah also rallied against Haftar’s military operation and supported the actions of the Government of National Accord to repel the onslaught of the LNA.

The Field Marshal’s Last Hope

At the same time, the so-called Tripoli Defence Forces, which included the Big Four factions, adopted a rather ambiguous position. For instance, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the Special Deterrence Forces did not deploy significant forces to counter the offensive, confining themselves to the formal deployment of a small group at forward positions, while the majority of their units refrained from fighting, remaining at the rear. These factions clearly want to hang on to the possibility of making a deal with either of the opposing camps. However, this position could lead to the Misrata groups, which the Big Four (with the help of Sarraj) tried to eradicate, further strengthening their influence in Tripoli. In this regard, the special position of the Tripoli Defence Forces, which include a number of moderate Salafists (“madhalits”) that also make up a significant part of Haftar’s army give the field marshal hope of steering the events in Tripoli in his favor. This notwithstanding, the chances of the Big Four choosing to support Khalifa Haftar, especially after all his failures, are very slim. On the contrary, it is entirely possible that their involvement in operations against the LNA will increase against the backdrop of increased military assistance from Turkey (including for groups that are part of the Tripoli Defence Forces).

Khalifa Haftar fully, and erroneously, expected that military support from his external allies (Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and France) would help his forces overcome the enemy’s resistance. While the LNA could count on the direct participation of the Egyptian special forces (as well as on the operational air force of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) during its campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, this type of assistance is untenable in current conditions, given the ambivalent attitude of the global community towards K. Haftar’s actions. That being said, these countries do provide support to the LNA in the form of military supplies, including various types of armored vehicle such as armored personnel carriers and the Mbombe and al-Mared armored cars produced in Jordan. Many point to the fact that the LNA uses Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones equipped with Blue Arrow 7 missiles provided or even operated by military personnel from the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, we should not underestimate the role of Saudi Arabia, which has assumed most of the financial costs of the military campaign. Indeed, without proper funding, the LNA, which claims to be a regular army, will split into factions and groups with different ideologies.

Faultline: The Salafists Versus the Muslim Brotherhood

At the same time, the advantage that the LNA had thanks to the deliveries of weapons and military equipment from its allies could be negated by the fact that Turkey started supplying similar products to the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord in May of this year. On May 18, the Amazon Giurgiulesti ship arrived in Tripoli from the port of Samsun in Turkey under the flag of Moldova. The ship was loaded with all kinds of military equipment, including a battalion set of modern Kirpi II and Vuran armored vehicles made in Turkey, as well as anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air-defense systems and light weapons. Also, according to the Chairman of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord now has drones as well, which were also probably delivered via Turkey.

Libya has thus turned into a battlefield and Faultline between two antagonistic camps of the Islamic world. Heading up the first of these camps are Turkey and Qatar, which continue to rely on forces that adhere to the ideology of political Islam, are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and support the Government of National Accord. The second camp, led by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (the “troika”), has practically elevated the fight with the Muslim Brotherhood to an ideology. The “troika” is prepared to rely on any forces in order to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, be it secular generals or radical Salafists. It is this ideological “duet” of secular military and Salafists that is most pronounced in the framework of the LNA.

The deeper K. Haftar is drawn into the armed confrontation, the more he will fall under the influence of radical Salafi activists in his own surroundings who issue fatwas, refuse to consider opponents of the LNA Muslims, and prove that the truce in Ramadan does not extend to the fighting in Libya. If the hostilities continue, then the influence of the religious radicals inside the Haftar camp will likely continue to grow, since the offensive on Tripoli has effectively petered out and now the LNA command will need to motivate its supporters (it should be noted here that there are a number of Salafists among them), and attract further concessions regarding the dissemination of their ideology. At the same time, many experts consider the Salafists the most reliable and combat-ready element of the LNA. Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that the countries which are backing K. Haftar as a secular leader will eventually become witnesses to the creeping “Salafization” of Libya with the active help of Saudi clerics. And this will not stop K. Haftar from further positioning himself as a champion of secularism, while at the same time dictating a completely different agenda on the home front.

Ceasefire as Salvation

Against the background of K. Haftar’s failures, the structures that are affiliated with him in Eastern Libya are looking for opportunities to achieve a ceasefire so that they can maintain their positions near Tripoli and perhaps even prevent the complete destruction of the LNA, which is a distinct possibility at the moment. For example, Abdullah al-Thinni, the prime minister of the provisional government in the east of the country, who is affiliated with K. Haftar, said in an interview with the Alhurra television station that the LNA would be willing to accept a ceasefire without withdrawing from the outskirts of Tripoli, a condition that Sarraj has rejected.

Haftar’s visits to Italy and France, which took place shortly after Sarraj visited these countries, were also devoted primarily to finding ways to establish a ceasefire.

Thus, despite the menacing rhetoric that remains (“I am prepared to hold talks, but there is no one to hold talks with”), the terms of a possible ceasefire were apparently the only topic raised at K. Haftar’s talks with E. Macron in Paris on May 22, 2019. A week earlier, the same issue was discussed at a meeting between K. Haftar and the Prime Minister of Italy. It is, of course, possible that K. Haftar is looking for opportunities to call a ceasefire while at the same time-saving face with all his military bravado. At the same time, in the context of the LNA’s failures, Paris (a long-term partner of K. Haftar) has started to “curtsey” with increasing frequency before the Government of National Accord. The approach of France to the events in Libya is starting to align with the general course adopted by the European Union, which suggests that France may need to abandon its unequivocal support for K. Haftar.

The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that Sarraj is no longer willing to make any kind of deal with K. Haftar, as he considers him to be a rebel and a criminal. And the only acceptable condition for a ceasefire, as far as the head of the Government of National Accord is concerned, is for the LNA to return to the positions they occupied before the start of the campaign. In this situation, K. Haftar cannot directly declare his consent to external mediation when he cannot be sure that Sarraj will accept the terms of the ceasefire. On the other hand, continuing the operation is fraught with unclear prospects and is extremely risky, and in certain circumstances may lead to the complete defeat of the LNA. This is why some of Haftar’s allies see the creation of conditions for a ceasefire as a vital task and a way for the field marshal to hold onto his role as a key player.

Another option is also possible and is connected to the fact that a rift has appeared among Haftar’s allies, with France differing in its assessments of what is going on with the “troika” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. We cannot rule out the possibility that K. Haftar is willing to negotiate the terms of a ceasefire with the mediation of France and Italy (if this was not the case, his visits to these countries would make no sense) and that the “troika” is pushing him, by offering increased military aid, for example, to toe the line that the only possible solution to the crisis is through military force.

Hidden Resources

Just how the situation in Libya continues to unfold will likely depend on the degree of engagement of the two great powers, whose positions at present are rather contradictory and unclear. We are talking, of course, about Russia and the United States, which have not yet had their say.

The United States has voiced two opinions to the current Libyan Crisis. One was expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who condemned the actions of K. Haftar and called for an end to the offensive. The second opinion is that of President Donald Trump himself, who had a telephone conversation with the field marshal and expressed his support for the fight against terrorism, which many observers took as an endorsement of Haftar’s military campaign. While Trump will certainly have the last word, it is unclear which of these approaches to the events in Libya will eventually prevail in Washington. Another position that should not be ignored is that of the Pentagon, which has developed relations with the Misrata brigades against the background of the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Libya — and it was Haftar’s military operation that opened the door for their increased activity. While the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) may have withdrawn its personnel from Tripoli and Misrata, it is entirely possible that they will return to Libya and resume interaction with their former partners.

Russia continues to maintain relations with both sides in the Libyan conflict. Despite the increasingly pro-Haftar bias in the Russian approach, Moscow, unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has not crossed the red line and continues to be regarded as a partner by the Government of National Accord. The problem lies in the fact that the three Russian structures that are currently working on the Libya track the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Russian Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement — assess Russia’s priorities and interests in Libya differently, and on some issues have opposite positions. On top of this, the signals coming from the Kremlin itself about which line to take in regard to Libya are not clear enough. The Russian approach to events in the country is likely determined by the current situation. Russia has demonstrated a certain amount of support for K. Haftar against the background of his military operation and the success he is expected to achieve. However, as the operation proceeds, Russian will have to either return to a more balanced line and pay more attention to the interests of Tripoli or, on the contrary, start increasing aid to K. Haftar, including military assistance.

The latter scenario is the riskiest. Even if the gamble on K. Haftar pays off and he somehow manages to emerge victorious, then the main beneficiaries will be the “troika” of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have invested far more money into him than Russia. At the same time, Russia would benefit from maintaining a certain balance in Libya. To this end, Moscow could make better use of the ties that it has managed to maintain with all the sides in the Syrian conflict — something that Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, which have “put all their eggs in one basket,” cannot say. Russia has the opportunity to play the role of mediator in the conflict, joining France and Italy in these efforts. Russia should also pay attention to those figures in Libya whose influence continues to grow against the background of the events taking place in Tripoli and who have the opportunity to play a consolidating role in the future. Major General Osama al-Juwaili is one of these figures.

From our partner RIAC

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Nuclear weapons are vulnerable to cyber threats

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According to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Cyber Nuclear Weapons Study Group, US nuclear weapons can’t be effectively protected against cyberattacks with technical means alone. 

“Any system containing a digital component, including nuclear weapons, is vulnerable to cyber threats,” Page Stoutland, NTI’s vice president for scientific and technical affairs, said. 

In a report about cyber threats to nuclear weapons security, just presented in Moscow and titled “Nuclear Weapons in a New Cyber Era,” NTI analysts warn that with the development and spread of digital technology, attacks in the information space are getting increasingly dangerous, making even the US defense systems vulnerable to cyberattacks. According to the report, which is based on the results of a 2013 survey conducted by the US Defense Department, the military command may face false warnings about an attack or lose confidence in their ability to control US forces and assets.

Losing control over power grids as a result of cyberattacks is a serious danger to nuclear weapons (Page Stoutland)

The most dangerous consequences of a cyberattack on a country’s system of nuclear deterrence are as follows: first, it can target the early warning system (EWS) and simulate a nuclear attack, which could prompt a very real retaliatory strike. Secondly, experts do not rule out the possibility of unauthorized use of nuclear weapons as a result of cyber and physical attacks disabling security measures. The authors of the report consider the possibility of a false order for the release of nuclear weapons resulting from a hacked control system less likely though. Thirdly, a cyberattack can disrupt the chain of command transmission and international communication channels. And last, but not least, this damage could be caused already during the production stage, if errors or malware are introduced into the software.

 “Protection requires not only technical excellence, but also a new strategy that takes into account cyber threats that did not exist at the time when nuclear weapons were being developed.” (Page Stoutland)

The four worst post-cyberattack scenarios being considered by experts include attacks on early-warning systems (radar and satellites), security systems, communications, and production chains. According to the authors of the “Nuclear Weapons in a New Cyber Era” report, false information about a nuclear attack, as well as a disruption channels of communication as a result of cyberattacks could lead to a “retaliatory” or a preventive nuclear strike. Security and physical protection system hacks could result in the theft of nuclear weapons. Insertion of malware into manufactured parts   undermines confidence in the predictability of nuclear deterrence. The authors warn that a loss of confidence in one’s ability to prevent an enemy nuclear attack with nuclear deterrence tools could have serious negative consequences for strategic stability.

 “In 1980, the failure of a NORAD computer chip resulted in a false warning about an incoming nuclear attack.” (Page Stoutland)

Experts are convinced that because no improvements in cyber security will be enough to completely eliminate the threat, increasing the decision time would be the right way to go. This requires efficient systems and processes to either confirm or discard data from DSS and other sources. To increase decision-making time after information about a nuclear missile launch against the US has been received, the authors propose the following scenario: if the warning has been confirmed as accurate, and the source of the missile launch has been duly determined, the president orders a deferred retaliatory strike. The drawbacks of this approach, the report warns however, is delayed response, less headroom for maneuvering and overdependence of automation, as well as the risk of information about the order for a retaliatory strike leaking out, which itself could provoke a nuclear attack by the adversary.

 “In 2010, US launch-control officers lost communication with a squadron of 50 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles for 45 minutes.” (report) 

Another way of reducing the cyber threat would be to limit the use of cyber-attacks against nuclear weapons.

The authors advise the military and political leadership, as well as officials at a lower level, to realize full well that cyberattacks against nuclear systems are fraught with an unintentional catastrophe. Therefore, to avoid a disaster, they need to work out clear-cut rules of the game. Difficult as the verification of these rules may be, the experts still believe that the mere presence of such norms would prevent an escalation, as, according to them, suspicious would initially fall on non-state players, who never signed the agreement.

Obviously, these decisions are possible only in cooperation with other countries and with a great deal of mutual trust and concerted steps. Aware of this, the authors propose starting a discussion on cyber security, between Russia and the US, and between China and the US, against threats posed by such non-state players and third parties, who might initiate any of the abovementioned scenarios and be interested in their negative consequences.

From our partner International Affairs

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Montenegrin hybrid war against Russia

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The High Court in Podgorica sentenced a group of 14 people on May 9 on terrorism charges and creating a criminal organization as part of an October 2016 attempt to overthrow the government and scupper the country’s NATO membership bid. The court found that the group of Serbs, Russians and Montenegrins had plotted to occupy the country’s parliament during 2016 parliament elections, assassinate then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian leadership, and make forcible change of power to prevent the country from joining NATO.

The two Russians Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, who prosecutors said were agents of Russian military intelligence, were accused of terrorism and sentenced in absentia. Unlike them, the opposition politicians were charged with organising the criminal group and not for terrorism. Judge Mugosa said that Eduard Shishmakov was punished with a 15-year prison sentence, whereas Vladimir Popov was punished with 12-year sentence.

Bratislav Dikic, former high-ranking Serbia`s police officer, was sentenced to eight years in prison for helping the attempted terrorist act and creation of a criminal organization.

Leaders of opposition party Democratic Front (DF), Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic were sentenced to five years in prison each. Knezevic and Mandic weren`t present at the the moment the sentence was pronounced.

Democratic Front driver Mihailo Cadjenovic was sentenced to one year and six months in prison.

Nemanja Ristic and Predrag Bogicevic were sentenced to seven years in prison.

Dragan Maksic was sentenced to a year and nine months of prison.

Srboljub Đorđevic and Milan Dusic were sentenced to one year and six months in prison.

Branka Milic was sentenced to three years in prison.

Kristina Hristic was conditionally convicted.

Judge Mugosa said that the objective of the criminal organization was to frighten the citizens, violate constitutional structures of Montenegro and prevent NATO accession. As she said, members of the organization were all very countable and aware of their illegal acts. Special Prosecutor Sasa Cadjenovic earlier requested maximum prison sentences for Shishmakov and Popov.

The geopolitical background of the process

Montenegro’s entry into NATO was extremely important for the Western powers, due to the strategic position of Montenegro. Because of that this false coup happened. Montenegro was then the only state in the Balkans that had access to the sea and was not a member of the NATO alliance. And, what was more important for the Western strategists, with joining of Montenegro into NATO, Russian military would lose access to the Adriatic ports. Also, Serbia and Republika Srpska would de facto be surrounded by NATO states. Because, although Macedonia is not in NATO, geopolitically it does not mean anything, given that Macedonia (except for Serbia) is surrounded by states that are NATO members. With the accession of Montenegro to NATO, a NATO circle was created around Serbia and Republika Srpska. Also, at that time in the West, a hybrid war against Russia was in progress and the Western intelligence services decided to include Russia in the entire alleged Montenegrin coup.

According to all surveys, most of the citizens of Montenegro were against membership in NATO. This is best demonstrated by the results of research, which were made before and after the accession of Montenegro to NATO. Half a year after Montenegro’s entry into NATO the results of the survey showed that, 41% of the population of Montenegro strongly opposed to membership in NATO, while 28% supported the accession to NATO. The survey showed that 66% of the population of Montenegro have a positive opinion about Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, about 63% about Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and 52% about German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Support to Russia in Montenegro rose by 20% from 2013 to 2018 according to a study by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. That is precisely why Montenegrin authorities took active participation in the hybrid war of the West against Russia.

There was no concrete evidence for Mandic and Knezevic that brought them into relation with the criminal offense. According to the judge Mugosa, the fact that Mandic and Knezevic traveled more often than usual in 2016 to Russia, and a few sentences during their political speeches in the pre-election campaign in 2016, was enough that they be sentenced to 5 years imprisonment. Knezevic and Mandic, along with Mandic’s driver Mihailo Cadjanovic, were the only citizens of Montenegro accused in the process. Despite the fact that all the visits of Mandic and Knezevic to Moscow were official and public visits, Judge Mugosa said in the verdict that they had, in addition to the official talks, enough time to meet with with Russian agents who taught them how to forcefully take power in Montenegro. However, the verdict does not state any evidence for these allegations. Even more absurd is the explanation of the verdict, that the leaders of the Democratic Front (Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic) in their political speeches in the pre-election campaign uncovered their conspiratorial plans elaborated by the GRU and FSB experts.

But the most absurd part of the indictment is that GRU and FSB have hired Sasa Sindjelic for this delicate job. Because, Sasa Sindjelic is a deserter from a regular military service and works as a t-shirt salesman on the market in Serbia. And for the logistics was engaged Mirko Velimirovic, who owns a tavern and does not have any specialist training.

The logical question that arises is, why would Russian intelligence service for such a complex action hired people without specialist experience, when in Serbia, Montenegro and Republika Srpska there is thousands of pro-Russian retired and active specialists. They participated in the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Also, according to estimates of Ukrainian intelligence services, about 300 Serbs are fighting in Donbass. On all these logical questions Montenegrin prosecution has no answer. In addition to lack of credible witnesses, what makes this judgment scandalous is that it is not substantiated by material evidence. According to the indictment, associate Velimirovic by the order of the Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic destroyed the weapons in Kosovo. A logical question arises, why the weapons were allegedly bought, to be immediately disassembled and thrown into the lake?! Montenegrin Prosecutor Katnić could not explain.

Considering that in the whole process, the most severely condemned Russian citizens were included in the whole process, with biographies of security services, and that, in the end, the Russian state was accused of actively participating in the forgery of their identity, Russian media needed to show much more attention to the whole case. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia stated on 22 May on the occasion of the judgment in Montenegro that: ”The verdict of the Higher Court in Podgorica, on charges of attempted alleged “coup d’etat” on October 16, 2016, which was published on May 9, leaves no doubt about the politicization of the Montenegrin justice system and its vulnerability to the external manipulation.”

Concluding Thoughts

The day after the judgment was pronounced, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić sent a Serbian government plane to Podgorica to bring Andrija Mandić and Mihailo Cadjenović to a military parade in the city of Nis, which was held in honor of the Day of Victory over Fascism. It was interesting that the Montenegrin border authorities did not make any problem for the convicted Mandic and Cadjenovic during the temporary abandonment of the country. From the fact that the Montenegrin authorities allowed Andrija Mandic to go to Serbia after the verdict, its clearly that his sentence will be reduced by an appeal. The same goes for Milan Knezevic. Next year are parliamentary elections in Montenegro, and with this verdict, the Democratic Front will be weakened. The Montenegrin parliamentary elections next year will serve only to introduce more pro-NATO forces in the Montenegrin parliament, and for the new positioning of opposition parties in Montenegro.

Basically, this judgment is primarily an attack on Russia. Because the absolute majority of people in the West do not know what happened in Montenegro. They will, thanks to the Western media, only hear that in Montenegro “Russian agents have attempted the coup”. With this shameful verdict, Montenegrin authorities have confirmed that they became part of the hybrid war against Russia. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has used the verdict for the alleged coup to accuse Russia and stated that this was “another example of Russia’s outrageous attempts to undermine European democracy”However, this shameful verdict as well as the open participation of the state of Montenegro in the hybrid war against Russia requires a new Russian strategy towards Montenegro.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

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