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Islamic State after ISIS: Colonies without Metropole or Cyber Activism?

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With the world constantly following the events in the Middle East, much now depends on the shape, form and ‘policy’ Islamic State is going to take. What form will the IS take? What role will cryptocurrencies play in funding terrorists? How can Russia and the US cooperate in fighting mutual security threats? RIAC expert Tatyana Kanunnikova discusses these issues with Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis, Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University.

Islamic State is perceived as an international threat. In which regions is it losing ground and in which ones is it on the rise? Could you please describe IS geography today?

Groups like the Islamic State are mobile. They tend to move and redeploy across international borders with relative ease, and are truly global in both outlook and reach. It is worth noting that, from a very early stage in its existence, the Islamic State incorporated into its administrative structure the so-called vilayets, namely semi-autonomous overseas provinces or possessions. These included parts of Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and of course Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. By the first week of 2018, the Islamic State had all but eclipsed from its traditional base of the Levant. How has the loss of its administrative centers affected the organization’s strategy?

Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis

There are two competing answers to this question. The first possible answer is that ISIS’ plan is similar to that of the Great Britain in 1940, when the government of Winston Churchill was facing the prospect of invasion by the forces of the German Reich. London’s plan at the time was to use its overseas colonies as bases from which to continue to fight following a possible German takeover of the Britain. It is possible that ISIS’ strategy revolves around a similar plan —in which case we may see concerted flare-ups of insurgent activity in Egypt, Southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kenya, and elsewhere. The second possible answer to the question of ISIS’ strategy is that the group may be entering a period of relative dormancy, during which it will concentrate on cyber activism and online outreach aimed at young and disaffected youth in Western Europe, the Caucasus, and North America. According to this scenario, ISIS will use its formidable online dexterity to establish new communities of Millennial and Generation Z members, and renegotiate its strategy in light of the loss of physical lands in the Levant. This scenario envisages an online geography for the Islamic State, which may eventually lead to the emergence of a new model of activity. The latter will probably resemble al-Qaeda’s decentralized, cell-based model that focuses on sharp, decisive strikes at foreign targets.

Commenting for an article in Asia Times, you said that ISIS returnees are extremely valuables sources of intelligence. How can they be effectively identified in the flow of migrants? How exactly can security services exploit the experience of these militants?

In its essence, the Sunni insurgency is a demassified movement. By this I mean that its leaders have never intended for it to become a mass undertaking. The Islamic State, like al-Qaeda before it, does not depend on large numbers of followers. Rather it depends on individual mobilization. Senior Islamic State leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mohamed Mahmoud, Tarad Muhammad al-Jarba, and others, have no interest in deploying 10,000 fighters who may be reluctant and weak-willed. They are content with 100 fighters who are unswerving in their commitment and prepared to devote everything to the struggle, including their lives. Consider some of the most formidable strikes of the Sunni insurgency against its enemies: the attacks of 9/11 in the United States, the 7/7 bombings in the United Kingdom, the November 2015 strikes in Paris, and the fall of Mosul in 2014. There have been more large-scale strikes on Russian, Lebanese, Afghan, Egyptian, and other targets. What connects all of those is the relatively small number of totally dedicated fighters that carried them out. The fall of Mosul, for example, which brought the Islamic State to the height of its power, was carried out by no more than 1,500 fighters, who took on two divisions of the Iraqi Army, numbering more than 30,000 troops.

The reliance on a small number of dedicated fighters mirrors the recruitment tactics of the Islamic State (and al-Qaeda before it). The latter rested on individual attention paid to selected young men, who are seen as reliable and steadfast. This is precisely the type of emphasis that should be placed by European, American and Russian security agencies on suspected members of terrorist groups that are captured, or are detected within largest groups of migrants. What is required here is individual attention given by security operatives who have an eye for detail and are knowledgeable of the culture, customs and ways of thinking of predominantly Muslim societies. However, most governments have neither the patience nor expertise to implement a truly demassified exploitation campaign that targets individuals with an eye to de-radicalization and — ultimately — exploitation. The experience of the Syrian migrants in countries like Italy and Greece is illustrative of this phenomenon. The two countries — already overwhelmed by domestic political problems and financial uncertainty — were left primarily to their own means by a disinterested and fragmented European Union. Several members of the EU, including Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom have for all practical purposes positioned themselves outside of the EU mainstream. At the same time, the United States, which is the main instigator of the current instability in the Middle East, shows no serious interest in de-radicalization and exploitation programs. This has been a consistent trend in Washington under the administrations of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In your opinion, will cryptocurrencies become a significant source of terrorism funding? Some experts believe that pressure on traditional methods of financing may facilitate this process.

In the old days of the 1970s and 1980s, most terrorist groups raised funds primarily through extortion, kidnappings, bank robberies and — to a lesser extent — drugs. Things have changed considerably in our century. Today, cryptocurrencies are not in themselves sources of funding — though it can be argued that the frequent rise in the value of many cryptocurrencies generates income for terrorist organizations — but more a method of circulating currency and providing services that generate funds. With the use of cryptocurrencies and the so-called Darknet, terrorist organizations are now able to engage in creative means of generating cash. They include the sale of pirated music, movies and, most of all, videogames. They also engage in the sale of counterfeit products, including clothing, electronics and other hi-tech accessories. Additionally, they sell counterfeit pharmaceutical products and even counterfeit tickets to high-profile sports events and music concerts. Those who buy those products often pay for them using cryptocurrencies, primarily through the Darknet. Looking at the broad picture, it is clear that the use of cryptocurrencies constitutes a form of asymmetric finance that circumvents established financial structures and operates using irregular means that for now remain largely undetected. Few terrorist groups will resist the temptation to employ this new method of unregulated financial transaction.

How can Russian and US intelligence and security services cooperate in combating terrorism? In December 2017, media reported that CIA had helped its Russian counterpart foil a terror attack in St. Petersburg. What should be done to deepen and broaden such kind of cooperation?

Despite friction on the political level, cooperation between Russian and American intelligence agencies in the field of counter-terrorism is far more routine than is generally presumed. Last December’s report of the CIA sharing intelligence with its Russian counterpart was notable in that it was publicly disclosed. Most instances of intelligence cooperation between Washington and Moscow are not publicized. In February 2016, the then CIA director John Brennan stated publicly that the CIA works closely with the Russian intelligence community in counter-terrorism operations directed against Islamist militants. He described the CIA’s relationship with Russian intelligence officials as a “very factual, informative exchange.” He added that “if the CIA gets information about threats to Russian citizens or diplomats, we will share it with the Russians”. And he added: “they do the same with us”. Brennan gave the example of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He said: “We worked very closely with [Russian intelligence agencies]” during the Sochi games to “try to prevent terrorist attacks. And we did so very successfully”. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Brennan’s statement.

Professionals are always more likely to find common areas of interest. So, in what areas, apart from combating terrorism, can Russian and US intelligence services cooperate?

There is a virtually endless list of common concerns that ought to and often do bring together American and Russian intelligence agencies. To begin with, there are two major existential threats to the security of both countries and the whole world that demand close cooperation between Washington and Moscow and their respective intelligence agencies. The first threat is the black market in weapons of mass destruction, notably chemical weapons, biological agents, and even radioactive material. In the past 20 years, there have been several cases of individuals or groups trying to sell or trade radioactive substances. The fear of such weapons possibly falling into the hands of non-state insurgents should be sufficient to entice close cooperation between American and Russian intelligence agencies. The second existential threat is that of global warming and its effects on international security. It is no secret that the rise in global temperatures is already having a measurable negative impact on food production, desertification, sea-level rise, and other factors that contribute to the destabilization of the economies of entire regions. Such trends fuel militancy, political extremism, wars, and mass migrations of populations, all of which are serious threats to the stability of the international system. Solving this global problem will require increased and prolonged cooperation on the political, economic, and security/intelligence level between the United States and Russia. The two countries must also work closely on a series of other topics, including standardizing the global regulation of cryptocurrencies, diffusing tensions between the two rival nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, tackling the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, preventing the destabilization of Egypt (the world’s largest Arab country), combating the growth of Sunni militancy in West Africa, and numerous other issues.

Among other things, you are an expert in the Cold War. At present, Russia and the USA are experiencing a period of tensions in their relationship. In your opinion, what should be done in order to overcome these challenges and mend fences?

For those of us who remember the Cold War, and have studied the development of Russia–US relations in the postwar era, the current state of affairs between Washington and Moscow seems comparatively manageable. Despite tensions between Washington and Moscow, we are, thankfully, very far from an emergency of the type of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even the 1984 collision between the US plane carrier Kitty Hawk and the K-314 Soviet submarine in the Sea of Japan. How do we avoid such dangerous escalations? The answer is simple: regularize communications between the two countries on various levels, including executive, political, economic and security-related. Such communications should continue even or, arguably, especially at times of rising tensions between the two nations. The overall context of this approach rests on the indisputable truth that Russia and the United States are the two central pillars on which the idea of world peace can be built for future generations.

First published in our partner RIAC

*Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor of Political Science in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Prior to joining Coastal, he built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. An award-winning professor, Dr. Fitsanakis has lectured, taught and written extensively on subjects such as international security, intelligence, cyberespionage, and transnational crime. He is a syndicated columnist and frequent contributor to news media such as BBC television and radio, ABC Radio, Newsweek, and Sputnik, and his work has been referenced in outlets including The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Politico, and The Huffington Post. Fitsanakis is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org, a scholarly blog that is cataloged through the United States Library of Congress, and a syndicated columnist.

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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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Intelligence

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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