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Archives for Terrorism

Death in Damascus Raises Questions

Feb
14
2008

At approximately 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 12, the most wanted terrorist in the world, after Osama bin Laden, was blown up by a car bomb in Damascus.

Imad Mugniyah, head of Hezbollah’s Special Operations Command, thought he was safe in the Syrian capital, and with good reason. The regime of Bashar al-Assad, working closely with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, considered Mugniyah a valuable asset. He allegedly reported directly to Supreme Leader Ali Khameini in Tehran, putting him on the same level as Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah. Protecting him was a high priority.

But his enemies were legion.

The most wanted terrorist after bin Laden – the FBI put him on its most wanted list and slapped a $25 million bounty on his head – Mughniyah was fingered for master-minding the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Maine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 servicemen, as well as numerous kidnappings of Westerners in the 1980s in the Lebanese civil war, including Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson. He may have been in contact with al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s, and was accused of being behind the bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Now the question arises: Who killed Imad Mughniyah?

The easy answer – and the one that most people have settled on – is that the Israelis did. Hezbollah’s television station, al Manar, outright accused the Jewish state. “The martyr was killed at the hands of the Israeli Zionists,” the group said via a statement read on air.

It would make sense. Car bombs are not attacks of opportunity; they require advanced knowledge of the subject’s locations and travel patterns, and it needs operatives on the ground to trigger the bomb. This attack has all the hallmarks of a sophisticated intelligence hit.

The explosion left a charred crater approximately 700 yards east of the Cham City Center in the Kafer Soseh area of Damascus. That’s right next to an Iranian school and a Syrian intelligence office, and Mughniyah was apparently meeting Hamas and Syrian intelligence. Whoever killed him knew where he was and who he was meeting. That means Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or possibly the CIA, has penetrated Hamas, Syrian intelligence agencies, Hezbollah or possibly all of them.

If it was the CIA, this assassination would represent a delicious bit of revenge for the agency. The CIA has been gunning for Mughniyah since the 1980s. In addition to the Marine barracks bombing, Mughniyah is blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy that same year that left 63 people dead – including eight senior CIA agents. He was also suspected of kidnapping and torturing to death Beirut’s CIA station chief William Buckley in 1984.

The method of his passing is significant, too. A car bomb makes a statement. It’s a terror tactic, frankly, and the goal is to show the Syrian regime as weak and incapable of providing security for its “guests.” If the CIA planted a car bomb, that’s a giant “screw you” to the Syrians, who are widely suspected of being involved a similar style assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri who was killed three years ago on Feb. 14. The timing of the Mughniyah’s car bomb death — just two days before the Hariri anniversary — is unlikely to be coincidental.

Another possibility is that Syria ratted Mughniyah out to CIA or Mossad, perhaps as part of a deal Syria offered up Mughniyah in exchange for flexibility in Lebanon or the Golan. While this idea is circulating in Lebanon’s political circles, along with the suggestion that the Syrians did the deed themselves, it strikes me as unlikely. Syria usually doesn’t blow up its gifts to the West. They commit suicide by putting several bullets in their heads, as in the case of Abu Nidal in Baghdad in 2002. – a “suicide” widely seen as an attempt by Saddam Hussein to turn over a wanted terrorist as a show of good faith to the West.

A third possibility is that Mughniyah isn’t really dead at all, and Hezbollah – which announced his death to the world – is making an already invisible man disappear even more. But why? What could they have planned? In recent weeks, there have been rumors of a new campaign of kidnappings against Westerners in Beirut to force concessions from the U.S.-backed government of Fuad Siniora, with whom Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon have been locked in a stalemate for more than year.

There’s no doubt Mughniyah’s death raises a lot of questions, quite apart from who did it. Another one is why did Hezbollah proclaim his death as a martyr and hold a massive demonstration for him in southern Beirut today — the same day that Hariri’s supporters packed the city’s downtown to commemorate his death? After the Israeli pullout in 2000, Hezbollah claimed to be changing its ways, that it was no longer the terror group of the 1980s, that it was a legitimate political group. To tie itself again so tightly to a wanted terrorist with American blood on his hands is at once a cry of defiance and a worrying sign that more extreme Iranian influences are again on the upswing within the organization.

No matter who killed him or what happens next, one of Iran’s and Syria’s main chess pieces was just taken off the table. There are high-fives in Langley and Jerusalem these days.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 3:53 PM | Permalink

Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous

Nov
6
2007

With our Hollywood images of swashbuckling heroes and fairytale villians the idea of taking pirate – pirates? – seriously sounds like a bit of a joke. But this ancient scourge is playing a role in the 21st Century global war on terror in an important part of the world: off the east coast of Africa, near Somalia to be exact.

These aren’t lovable ruffians of the high seas. Clan warriors from Somalia, they are bloodthirsty criminals in small motorboats that like to either kill or capture the crews of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vessels trying to bring aid relief to Somalis scarred by war.

Over the course of 2007, there have been at least 26 actual and attempted pirate attacks on large vessels in international waters of the east coast of Africa, up from eight in 2006. The real number is undoubtedly much higher. Pirate attacks worldwide jumped 14 percent in the first nine months of 2007, with the biggest increase off the coast of Somalia through which more than half of the world’s crude oil and 95 percent of the cargo trade between Asia and Europe crosses.

“This is a very serious security problem on the African coast,” said Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. “These are not pirates who will remind you of Johnny Depp. These are quite different kinds of pirates.”

In February, the MV Rozen, a U.N.-chartered cargo ship was hijacked, drawing the attention of American warships attached to Combined Task Force-150, the maritime adjunct to Operation Enduring Freedom which the United States launched in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Other incidents are even more serious. According to the International Chamber of Commerce’s Criminal Crime Services Web site, On Oct. 28, a Japanese chemical tanker called the Golden Nori and possibly carrying highly flammable benzine put out an “undesignated distress” signal as it was sailing in the Gulf of Aden. It went silent soon after, and Coalition ships in the area guessed it had been hijacked and taken into Somali territorial waters.

Now, normally, ships attached to the CTF-150 aren’t allowed to enter the Somali waters because there’s no U.N. mandate or request from the government of Somlia to enter. After all, there’s not really a Somali government. But that didn’t stop the guided missile destroyer, the USS Porter from chasing a hijacked ship into Somali waters and even opening fire on skiffs tied up to the Golden Nori. As I write, the Porter and the pirates are in a standoff, with the Somalis demanding the Navy ship move off while the Navy is determined to remove the pirates from the ship.

But what does all this have to do with the war on terror? Plenty.

CTF-150 was established in the months after 9/11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

I was able to accompany some of the men and women of the FGS Bremen, detailed to CTF-150, last May as it patrolled in the Gulf of Aden near Djibouti, right where the tip of Arabia reaches to meet the Horn of Africa. To the south of us, for miles, the Somali coastline stretched. It is a dangerous stretch of land and water infested with pirates, traversed by jihadis and trafficked by smugglers. No ship is immune.

The Bremen was part of the 10-ship task force from 10 nations, which has responsibility for a 2.4-million square-mile patch of ocean that covers the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Gulf of Aden, an area about the size of the continental United States. Around the 7,480-mile-long rim of the area of operations lie 14 nations ranging from the friendly Bahrain and Qatar to the chronically disintegrating Somalia — a basket case of a country that is much of CTF-150’s raison d’être.

The CTF-150’s area of operation is a maritime crossroads – a kind of floating Dodge City – where massive amounts of legitimate trade intersects with narcotics traffic headed to Europe from Pakistan to Yemen and Kenya. Weapons are smuggled from Yemen to Somalia, fueling the violence there. Even more worrisome is the movement and trafficking of people from Sudan and Eritrea into Saudi Arabia, refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen and “people of particular interest” moving from Yemen to Somalia.

In many ways, this battle is a return to the original mission of the U.S. Navy. The war on the Barbary pirates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the first war on terror the United States ever fought, and was also the first protracted overseas war fought to protect the personal and commercial interests of Americans abroad. As today, the pirates were ruthless and unconventional enemies, much like al Qaeda. And there is growing evidence al Qaeda is learning from, and influencing, today’s pirates, aiming to interfere as much as possible with the flow of crude oil traffic.

Oil and chemical tankers like the Mori are increasingly targeted, both for their cargo and for the possibility the ship itself can be turned into a floating bomb. Offshore oil terminals like those dotting the Persian Gulf are vulnerable to hijacked supertankers set on collision courses. And don’t forget the USS Cole – a picture of which hangs in the gangway of the Bremen – which was attacked by suicide bombers on an explosive laden speedboat. Seventeen crew members died.

While on the Bremen, some of its sailors told me they didn’t feel they were at war. They’re wrong. The maritime battlefield affects everyone who buys things or puts gas in their car, and Europe is especially vulnerable to trade interruptions. Piracy has always been with us, but now it’s part of a larger struggle – one that is moving off the sands of the Middle East and into the azure waters of the world’s oceans.

Posted by Christopher Allbritton at 7:06 AM | Permalink

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