As I pointed out two weeks ago, US foreign and military policy is now so muddled that the primary response to any ongoing crisis is to choose a side to arm without thought to the inevitable blowback that will come from trying to pick winners and losers in otherwise internal affairs of far-flung countries. As the meltdown of the US-trained Iraqi military accelerates, we now see a situation whose supreme irony would be hilarious if only so many lives were not senselessly caught in the crossfire. Two developments of that sort stand out today.
First is the news that Syrian aircraft have carried out a strike against ISIS targets inside Iraq. Because Iraq has been pleading with the US to carry out attacks of this sort, it appears that early reports first assumed that US drones had been involved:
Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq on Tuesday, further broadening the Middle Eastern crisis a day after Israeli warplanes and rockets struck targets inside Syria.
Iraqi state media initially reported that the attacks near Iraq’s western border with Syria were carried out by U.S. drones, a claim that was quickly and forcefully denied by the Pentagon.
Think about that one for a minute. Last fall, the US was agonizing over how to find and arm only those groups fighting the Assad government in Syria that are “moderate” so that we didn’t arm the then fledgling ISIS group. But now, inside Iraq, state media is initially unable to distinguish an action taken by Assad from one taken by the US. That is, Assad, whom we are fighting inside Syria, is on our side inside Iraq.
The second development is a pairing of US interests with one we have been fighting for a much longer time. The New York Times brings us the latest on Iranian assistance to Iraq in its struggle against ISIS. The initial part of the report seems routine:
Iran is flying surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
The secret Iranian programs are part of a broader effort by Tehran to gather intelligence and help Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government in its struggle against Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But when the Times drills down to detail on how the assistance is being delivered, we get into more strange times:
Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, has visited Iraq at least twice to help Iraqi military advisers plot strategy. And Iran has deployed about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders, and help mobilize more than 2,000 Shiite militiamen from southern Iraq, American officials said.
Wait. Iran’s IGRC, and especially its Quds Force, is supposed to be still absolutely opposed to the US and even drops comments trying to disrupt the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program now and then. And yet, here they are, sending their head to Iraq to prop up al-Maliki as well as sending “about a dozen other Quds Force officers to advise Iraqi commanders”. Hmm. Advisers. That sounds familiar. Returning to the Washington Post story cited above: Continue reading
Recall that back in October, near the town of Saravan in southeastern Iran, 14 Iranian border guards were killed by attackers who had infiltrated from the adjacent border with Pakistan. Iran retaliated very quickly, executing 16 prisoners the next day. A previously unknown group, Jaish al-Adl, claimed responsibility and has since been described as a radical Sunni Wahhabi group with ties to Jundallah.
We learn today from Fars News that skirmishes with Iranian border guards have continued since that attack, with as many as 100 attacks having taken place since March and up to two a day since the October incident:
Lieutenant Commander of Iran’s Border Guard Force Brigadier General Ahmad Garavand vowed tough battle against any kind of terrorist move along the country’s borders, and said the border guards have repelled tens of terrorist attacks against the country.
General Garavand pointed to constant clashes between the Iranian border guards and outlaws, and said, “We have had 100 clashes since the beginning of this (Iranian) year (started March 20) and 2 border clashes per day on average after the recent terrorist attacks in Saravan.”
It would appear that the border guards are facing a budget crisis (perhaps a product of US sanctions?):
Meantime, Garavand reiterated that the government should earmark more budget for sealing the country’s borders, and said, “Only 28 percent of the required budget for sealing the borders has been allocated in the past months.”
Where the article goes next is a very interesting development. I had missed this bit of news in the original aftermath of the October incident, but Garavand mentions that the IRGC has vowed to take action in response:
After the attack the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in a statement vowed to take action against.
Perhaps this is just a natural outcome of the budget limitations of the border guards, but it seems more likely to me that this is a significant step that indicates just how seriously Iran views these border incidents. And right on cue, we have reports today by both Fars News and Mehr News that the IRGC took action to free two hostages who had been captured near the border. From the Fars story:
The Quds Forces of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) released the two hostages that had been taken by a group of outlaws in Southeastern Iran yesterday.
On Monday night a group of bandits took two Iranian citizens hostage in the city of Iranshahr in the Sistan and Balouchestan province.
Some hours later in early Tuesday morning, the captured civilians were released in an IRGC surprise operation which left three bandits dead and 3 others injured.
So we now have not just the IRGC, but the elite Quds force that reports directly to Khamenei involved in today’s incident. Continue reading
I’m sure that Eric Holder didn’t mean to suggest that the assassination plots purportedly planned by Iran’s Quds Force and Manssor Arbabsiar with the assistance of a DEA informant targeting the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, as well as Israeli and Saudi figures in Argentina, are legal.
But given the debate between the ACLU’s Anthony Romero and Jack Goldsmith over whether assassinations in this country would be legal, I wanted to look at what he did say.
In their debate on WBUR’s On Point, Romero said something to the effect of Holder’s argument for targeted killing would serve as justification for other countries to target their own “terrorists” in our country. Goldsmith objected, saying such assassinations would only be legal in failed states (implicitly, like Yemen and Pakistan) where a state was unable to apprehend such a figure.
That’s not what Holder said. Here’s what he did say:
Over the last three years alone, al Qaeda and its associates have directed several attacks – fortunately, unsuccessful – against us from countries other than Afghanistan. Our government has both a responsibility and a right to protect this nation and its people from such threats.
This does not mean that we can use military force whenever or wherever we want. International legal principles, including respect for another nation’s sovereignty, constrain our ability to act unilaterally. But the use of force in foreign territory would be consistent with these international legal principles if conducted, for example, with the consent of the nation involved – or after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States.
Furthermore, it is entirely lawful – under both United States law and applicable law of war principles – to target specific senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associated forces. [my emphasis]
Strip this passage of its American exceptionalism, and here’s what it justifies: Continue reading
It was pretty inconsiderate of Charlie Savage to break the news that the US had filed military commission charges against Ali Musa Daqduq the day after Jeh Johnson gave a speech emphasizing how our detention authority is restricted to those associated with al Qaeda.
But, the AUMF, the statutory authorization from 2001, is not open-ended. It does not authorize military force against anyone the Executive labels a “terrorist.” Rather, it encompasses only those groups or people with a link to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, or associated forces.
While Daqduq does, by all accounts, have ties to Hezbollah, there’s no allegation in the charges sheet that he had any ties to al Qaeda.
Now, I don’t dispute that Daqduq could be charged (or could have been, while we were still at war–oh wait, that Iraq AUMF will never be repealed!) for violating the laws of war. What I’m interested in is how the government implicated the various Shia groups with which Daqduq allegedly conspired.
Most of Daqduq’s charges–the murder, attempted murder, intentional bodily injury, and attempted kidnapping of some American soldiers–don’t mention any other people or organizations. Nor do the treachery and spying charges.
The charge of terrorism charges Daqduq alone–he’s a terrorist because he engaged in an act evincing wanton disregard for human life. Which is consistent with the way the Iraq AUMF defines terrorism, but not the way the GWOT one does.
The material support for terrorism charge does name others, though–the Shia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, which broke off from the Mahdi army in 2004:
In that Ali Musa Daqduq al-Musawi, an alien unprivileged enemy belligerent subject to trial by military commission, did, between about May 2006 and about January 2007, at various locations in Iraq and Iran, in the context of and associated with hostilities, provide material support and resources to be used in preparation for and in carrying out an act of terrorism against U.S. forces in Iraq, knowing or intending that such material support and resources were to be used for that purpose, to wit: advice, training and planning to Qays al-Khazali, Layth al-Khazali, and other members of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq, known and unknown, for the purpose of killing or inflicting great bodily harm upon one or more protected persons in or near Karbala, Iraq, on or about 20 January 2007.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq is neither–and I don’t believe it was–on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorism Organization list nor sanctioned by Treasury. And last month it agreed to enter Iraq’s political process. Continue reading
The Treasury Department just added the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) to the other Iranian entities listed as Specially Designated National (other entities already covered include Quds Force and the National Police and their leaders). It sanctioned MOIS for a laundry list of reasons generally categorized as support for Syria’s human rights abuses, Iran’s own human rights abuses, and support for terrorism. Under the latter section, Treasury lists the following:
It is the official position of our government that Iran has facilitated the travel of al Qaeda operatives (this accusation may, in fact, date to pre-9/11 transiting of Iran on the same terms as others). And, not surprising, the government says Iran helped Hamas and Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But it’s the Hezbollah claim I’m most intrigued by. Treasury says that Iran’s intelligence service “participated in multiple joint projects with Hizballah in computer hacking.”
Hacking? We’re declaring hacking a terrorist act now? Like the StuxNet project we engaged in with Israel.
And what, precisely, is Iran alleged to have hacked? Because the most public allegations pertain to … drones. You know, the drones violating Iran and Lebanon’s airspace?
We’ve made that a terrorist act now?
One nice touch of today’s press conference rolling out the latest FBI-created plot (aside from comedy lines like “they had no regard for the rule of law” and “we will not let other countries use our soil as their battleground”) is that the fairly new Assistant Attorney General for National Security, Lisa Monaco, got a speaking role.
That’s certainly not inappropriate; given that this plot was either invented by or targeted at Iran, the NSD would be right in the thick of the action.
It’s the content of her statements, focusing almost entirely on thanking participants in the “investigation,” I find so interesting. She started by thanking her reports in the NSD, particularly the Counterterrorism Section. Then the US Attorney’s Offices in Southern District of NY and Houston. Then the FBI, the DEA, and the NY Joint Terrorism Task Force. After having thanked those groups–two of which (FBI and DEA) are members of the Intelligence Community–she then thanked the Intelligence Community.
Finally, I want to thank the intelligence community for its critical role in this matter. The National Security Division was designed to serve as the place where intelligence and law enforcement come together at the Justice Department. I am proud to say that we served that purpose here. This case demonstrates exactly how the division is supposed to work and should serve as a model for future cases.
(Holder offers less demonstrative thanks to the intelligence community too.) In other words, the head of the NSD, which would handle cooperation between the ops side and the law enforcement side, dedicated one-fifth of her comments, a quarter of her thanks, to the IC members presumably above and beyond the FBI and DEA officers who led this sting.
By itself, that’s not a surprise. After all, even the recent model plane UAV plot the FBI invented would have involved the NSA and CIA closely because the FBI seems to have targeted Rezwan Ferdaus, the plotter, because of his comments in jihadist chat rooms. But by contrast with such operations as that one, the complaint in this case offers no obvious tip to the involvement of the IC.
Sure, there would be intelligence analysts, the experts on the Quds Force (though the FBI agent writing the complaint attributed information on the Quds to Treasury and State declarations and “other ‘open source’ information,” in the same way he attributes information on Los Zetas to “published reports”). There might be Treasury investigators, the people who use SWIFT to track the two international wire transfers that are the primary evidence in the case, but the FBI could probably track the transfers themselves, not least because the transfers ended up in an FBI bank account and I suspect they went through a friendly bank in NYC. You’d think the NSA would be involved, but the informant, who I call “Narc,” taped all the phone conversations himself until Arbabsiar’s arrest, after which the FBI taped his calls. There is a reference to pictures of Quds members, presumably taken by intelligence agencies.
But those are the only visible signs of IC involvement. Indeed, the complaint appears designed to hide any hint of IC involvement and the sting appears designed to avoid any obvious involvement from the IC. That is, from the looks of things, this arrest required less involvement from the IC than Fardaus’.
Which I assume is the point: to create the appearance of an FBI arrest that seems entirely unmotivated by underlying intelligence plots.
And yet unnamed agencies in the IC got prominent kudos for their “critical role in this matter.”
With that in mind, I wanted to point to a few interesting details in the complaint.
Perhaps most interesting, the complaint’s account of how a seeming incompetent like Arbabsiar got sent out to negotiate ties between the Quds and Los Zeta indicates Arbabsiar suggested he get involved, not his cousin Abdul Reza Shahlai (described here as Iranian Official #1).
ARBABSIAR told Iranian Official #1 that as a result of his business in both Mexico and the United States, he (ARBABSIAR) knew a number of people who traveled between the two countries, and some of those people, he (ARBABSIAR) believed, were narcotics traffickers. Iranian Official #1 told ARBABSIAR that he wanted ARBABSIAR to hire someone who could kidnap the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States and that ARBABSIAR should find someone in the narcotics business, because people in that business are willing to undertake criminal activity in exchange for money.
And note how, at the start, Shahlai wanted only a kidnapping? Arbabsiar and Narc turned it into an assassination. And Narc offered up the C4 that is the entire basis of the WMD complaint (and, more largely, the terrorism charge).
Note, too, how it was orchestrated such that Arbabsiar would be in custody making calls back to Iran that would capture Arbabsiar’s co-conspirator, Gholam Shakuri, in the plot (every single one of these charges is a conspiracy charge, so getting some evidence against Shakuri was critical to even charging Arbabsiar without having him engage in an actual attack). The explanation was that Narc wanted something–either more money or Arbabsiar’s presence in Mexico–as a guarantee of the remainder of the $1.5 million payoff before he’d order the hit. Shakuri advised against Ababsiar traveling to Mexico.
SHAKURI stated that no more money should be given to [Narc], and advised ARBABSIAR against traveling back to Mexico. SHAKURI said that ARBABSIAR was responsible for himself if he did travel.
Then, when he was in custody pretending to be in Los Zetas custody, Arbabsiar called Shakuri and told him Narc wanted more money–presumably a ploy by the FBI to get Shakuri reconfirming the plan for the plot and his involvement in the money transfer. But Shakuri rejected that request.
SHAKURI then stated: “You said it yourself, they–from our point of view of–when we get our merchandise, we get our merchandise.” SHAKURI added, “We have guaranteed the rest. You were our guarantee.”
If this were a real plot and Los Zetas were really playing hardball for a bigger advance, then Shakuri’s decision might well have gotten Arbabsiar killed. At the very least, Shakuri’s refusal to pony up any more advance money suggests some ambivalence about the operation (or Arbabsiar’s life).
Now, it’s not clear when Arbabsiar decided to cooperate with the FBI–only when he was arrested (and promptly waived Miranda rights), or back in the spring when he proposed reaching out to Los Zetas to his cousin and along the way turned a kidnapping into a terrorist attack.
But it seems clear that someone orchestrated this sting from behind the scenes to create the appearance of a Quds-sponsored terrorism plot in the US. And for that reason, among the other players and directors and cinematographers Lisa Monaco thanked at the press conference, she also thanked the IC for the critical role they played in orchestrating the show.