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Russia/Syria: new Russian air defence system…

February 10, 2016

Summary: Russia deploys highly advanced air defence system to Syria – does ISIS have an air force?

Janes report – from Russia Today sources – that a new version of the Pantsyr air defence system has been spotted defending the Russian military airbase at Humaymim in Syria:

Janes, 8 Feb 2016: Russia has deployed the new version of the Pantsyr air defence system to its Humaymim airbase in Syria, footage broadcast by the RT news channel on 3 February has confirmed.

Russia has had at least one Pantsyr-S1 at Humaymim since 3 October 2015, when its Ministry of Defence released a photograph showing one in the background.

The RT footage showed a second system with the new bidirectional radar now deployed at the base. This also appears to be the first time the new Pantsyr version has been seen in Russian service.

RT identified the system as a Pantsyr-S2: a new version the Russian military said it would take into service in 2015.

The Pantsyr S1 version has been in Syria for a few months.  This version seems to be the newer S2 and it seems this may have been in the offing since the end of last year.  Last time I checked, the Islamic State did not have any form of military combat system that might require such a sophisticated anti-air counter measures system.  The fact that it has been presented on Russia Today suggests a “flag-waving” statement for the benefit of US (and Turkish) air forces and the radar systems deployed as part of the Pantsyr package might permit a more enhanced picture of all air activity in the region.

To be fair to Russian military aviation, you might want to have your airbase defended with all means possible on the basis of “you never know”.  Perhaps ISIS has, or may develop a drone reconnaissance/strike capability…

Back to the Future or Forward to the Past? US troops back to Helmand in force

February 9, 2016

Summary:  US combat troops are sent back into Helmand to support the Afghan army. 

The Guardian is reporting a significant group of US troops going back into Helmand province to support the seemingly faltering performance of the Afghan National Army:

The Guardian, 8 February, 2016: Hundreds of additional US troops are slated to deploy to a volatile province in Afghanistan to bolster the local military against a resurgent Taliban, the Guardian has learned.

By month’s end, a force described as battalion-strength, consisting of mostly army soldiers, will arrive in Helmand province where US and UK forces have struggled in battles for over a decade to drive out the Taliban….defense officials said the additional troops would not take part in combat. But they will help the existing Helmand force defend itself against Taliban attacks, officials said [and]…declined to offer many specifics about an upcoming reinforcement, but they described the mission as primarily aimed at bolstering the performance of the embattled 215th Corps of the Afghan military, through training.

The 215th Corps has recently had its commander replaced amid performance and corruption concerns, and has endured “unusually high operating tempo for long periods of time”, outgoing US commander General John Campbell testified to Congress last week. It is among four Afghan corps that still have US military advisers embedded within it, despite a recent pullback to advise at higher levels…

The US military has sounded warnings of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, in Helmand and beyond, that have prompted significant revisions in Obama’s war plans…

While the Pentagon initially resisted categorizing the battle as “combat”, press secretary Peter Cook called it a “combat situation, but [US troops] are not in the lead intentionally”, illustrating how the difference between combat and advisory missions can blur in practice.

Opium-rich Helmand has emerged as a Taliban priority, as most of its 2015 attacks focused on the province. Unlike earlier eras of the war, the Taliban have declined to take a winter break and have fought in the province all year.

The Taliban have come close to overrunning a district center in Helmand, Sangin, where more than 100 UK troops died during a war that has entered its 15th year, despite US airstrikes in late December. Kabul is said to control only three of Helmand’s 14 districts, including the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah.

This has a worrying feel of a drip, drip return to major international operations.  I tried previously, as the ISAF mission closed down, to hazard a few thoughts about the circumstances under which NATO might ever return to Afghanistan.  Although I said “if they ever leave”, I could/should have been a little more careful to point out the risk of mission creep for those remaining residual forces.

How badly does Mr Obama want to declare “mission accomplished” in the last year of his presidency?

An anniversary assessment of the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

January 29, 2016

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog (www.dangerzoneblog.com) on topics related to ongoing conflicts.  Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: Military reform is underway in the quasi state of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). All armed military units appear to be consolidating under a single command structure of the 1st Army Corps of the Ministry of Defence of the DPR. But it is likely there is a gap between the theory and the practice.

The armed forces of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) have changed significantly from where they were a year ago. Stemming out of disorganised militia forces local to the three main cities of Slovyansk, Donetsk and Lugansk, the current iteration now, on paper at least, is starting to resemble a modern military.

The armed forces of the DPR have been centralised under the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and are commanded by Major-General Vladimir Kononov. The MOD is centred around a single 1st Army Corps which celebrated its first anniversary last November with a parade which showcased a professional and streamlined looking military.

The MOD holds two main combat elements under the 1st Army Corps: the Republican Guard (RG) and more independent, “separate”, units. In its current state, the separate units of the 1st Army Corps hold the task of offensive action whereas the Republican Guard is tasked with defence of its assigned territories including a rapid reaction component, some reconnaissance units and special forces.

DPR MOD, new versh

There is quite a bit of uncertainty around the specifics of this structure. Notable is the specific situation regarding the Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU is a more commonly known abbreviation). Pre-reform GRU was under the Republican Guards command structure, however the current situation of the GRU is largely up for speculation. One possibility is that the GRU exists as is pictured in the diagram above, another is that it has been dissolved and integrated with the current “Republican Guard” as reconnaissance battalions, as some evidence would support. A third possibility is that there is no real GRU and that the units which had comprised it float around in the Army Corps under no consolidated directorate.

There may be a certain amount of exaggeration and “inflation” regarding the DPR’s structure. Within the Republican Guard, only the 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions are regularly spotted in social and televised media. Sightings of other battalions are uncommon and troops are often few in numbers. However, there are no official figures to go by, and, with a very out of date official website, it is impossible to get a real sense of size, number and structure.

With these caveats in mind, the “average” mechanised brigade of the DPR’s forces appears to be structured in a fairly conventional format:

DPR bde structure

Often militants and their vehicles in the “DPR” have insignia denoting which unit they belong to, which can be found via pro-Russian open and media sources. Compiling this data gives a greater perspective of the overall structure of the “DPR” MoD, but gives little insight into its actual size. The main factor which helps to assess the actual size of individual units is vehicle numbers. For example, tank battalion “Diesel” is known to be approximately of the size of a regular Russian tank battalion, having around 40 tanks in its inventory .

Reconnaissance companies within battalions and brigades seem to be most active at present, probably because significant combat operations have largely ceased and the main concern is monitoring the ceasefire. Terminology (“special forces”, “reconnaissance”, “rapid reaction”) looks a little bit disingenuous. It is likely that many of these titles are self-adopted for prestige and resource allocation rather than accurate formal statements of capability and training. The so-called Special Forces unit “Somali” appears to be operating more as a rapid reaction force that can quickly go where needed on the front lines.

There is still uncertainty over the current and intended end state for the DPR armed forces – this is still early days, with reliable information limited and fluid. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, the Ukrainian government have presented the structure of the DPR armed forces as part of a wider and Russia-controlled military force. From the Ukrainian perspective, therefore, the DPR’s forces are 1st Army Corps and the “Luhansk Peoples Republic” (LPR) armed forces are grouped as 2nd Army Corps.

This suggests a form of unified command between two “occupant armies”. It is an interesting notion which might have some truth to it, at least in some capacity. One DPR source previously listed the LPR National Militia as the 2nd Army Corps. There is evidence that the DPR and LPR armed forces have been doing a lot of resource sharing as if they were under unified (i.e. Russia-directed) command. It seems that after DPR received a shipment of T-72s, it no longer had use for its Ukrainian captured T-64s and transferred them to the LPR National Militia. DPR armour holdings consists of around 75% T-72s, whereas in the LPR the vast majority of LPR tanks are T-64BVs.

The Ukrainian assessment suggests that the entire 7th Mechanised Brigade has been transferred to LPR command. During the recent pullbacks of heavy armour, the 7th Brigade pulled back and stored its tanks in an LPR base along with other LPR tanks. During this move, DPR’s 1st Army Corps social media cited it as still belonging to the DPR, but was in the zone of control of the LPR’s 2nd Army Corps. We should be cautious, however. These social media accounts are often operated by private volunteers, so there is a possibility that this post is simply a reflection of personal opinion or flawed information rather than fact. It is equally plausible that the DPR & LPR act as a loose coalition with individual areas of responsibility. This is not to say that the survival of the DPR and LPR do not depend on Russian support, but that I believe that their command structures are probably not formally connected to those of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

DPR armed forces have undergone significant restructuring to reach their current structure, which is not yet in its planned final state. Some artifacts of the old system still remains, most notable are the “Somali” and “Sparta” battalions, best known for their roles at Donetsk airport, which still function as separate units reporting directly to MOD. Other less notable units still remain as separate units both throughout the Army Corps and the Republican Guard (RG). This phenomenon is far more prevalent in the Army Corps as all units were made to submit to its control upon its creation. The RG was only created later and units were taken from the Army Corps and re-organized under RG command.

The RG began as a separate entity under the authority of the head of the republic, Alexander Zakharchenko. It’s likely longevity is unclear: it may be intended for absorption into 1st Army Corps because of poor military performance at Shyrokino. Some reports suggest this may have already partly happened. The flag ceremony of the RG’s “100th Brigade” revealed it to be the same type and format as units in 1st Army Corps. The flag does however still have “Republican Guard” written on it, even in a post-reform environment.
Ukraine, DPR, 100 bde flag ceremony.png

100th brigade flag ceremony September 2015

Conclusions: It is evident that the DPR leadership is attempting to boost their military capabilities and to give the appearance of a formal military structure as befitting a “state”. But assessment is difficult:

  • it is hard to glean reliable information
  • it is likely that the effort of the DPR is a fluid “work in progress”
  • access to funding and resources is probably creating a gap between capability on the ground and the theory on paper
  • the impact of Russia (its assistance, or lack of, and wider Russian strategic plans and actions) may yet distort or thwart the evolution of the military capabilities of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

Volatile Caucasus

January 20, 2016

Summary: A worrying piece from Thomas de Waal, suggesting that Azerbaijan may have a difficult time in 2016 – with political, military and economic consequences for the Caucasus as a whole.

Well established Caucasus expert, Thomas de Waal, has written an interesting piece about the poor prospects for Azerbaijan’s stability and economy this year. He suggests that a few factors threaten to come together to produce a turbulent and toxic environment, based around a possible economic crisis, due in part to developments in Iran.

Rising prices, a collapsing currency, international turbulence, and a nervous elite. Azerbaijan is starting 2016 in the middle of what looks like a perfect storm…To make matters worse for the government, this began a week ago, even before sanctions on Iran were lifted and the oil price fell below $30 a barrel. (Around three quarters of Azerbaijan’s budget revenues come from oil sales.)… The currency collapse has hurt Azerbaijan’s middle class, who have taken out dollar-denominated loans and come to rely on imported goods.

It has also hit the population at large outside the capital Baku, who saw prices on staples, such as flour, shoot up. One Azerbaijani economist warns of the risk of the massive inflation experienced recently by Ukraine, the only post-Soviet country which has experienced a comparable currency crash.

At what point do economic protests become political? It is a blurry line.

Basically he suggests long-term over-reliance on oil for income and lack of diversification can lead to discontent from a growing economic crisis when oil prices plummet, leading to political unrest, leading to clumsy government reaction unused to dealing with political dissent, leading to bloody crackdown. All the factors are threatening to come together this year – disgruntled ex-KGB chief sacked as security minister, human rights violations, a dispute with the US, its all there.

Q: What do authoritarian regimes tend to do when they have domestic unrest?
A: They create an external threat.

De Waal is particularly and rightly concerned that the protracted and unresolved conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh might flare up again.
In the longer (and broader) perspective he suggests

It is a foretaste of the trouble that Russia may soon face for very similar reasons.

Definitely one to watch.

Worth reading this brief article in full.

Afghanistan’s prospects in 2016 – frustration and stalemate

December 26, 2015

Summary: Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence. 

cropped-19thc-afghan-map-8.jpgIn 2016, Afghanistan will struggle through another year of political, military and economic turbulence. This will resemble frustrating stalemate, although President Ghani’s proactive approach to reform will generate piecemeal progressions in governance, society and the economy. Traditional and enduring problems – the insurgency, warlords, unhelpful neighbouring countries and corruption – will present significant obstacles. The government will remain dependent on international military and economic engagement, with Afghan refugees providing a stark judgement on the country’s progress.

The insurgency will continue to take on new but equally violent dimensions, ensuring civilian casualties will remain high. But the coming year will be a significant test for the Taliban. Perhaps for the first time since 2002, their position as the major insurgency force in Afghanistan will be under threat. The Taliban will be under pressure from three directions: from internationally-supported Afghan security forces; from internal power struggles and from a new rival, in the form of Islamic State (IS).

The Afghan army will suffer many casualties and is going to struggle with morale and capability. But it will remain in the field and in control of key cities and communication routes. Internally, the Taliban will continue to experience leadership credibility issues: it is debatable whether Mullah Mansour will still be leader at the end of 2016 or even if the Taliban will be recognisable as a single entity. The emergence of IS will continue to complicate matters, as disgruntled local Taliban fighters weigh old loyalties against a new and better resourced form of jihad. If the Taliban continue a process of fragmentation it could produce a more complex and unpleasant series of localised insurgencies that IS might look to capitalise on. Even by the low benchmarks of Afghanistan, genuine progress on any form of peace dialogue looks unlikely in 2016.

In terms of wildcards, the violent death of President Ghani or another prominent ethnic or government leader could cause government fragmentation and herald a return to some form of civil war. A rapid implosion of the Taliban might create a power vacuum for IS and local militias to fill. There are few positive wildcards. If the Taliban struggle to regain their former unity and find themselves squeezed by IS, it might better assist them to find common ground and foster a hastening of peace talks with the government and both sides in an uneasy alignment against IS.

RUSI conference: Military Influence

December 10, 2015

Notes from RUSI Conference: Military Influence

RUSI logoThe Royal United Services Institute hosted a one day conference on the subject of “Military Influence” in London on 29 October 2015 with a selection of speakers addressing different aspects of influence, propaganda, information operations and the media. This is a summary from the on the record part of the day’s presentations.

Opening address – Lord Howell “Power and Persuasion – The New Military Role”

At the heart of Lord Powell’s opening comments, he stressed the interwoven nature of elements commonly seen as independent disciplines. Military capability, diplomacy, capacity building and intelligence gathering are now very “blurred at the edges”. The UK government has not fully recognised this yet and has no strategy for it. But none of this is new – for over three decades it has been clear that power has been shifting and that there is a need to reconfigure defence and diplomacy. Lord Powell highlighted a House of Lords “Soft Power” Report.

Small organisations – thinking of terrorist cells – can cause destruction, including through the use of drones and technology. Look at the sheer lack of success of US foreign policy despite US military might. The battle is no longer on the battlefield – trust becomes a winning weapon.

Christopher Paul – RAND “Assessing and Evaluating Influence Activities”

Assessing IIP (Inform, Influence and Persuade) activities is a significant challenge – much ambiguity over causation, multiple stakeholders, long timeframes. Social marketing gives good insight and benchmarks – and not just on profit as the measure of success. Assessment starts in the planning – needs to be Smart (Specific, Measurable, Achievable…). Behavioural objectives are preferable to attitudinal objectives. Need a sense of what success and failure looks like. A pilot effort first is good.

Neville Bolt – “Propaganda of the Deed”

Propaganda of the Deed is an aesthetic/symbolic form of violence with a political marketing message: “violence blends kinetic action with communicative intent”. The violent act is the main tool of the terrorist groups now – pictures can be captured, copied and repeated millions of times. The intention is to energise and mobilise – the more it can be reduced to a single icon, the more flexible it becomes.

In the 19th century it was about using the weight of the state against itself, in the 21st century it is about using the weight of the media against the state. Rupert Smith (British former general, author of The Utility of Force) said that media is an inevitable feature in the battlespace. There are significant advantages to the modern image – it is unmediated, instantaneous, is faster than the response, it can seize the initiative and can multiply exponentially. The image does not exist in a vacuum – the viewer brings constructed meaning to it – a discourse environment is necessary to set the context.

Milton Friedman observed that:

“only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

Revolutionaries legitimise the past to justify what they are doing in the present. Landmarks in the historical narrative are used – eg rise of ISIS and its “Caliphate” or Russia’s historic relationship with the Crimea to justify its annexation.

The Russian General Gerasimov addressed “hybrid“or “non-linear” warfare. He saw strategic communication as a prime tool of war – it offers non-military means to achieve military objectives. In example of Russian media – for example Russia Today – there is no objectivity, only approximations of the truth with many voices – the media is flooded with thousands of conflicting ideas

Thomas Nissen – “The Weaponisation of Social Media”

The strategic context of the 21st century is of a global operations environment – an “overflow” of social media use. Citizen journalists “netizens” and 24/7 news. This presents a challenge for all actors. Remote warfare and social media warfare are causing multiple state and non-state actors are being empowered in a redistribution of power in the international system, challenging traditional notions of “battlespace”. This will increase in future conflicts. The three “Rs” of terrorism – revenge, renown and reaction – shock appeal (“Shockvertising”)

Stefan Halper – “Chinese Information Warfare”

The Chinese government still very much adhere to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”…

“to subdue the enemy without fighting is the very acme of skill”

From a Chinese perspective, kinetic weapons “are proving essentially unusable”, leaving three preferred types of warfare:

o Intimidation/psychological
o Media
o “Lawfare”

Warfare in the 21st century is shaped by the idea that whose story wins may be more important than whose army wins. This may involve longer timeframes and different criteria.

• Psychological warfare – to influence and disrupt the enemy’s decision-making process. This makes extensive use of diplomacy, the press, false narratives, economic pressure, use of the markets and business companies
• Media (public opinion) – Use of films, TV, books, internet, etc. The Chinese media is used by the PLA against home opinion and targeted nations
• Legal/lawfare – A prominent role – conjuring up false laws to bolster claims to territory – bogus maps, distortion of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, domestic legislation, legal pronouncements that are made ad hoc without real validity

The South China Sea dispute is an example – manipulation of UNCLOS, freedom of navigation is being challenged

Dina Matar – “ISIS”

Islamic State and Hezbollah are using communications to reach out and it is important to pay careful attention to what is being said – not just when and how, but also the historical, social and political context. IS have a political communications strategy. ISIS and Hezbollah both represent themselves as an oppressed group, but Hezbollah is using traditional media and IS is using social media. IS actively use women for propaganda as they know it attracts the attention of the West. The same principle applies with on-line executions.

IS is very specific about what it promotes and how – each district under its control has its own twitter account and is used to promote the stories regarding the number of schools it is completing, advertising the services it is providing for Muslims, etc. The language IS uses contains elements of truth. It declares journalists as the enemy and controls the flow of information, including through its own professional propaganda techniques. It has a media centre “Life”, with a similar logo to Al Jazeera. IS desires to control the narrative, through information centres and its magazine which produces a romanticised image of IS life.

Igor Sutyagin – “Russian Information Warfare”

Russian information operations (IO) are “not ambiguous and not that new…”. There are three core principles:

o Voice one opinion – ignore or minimise alternative opinions
o Do not be afraid of losing connection with reality
o Subject the audience to a massive volume of information

The Russian approach is close to George Orwell’s “1984”- the meanings of words are changed – in the Ukraine, “fascists” are those who fight against a kleptocratic government. The population loses the ability to critically confront information. MH-17 disinformation created a “complete mess in the brains”
In Russia, pension funds are being confiscated by the government: the Russian propaganda system responds by equipping protest rallies with banners that declare “Obama, hands off our pensions”as a means of subverting and distorting. Key tactics are to ridicule the opponent (eg the Syrian opposition).

A propaganda attempt in eastern Ukraine was to plant a Polish rocket launcher in the battle area as “proof” of Western involvement. The West needs to take this Russian approach seriously – if it is a war, take it seriously – and regain its knowledge of Russia.

How do you confront Russia IO? The West should not reply in kind, this is dangerous, as Russia hopes to pull the West down to their level. Although Russia learns from its mistakes and adapts it is still making errors – over MH-17, Russia still insists a Ukrainian aircraft shot down MH-17 and presents faked satellite images. In some areas this does not matter for Russia – the “uncontested area” is the home media environment, where the Russian population do not challenge information

Richard Dobbs – “Future Opportunities”

There is a problem relying on intuition when assessing the world’s future – it can often be wrong. There are four major disruptive forces at work globally requiring us to reset our intuition and reconsider:

o Technology: speed and scale is accelerating
o Emerging markets/urbanisation: the UK double its GDP in the 150 years following the industrial revolution. China doubled its GDP in 10 years
o Aging population: China will have 150m fewer workers, Russia will have 38m fewer. This will lead to much lower growth rates
o The connectivity of things: trade, money, urbanisation, migration. The recent shocks in the Middle East have a much greater impact – 1m migrants into Europe, Greek debt defaults…

Inequality has so far been not too much of a problem – 95% of the world’s population are growing up richer than their parents. But soon we will see a group of people who are not advancing. The comfort of the old systems will disappear – there will be a rise of new political parties – they will be non-traditional, not necessarily of the left or right but “different”. Can they appeal to the “non-advancers”? This applies, eg, to ISIS – they are offering a new system.

The role of the company/corporation is also changing – more from emerging markets and small to medium organisations becoming more competitive.
There are implications for leadership: the change is coming, need to spend more time looking beyond your own national issues and be more externally focused, learning new ways of responding and how to view the world. The change cannot be stopped or denied…

Vaughan Smith (journalist) – “Future Opportunities”

West also does “smear campaigns” – it is not just the Russians. As a journalist it is also distressing to hear about the vulnerabilities of the press and how it can be subverted. Not much money is spent on critical journalism. VS has created a Frontline Freelance Register for freelance journalists who “fill the gap”. The quality of freelancers is very variable. It is dangerous to lie: “the truth builds trust, little else does”. There is a dilemma in fooling the public
Journalism is changing – it is becoming more diverse, harder to control. Many new journalists are not very good. There is an inevitability that truth has to suffer – but if you get it wrong it will catch up on you and erode trust. It is hard to deal with a “firehose” of information – the West should not use the same tactics as Russia – Russia Today is good at explaining Western flaws – need more journalism based on truth and trust

Taliban leader Mansour reported dead in intra-Taliban shootout

December 4, 2015

Summary: Taliban leader Mullah Mansour is reportedly killed or wounded in a shootout during a Taliban leadership meeting in Pakistan.  Never mind the media, the Taliban themselves are a confused mix of confirmations and denials of the report.  If true, this points to a likely fragmentation of the Taliban.  Islamic State in Afghanistan may benefit as Taliban fighters choose a new and hgher profile jihadist brand

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, Taliban militants' new leader, is seen in this undated handout photograph

Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, reported killed in a shootout at a Taliban leadership meeting in Quetta

A lot of confused media and social media reporting to sort through, with the main thrust being that the current leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, has been killed in a shootout during a meeting of Taliban leaders in Quetta, Pakistan on Tuesday. The New York Times carries some useful detail on the story. Some Taliban members have claimed Mansour has been killed, others that he has been wounded and yet others that he is alive and was nowhere near the area of the alleged incident.

This is major news, probably overshadowed by bombing campaigns against Islamic State in Syria.  Mullah Mansour was the previous Taliban chief, Mullah Omar’s right-hand man. Earlier this year, the Taliban leadership revealed that Omar had died of poor health in 2013. Mansour is believed to have masterminded the concealment of Omar’s demise and manipulated his closeness to Omar in order to ensure he replaced him. Mansour’s appointment as Amir ul Momineem (“Leader of the Faithful”) was highly controversial within the Taliban. Many refused to recognise him and there have been reported armed stand-offs between rival groups of supporters. A breakaway group loyal to Mullah Dadullah (himself reportedly killed by another Taliban group that were possibly loyal to Mullah Mansour) have announced that Mansour had died of wounds during the Quetta shootout.

It is a complex set of reports and counter-reports and we should not rule out a garbled report, or even a malicious attempt to destabilise the Taliban by some form of intelligence agency. But from the spread of information sources, to me it still looks very plausible that Mansour is now out of the game. To have to announce the death of one leader is bad luck for an insurgency, but to have to announce two in the same year is starting to look likely carelessness. The Taliban website is in a state of unsophisticated denial, denouncement and deflection:

Taliban website, 3 December 2015: “Today once again Pajhwok and other media outlets fraudulently misused the name of the former Minister of Information and Culture of the Islamic Emirate, the respected Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqqi, to falsely claim that Mr. Mansur Sahib has been injured and even killed.

We consider this the failed attempts of intelligence agencies who want to confuse the ordinary people with such fabricated reports despite repeated denials by us.

We encourage media outlets to consider their reputations and be very careful when releasing reports about such sensitive matters. Do not become part of the wider malicious intelligence plans with the publication of such reports.

Amir Khan Muttaqqi has not been in contact with any media outlet over the course of the past 14 years and neither are rumors about injury of Mr. Mansur Sahib true.”

The Taliban used to impress many in the international community for the capability of their media machine. This was mainly because the Taliban used the internet and Twitter and could therefore say lots of things very quickly. This was particularly handy if they wanted, for example, to claim a bomb attack or assassination. But the content is routinely quite weak. Their credibility will not look good if, fresh from two years of publishing Mullah Omar’s statements after he has died, they categorically deny Mansour is dead but fail to produce him in any convincing way.

If Mansour is dead or incapacitated this will pose major problems of capability, credibility and future direction for the Taliban. They will struggle to find a figurehead to replace Mullah Omar. Efforts to re-engage in peace dialogue between the Afghan government and the insurgents will, once again, go on the back burner. We may see a fragmentation of the Taliban, with rival groups operating in their own local areas and vying for support and resources. Internal fighting is likely to intensify. This might provide a boost in recruitment for Islamic State, who have been slowly increasing their presence and reach inside Afghanistan, offering funds, resources and a more energised jihadi brand to disgruntled Taliban. The security situation in Afghanistan just became more messy and complex.

What is Islamic State?

November 19, 2015

Summary: Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate” across the Mediterranean Basin, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia.  Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of convictions.  Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed.  Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse” and the end of the world.

Islamic State (IS) is an extreme military, political and religious organisation, with its origins in an Iraqi-based Al Qaeda movement and aspirations to create its own state, or “Caliphate”.  It is also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) or Daesh (the Arabic equivalent of ISIL).

November 2015: Paris Attacks article here

March 2015: ISIS in Afghanistan article here

March 2015: US bombing campaign against ISIS article here

March 2015: ISIS Five Year Plan article here

January 2015: ISIS emerging in Afghanistan article here

October 2014: ISIS and propaganda article here

ISIS logo

The brand

Its motivations are underpinned by very specific interpretations of Islamic history, the Koran and the teachings of Mohammed. Islamic State seeks to carve its own territories out of the Iraq and Syria and aspires, ultimately, to extend these conquests much further, into North Africa, Southern Europe, the Greater Middle East and Central Asia. These territories are described by IS as the “Caliphate”, a deliberate reference to historic Islamic conquests.

Map ISIS expansionism

The aspiration

If its writings and statements are correctly understood, IS wants to create specific religious prophecies: to engineer or provoke a large military confrontation in the Middle East with non-believers (including Western infidels and Muslims of different persuasions). Ultimately, IS appears to wish to bring about the “apocalypse”, whatever this actually means, and to bring about the end of the world.

 

Al Qaeda 2.0?  New generation jihadis

Islamic State is no simple terrorist organisation, but an unprecedented hybrid of extreme religious, political, governmental, legal and military convictions. There are parallels with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, in terms of religious perspective. It is currently engaged in ground combat, with thousands of fighters under its control, for control and control and consolidation of Iraq and Syria as a stepping stone to further military conquests. Unlike Al Qaeda, which remains a series of franchised terrorist groups, IS is already in the process of setting itself up with a full and recognisable state structure: an economy, a currency, a legal system, social, educational and medical services. Some Islamist terrorist organisations in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are choosing to declare loyalty to IS – perhaps recognising the power and momentum IS has achieved in a relatively short period of time.

IS progress in Syria and Iraq, March 2015

Islamic State is hard to penetrate and to understand: journalists, politicians, NGOs, diplomats are all at extreme risk of death if they engage directly with IS. Even something simple as how to describe the organisation (IS? ISIS? ISIL? Daesh?).  The world struggles to understand what IS is, what its appeal is and what it really wants (and therefore how to deal with it).  At least Russia and President Putin are playing on the same chessboard as the West with the same broadly recognisable rulebook.  Will there ever be the equivalent of IS ambassadors or diplomats, with whom discussion and negotiation could take place?

With its rigid interpretation of Islam – rejected by millions of fellow Muslims – and its excessive willingness to employ butal and indiscriminate violence, torture and terror, it does not seek dialogue or compromise.  While IS continues to exist and even occasionally thrive in the ungoverned spaces of Syria and Iraq, attacks such as in Paris in November 2015 – and worse – look likely to continue.

Further reading:
Graeme Wood, March 2015 – What ISIS really wants

Islamic State attacks Paris

November 14, 2015

Summary: The terror attacks in Paris were almost certainly conducted by Islamic State and killed or wounded nearly 500 civilians. It seems possible that some of the attackers came to Europe as recent refugees through Greece. A backlash against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers looks inevitable. The incident may not yet be over: suspects on the run and “sleeper” attackers may contribute to further violent acts in the days to come. The attack could have been worse: a terrorist group with light mortars or RPGs, dug-in and prepared to fight from defensive positions, could bring a modern city to a standstill for days, not hours.

No easy solution: troops on the streets can be counter-productive and unsustainable

Thus far it appears that the well-coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris last night have killed nearly 130 and wounded around 350 innocent civilians. The assault has been claimed by Islamic State and there seem to be no reasons to dispute this claim. These were well-timed assaults by a handful of seemingly highly trained and motivated individuals armed only with small arms and suicide vests.

French President, Francois Hollande, has declared the attacks an “act of war” by Islamic State although prosecuting such an asymmetric conflict as a “war” is, from the historic experience of many European nations, generally complex, painful, unrewarding and long-drawn out. Terrorist groups operating in urban areas employing atrocity and fear as their main weapons of choice are extremely difficult to eradicate unless some form of political shift takes place. Islamic State does not appear to function as a “traditional” terrorist group in this respect.

Options for Mr Hollande and Europe as a whole are uninviting: increasing the bombing of distant IS desert bases and flooding the streets of Paris (or London, Brussels, Stockholm, Madrid…) with police, gendarmeries or even soldiers on high alert are both counter-productive and unsustainable.  It should therefore come as no surprise that these weapons and tactics are highly favoured by Islamic State (IS), Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Taliban. The action resembled nothing less than the “complex” attacks frequently conducted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. They can bring cities to a standstill. But it could get a lot worse. The difference between Taliban complex attacks and the one that hit Paris last night is the preference on several occasions for the Taliban to attempt to “dig in” to a building and force the security forces to fight to get them out. In this approach they create or scout out suitable buildings as defensible positions. They then either fortifying them in advance or bringing additional supplies of food, water and ammunition with them into the building once the fighting starts. The aim is to continue the fight for as long as possible – every hour of resistance creates more terror, more TV and social media coverage and more propaganda.

The attack may not yet be over: intelligence leads are taking security forces to Belgium attempting to trace suspects. IS seem to claim they despatched eight suicide vests and only seven have thus far been accounted for. It is certainly not impossible that other attacks may emerge, either as a result of the hunt for perpetrators and facilitators on the run or even from new attackers waiting to build on the chaos and confusion in a “double blow”.

I sat in the ISAF headquarters for 24 hours over two days in September in 2011 under Taliban attack. A 12-storey building site with a good view and line of site to ISAF and the US Embassy had been reconnoitred and prepared in advance as a fighting position. There were only five or six fighters with small arms. But their trump card was an 82mm ex-Soviet recoilless rifle, which operates more or less like a light artillery piece in that you point it directly at the target. It was not particularly accurate in untrained hands. But a city in which there is the continual crack and crump of gunfire over a period of hours – or even days – is a strong propaganda victory for asymmetric attackers. It was the case in Kabul, which has a certain weary expectancy of these things. But the impact of such an event in a modern Western European city, if small terrorist groups have the capability to project shells over distance – RPGs, recoilless rifles (as the Taliban used in the 13th September attack) or light mortars – would be a devastating escalation of terror. If a financial district or transport and communications centres (think railway stations or airports) could be brought under even just sporadic shellfire over hours or days, large parts of the city would close and the authorities would be rushed in to assaulting buildings that the terrorists groups had already prepared for defence – casualties could be very high. This approach is certainly something that should be worried over by Western security and intelligence groups – if IS had had a couple of small mortars, an RPG and a slightly different plan, the fight in Paris could still have be ongoing tonight.

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours - storming it was costly and difficult

The Taliban were able to defend this building for hours – storming it was costly and difficult

Looking wider, inevitably we should expect and fear a backlash against Muslim communities and refugee/asylum groups. Reports from Paris point to at least two of the attackers having had passports that had been processed by the Greek authorities as refugees or migrants in the last few months. It is likely that much intelligence work will be trained on this angle in the coming months.

I note now that the Swedish police are now boarding trains to check IDs in an attempt to identify refugees and migrants. This was before the news from Paris. But a largely unregulated flow of migrants has been on my mind for some time as a possible route for terrorist groups to infiltrate (or re-infiltrate, in the case of some) into Europe. It is likely that border controls will be further tightened on and within the perimeters of Europe. It is also likely that this initiative is largely too late. Furthermore, “self-radicalisation” of young men in Muslim communities will likely carry on, regardless.

Kiev and hybrid war…

November 10, 2015

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One of my favoured excuses for failing to produce blog articles regularly is that I am not in the comfort of my office.  I am actually in Kiev at the moment trying to better understand “hybrid warfare” (aka ambiguous warfare, new generation warfare, etc, etc).  I shall report in once I have absorbed sights, sounds and ideas…

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