Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar steps down

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Saudi spy chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been relieved of his duties at his request, the official Saudi Press Agency reported Tuesday.

“A royal order announced here today that Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz was relieved of his post as Chief of General Intelligence upon his request and that General Staff Yousif bin Ali Al-Idreesi was assigned to act as Chief of General Intelligence,” the Saudi Press Agency wrote, adding the shuffle is to take effect immediately.

Bandar’s acting successor, Gen. Al-Idressi, has been serving as Saudi Arabia’s deputy intelligence chief.

No explanation was provided for the move, which came after Bandar had reportedly been recovering from shoulder surgery in the US and Morocco in recent months.

“It’s the first authoritative news we have had on Bandar for months but is infuriatingly incomplete,” Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “The big question is ‘why?’ rapidly followed by ‘what does it mean?’”

Saudi expert David Ottaway told the Wall Street Journal the move could be understood as part of a wider shift in recent months in which the Saudi leadership had found Bandar’s Syria strategy had over promised and under delivered, the paper said.
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Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

Report: UN to blacklist Syria’s Al-Nusra Front

The United Nations Security Council is expected to formally designate the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group next week, Agence-France Press reported Friday, amid intensified efforts to rally international consensus on a plan to halt Syria”s civil war.

The designation, expected to be finalized by the Security Council al-Qaeda sanctions committee on Tuesday, would make the group subject to a global asset freeze, the AFP report said.

The move, supported by France and Britain, comes days after the United States and Russia agreed to try to convene a Syria peace conference. The conference, expected to take place in Geneva as early as the end of this month, aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and opposition together to try to negotiate the creation of a transition body.

The United States designated Al–Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in December.

Late last year, US intelligence officials encouraged moderate Syrian rebel forces at a meeting in Jordan to target Al-Nusra Front even at the cost of setbacks in their fight against Assad’s forces, Phil Sands reported in The National this week.

(Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo December 24, 2012. REUTERS.)

Yemeni’s testimony on US drones strikes chord in Washington


Last week, Farea al-Muslimi, a US educated Yemeni youth activist and writer, wrote about what it was like to have his village attacked by US drones, on his Twitter account @almuslimi and at Al-Monitor.

Today, after al-Muslimi’s powerful testimony before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday about the experience, the White House invited al-Muslimi to talk with them too, Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reports:

Before he leaves Washington D.C. on Friday, al-Muslimi will meet with White House officials to tell them what he told a Senate subcommittee yesterday: CIA and military drone strikes are strengthening al-Qaida’s Yemeni affiliate and making average Yemenis hate America.

“He will meet with a working-level expert on Yemen policy,” a White House official confirms, declining to provide the name of the official or the time of the meeting. […]

Still, it’s a dramatic change from the last time al-Muslimi, a Sana’a-based freelance writer on public policy, came to Washington. In September…al-Muslimi trudged from one drab policymaker’s office to another…while his interlocutors grew uncomfortable when he wanted to talk about the human costs of the drones.

At the Senate hearing Tuesday, al-Muslimi warmed up the room by saying he’d spent some of the happiest years of his life attending high school as an exchange student in California, and considered himself upon his return as a kind of US “ambassador” to Yemen. So our ambassador was upset and horrified, he said, when, sitting at a dinner with American diplomat friends in the capital Sanaa last week April 15th, he started getting calls and texts from people in his remote village of Wessab, a nine-hour drive away. A missile from a US drone had killed a man who village residents told him they had no idea would be a US target, and who could have been easily arrested without endangering the lives of innocent bystanders.

“Just six days ago, this so-called war came straight to my village,” al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil and Human Rights Tuesday.

“For almost all of the people in Wessab, I’m the only person with any connection to the United States,” al-Muslimi explained. “They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: ‘Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?'”

America’s policy of remote, targeted killings is causing psychological terror and anger that is turning people in his village and country against the United Sates, our ambassador to Wessab warned.

The Obama White House did not send an official to testify on the panel, which was chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. However, another witness who had been active in the Obama administration’s first term national security debates, former Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, did attend, and went to shake al-Muslimi’s hand at the conclusion of the hearing, Ackerman reported.

And in the wake of his testimony, al-Muslimi is being sought by the US media for interviews, following stories on his testimony in the New York Times, Wired, etc. (Apparently deluged with the requests, al-Muslimi on Wednesday tweeted out the email address of a US media handler.) He’ll appear on NBC’s All In with Chris Hayes Wednesday night.

“The US needs to hear someone who looks like him and sounds like him and has his background say what he is saying,” Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But I am not terribly optimistic that it will make much difference,” Johnsen added. “I hope I’m wrong.”

Why is al-Muslimi’s reception in Washington this time so much more resonant than the gloomy trip he described to Ackerman last fall?

It’s hard to know. Certainly Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s Senate filibuster put the issue of the White House’s secretive drone policy on a wider public radar. Perhaps at some level too, some here may be wearily mulling, in the aftermath of the bombing of the Boston Marathon (on the same day as the drone strike in al-Muslimi’s village), the perplexing identity of the suspects in the senseless terrorist attack–two brothers of Chechen descent who had been in the US for a decade. For whatever reason, at the moment anyhow, Washington seems newly ready to at least listen to what an articulate, ostensibly US-friendly person on the other geographical end of US drone strikes has to say, and to ponder whether they are the high-tech, low-hassle solution for counterterrorism without boots on the ground, or contributing to the radicalization of a new generation of terrorists we may yet face. Ambassador al-Muslimi seems to have nudged the debate, if only he could offer the White House a better alternative.

Gunmen kill top Yemeni security officer employed by US Embassy

A top Yemeni security official with the US Embassy in Sanaa was killed Thursday by a gunman on a motorbike, in an attack the State Department said appeared to target him.

Qassim M. Aklan, a Yemeni national, served as head of the Foreign Service national investigative unit within the larger Regional Security Office shop at the US Embassy in Sanaa, where he had worked for eleven years, the State Department said Thursday.

Mr. Aklan “was a dedicated professional who will be greatly missed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Thursday. “We condemn this vicious act in the strongest terms possible and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.”

In his capacity as head of the Yemeni security staff working at the US Embassy Sanaa, Aklan was “responsible for routine personnel checks,” Nuland said. “He was our liaison on security matters to local authorities.”

Aklan “was not in the Embassy at the time of his killing,” but “off duty….and out with a family member when he was killed,” Nuland said.

The US is in close contact with Yemeni authorities who are investigating the incident, Nuland said.

Reports from Yemen hypothesized that Aklan was targeted by al Qaeda.

Appeals for more security help in Libya frustrated, agents tell House panel

Two American diplomatic security agents told a House panel Wednesday of their frustrated attempts to get the State Department to assign more security agents to protect diplomats in Libya.

House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) presided at the often contentious, four hour hearing investigating the attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three US diplomatic personnel in Libya last month. Several of the panel’s GOP members insisted US officials should have known immediately that the Sept. 11 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and not the result of spontaneous protests over a 15 minute anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

Were initial Obama administration statements that suggested the Benghazi attack was connected to protests over the video the result “of negligence … or something more nefarious?” asked South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy.

The committee also sought to probe why State Department diplomatic security officer Charlene Lamb allegedly discouraged requests from two security agents on the ground for more armed American security agents to be posted to Libya amid a deteriorating security situation that led the British to close their Benghazi mission. But it wasn’t always clear the congress members were so interested to hear the witnesses’ answers in favor of delivering their talking points.

At one point, for instance, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), even scolded one of the Republicans’ star witness for not agreeing with him that the Libyan militia suspected in the attack was affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“Just say it is a terrorist group,” Burton cut off the witness, Col. Andrew Wood, after the Utah national guardsman formerly posted to Libya described the militia, Ansar al-Sharia, as being aligned with the Libyan government. “The Libyan government doesn’t consider them a terrorist group,” Wood said.

Wood and former US Regional Security Officer for Libya Eric Nordstrom repeatedly conveyed their frustration at their sense that State Department bureaucrats were fighting their efforts to keep a team of 16 armed US security officers in Libya.

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Former Mossad chief: “Better to wait” before accusing Iran in Bulgaria bus bombing

Former Israeli intelligence chief Danny Yatom said Thursday that while it’s logical to assume that Hezbollah or Iran were behind the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, assigning culpability should probably have waited until the evidence is solid.

“Usually it takes some time to locate those who were behind the bombing, and those who sent them,” the former Mossad chief told journalists on a call organized by The Israel Project Thursday.

“From the modus operandi used by some organizations, it’s logical to assume that Iran or Hezbollah or Hezbollah and/or Iran were behind this terror attack,” Yatom said. “As long as we don’t have solid information about it, it’s better to wait.”

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday of the attack on the bus of Israeli tourists at Bourgas airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, in which seven people, including five Israeli tourists and two Bulgarians, were killed, and 30 injured. “In the past months we saw Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Kenya and Cyprus. This is an Iranian terror offensive that is spreading throughout the world.”

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday released a video of the man suspected of being the bus bomber, and said that he was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license. ABC News obtained a photo of the suspect’s fake Michigan driver’s license, which identifies the man as Jacque Felipe Martin, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born in 1987.

US intelligence assesses that the suspect was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official. Continue reading

Former Syria envoy: Al-Qaeda working with Syrian security forces


Nawaf Fares, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq who defected last week, has told the Sunday Telegraph that recent bombings in Syria attributed to al-Qaeda were carried out with the cooperation of Syrian security forces:

“All these major explosions have been have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces,” he said. …

“Al-Qaeda would not carry out activities without knowledge of the regime,” he told the Sunday Telegraph’s Ruth Sherlock, in an interview July 13th. “The Syrian government would like to use al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West – to say: ‘it is either them or us’.” […]

Fares’ position, first as a provincial governor, and then, since 2008, as Syria’s first envoy to Iraq in 26 years, would seem to have given him a unique vantage point for the claims. The US-led coalition forces in Iraq long asserted that Syria was actively facilitating the travel to Iraq of al-Qaeda linked militants through its territory. Continue reading