Blowback’s a bitch: MH17 and the east Ukraine campaign’s long-term costs for Russia

MH17Policy makers, especially policy makers who have never seen action, are often seduced by covert operations. They see them as the perfect policy instrument: cheap, deniable, effective. Yes, there can be tremendously effective covert or at least non-conventional operations and campaigns, but just as all intelligence operations must come to terms with the fundamental truth that nothing is guaranteed to stay secret for ever, so too these sneaky campaigns can very easily either fail or, even more likely, have unexpected consequences that may overshadow the intended outcome. After all, while Al-Qaeda and the rise of Osama Bin Laden cannot entirely be charted back to the US campaign to support Islamist rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan–had the social, political and intellectual climate not been ready for the message of jihad then they would have remained on the fringes–nonetheless there is a strong connection.

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Modern Counter-Terrorism in Sochi: more like counter-espionage

syromolotov

Gen. Syromolotov. I am charmed that his surname means “Cheese Hammers.”

Much has been made of the fact that Sochi Olympic security was put under the overall operational command of Oleg Vladimirovich Syromolotov, deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and head of its Counter-Espionage Service (SKR), rather than a counter-terrorism specialist. Somehow, this has been taken to be a mistake or else a sign of some kind of retrograde thinking, that Moscow really thinks the threat to Sochi comes from foreign espionage agencies or even that it wants primarily to use the Games for its own nefarious purposes. Let me disagree.

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It’s not just about terrorism: “The Other Sochi Security Stories”

Bloomberg-SochiTerror threats, exploding toothpaste, siamese toilets and dog-hunting death squads not enough for you? It’s worth noting that the security-oriented implications of the Sochi Games stretch rather further, and range from ecological challenges to the near-certainty that intrusive new electronic security measures will end up being deployed against anti-government activists in Moscow and beyond.

Here’s something I’ve just had published by the International Security Network (ISN) at EthZ:

Global TV news coverage of the buildup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi has been dominated by terrorism, footage of the Volgograd station and trolley-bus suicide bombs, breathless and often alarmist speculation as to the likelihood of attacks, the safety of athletes and spectators. These are legitimate concerns given that the Games are being held only a few hundred kilometers from the North Caucasus, a region still torn by nationalist and jihadist insurgency and terrorism. Then there’s the Islamists’ open determination to disrupt an event into which President Putin has placed so much political capital. No public event can ever be wholly secured and Sochi is no exception. It is certainly possible that there could be some kind of attack, even if just to the outer perimeter of the much-vaunted “ring of steel” around the security zone. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the Russian operation—25,000 police, up to 20,000 regular military and Interior Ministry troops, drones, divers and the full panoply of modern security—means that the risk is as minimal as is reasonably possible.

On the other hand, watch the news in Russia and the Winter Olympic narrative is a triumphalist tale of plucky athletes and their gilt dreams, sparkling facilities being opened and glitzy Sochi-themed adverts. Of course, the terrorist attacks were covered, but there is a determined resistance to letting them overshadow the event. Indeed, when Western concerns are noted, it is, if anything, with a not-unjustified irritation about the alarmist tone of many of the reports about what they would rather portray as “merry sporting events.”

Both of these narratives, though, ignore a range of other security-related issues raised or demonstrated by the Games.

Read the article here.

Не только о терроризме: “Другые Вопросы безопасности Сочи”

The “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, the rise of Russian jihad, and a mix of crime and terrorism

Not really about Sochi, for a change. I’ve just published a piece in Russia! about the emerging threat of Islamic extremist and terrorist groups in parts of the country outside the North Caucasus — and the recruitment of Slavic Russian converts into a new (if still very rare) kind of jihadist terrorism.

Of late I’ve felt I ought to be on retainer from the Sochi Olympic administration, given the effort I’ve been putting into trying to address some of the more lurid and hysterical accounts of the “terrorist threat.” For the record, my view is that Sochi is, thanks to the massive security operation, as safe as such an event going to be, in such a location, facing a near(ish)-by jihadist insurgency. That is not to say that Russia is safe from terrorism, by any means, as the events as Volgograd and Pyatigorsk have shown; indeed, I’d be surprised if the next month didn’t see some kind of incident(s) outside the North Caucasus themselves (where they are, sadly, a regular occurrence). One of the more alarming long-term trends is the apparent rise of jihadism outside the North Caucasus, among both the scattered Caucasus and Central Asian communities of Russia but also—doubly alarming for a security apparatus all-too-often dependent on clumsy racial profiling—amongst ethnic Russian converts.

Read the rest here. (And in case you’re wondering about the crime angle, a group currently on trial, the so-called “Novosibirsk Jamaat”, staged armed robberies to raise funds for the insurgency.)

“Новосибирск Джамаат», рост российского джихада, и сочетание преступностью и терроризмом

Sochi, “Black Widows” and Double Standards

140120182228-russia-black-widow-grab-story-topApparently the police inside the Sochi security zone are hunting one Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova,  widow of a member of a North Caucasus insurgent. Indeed, according to some accounts she is only one of 4 such female terrorists there. Cue, first of all, the “black widow” meme: apparently, being the widow of an insurgent instantly makes a suicide bomber out of you. Almost every bombing in Russia seems to be attributed to such a “black widow” at first, even if such claims are often dropped. But I’m more exercised by the media flurry that followed the news. I get it: news media want splashy stories, and “Russians hunting suicide bomber in Sochi as countdown to Games tick down” has a pleasingly 24esque vibe and also provides the usual opportunity to question the competence of the Russian security measures and, for some US sources, a chance to talk up the need for some kind of contingency emergency evacuation plan for their athletes. But…

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“Keep Calm and Carry On”

Russian Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanCould there be a more quintessentially English meme? Anyway, I just wanted to flag up a piece of mine under this title in Russia! magazine, which hopes that the Russian state and people hold their nerve and don’t over-react to the recent terrorist attacks.

At least for the moment, the Volgograd and Pyatigorsk explosions have managed to shape the Sochi narrative, at least for the international media. Debates as to whether the Winter Olympics will be dangerous for athletes and spectators overshadow any sporting considerations. (Apparently the US team have engaged a US private security company to extricate them if need be; I wonder how Americans would react if the running shoe were on the other foot and Russian athletes wanted Spetsnaz commandos on call…) The Kremlin has every reason to be peeved, but it would be best served by remaining calm and avoiding the temptation to change policy in response to every reversal. After all, it needs to remember four key points:

Read the rest here.

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