Reporting & Analysis
National Security Roundup
Posted on: Wednesday 7/2/2014 4:51pm
Posted on: Tuesday 6/17/2014 5:29pm
Posted on: Tuesday 6/10/2014 1:31pm
WASHINGTON -- Five American troops were killed Monday during what the Pentagon is calling "a security operation in southern Afghanistan."
They died in what the Pentagon fears was fratricide.
The troops were part of a U.S./Afghan team conducting a joint patrol in the Arghandab district of Zabul province, in advance of Saturday's presidential runoff voting.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement, "Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen."
Military authorities have yet to confirm it, but it's widely believed they were killed by weapons fired from an aircraft providing close air support. That aircraft was called in after the team was attacked by Taliban forces as they prepared to leave the area by helicopter.
Zabul province has long been a thorn in the side of U.S. and international military forces.
In 2009, concerned about the possibility of friendly fire incidents, the Department of Defense sent an urgent shipment of laptop computers and other electronic equipment to Zabul province and other locations in Afghanistan to prevent friendly fire.
The shipment was part of the FalconView mapping system developed for the U.S. Air Force to support Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). Their job is to call in airstrikes.
In the heat of battle during the 13 years the U.S. military has been at war in Afghanistan, JTACs have called in many such airstrikes, some allegedly resulting in the deaths of U.S. troops.
In addition to air strikes, FalconView, was designed to help avoid incidents of friendly fire among ground forces, as was the case with Pat Tillman, NFL star turned Army Ranger, who was killed on April 22, 2004, while on patrol.
FalconView is a Windows-based, geo-spatial mapping software system created by the Georgia Tech Research Institute for the Department of Defense. It displays aeronautical charts, satellite images and elevation maps. It was targeted toward military mission planning users and oriented towards aviators and aviation support personnel.
It is believed that system is still being used by the U.S. military. The Air Force referred WTOP to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) for answers to questions about which system was being used at the time of the incident.
CENTCOM is investigating.
Monday's incident in Zabul is reflective of U.S. defense officials' concern about the persistence of the Taliban in the region and the evolving knowledge base of terror groups in Afghanistan.
The province, located in southeastern Afghanistan, next door to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, has been the scene of frequent violent attacks by the Taliban and other misfortunes for international military forces.
Including Monday's casualties; it's estimated, based on unofficial, open source information that 112 U.S. deaths have occurred in Zabul since November of 2001.
Only Helmand (452), Kandahar (368), Kunar (170), Paktika (134) and Wardak (115) provinces have more. There have been more than 2,100 U.S. casualties in all of Afghanistan during the war.
The last recorded casualties were on December 17, 2013, when a U.S. military helicopter crashed in Zabul killing six of those on board. The chopper came down after engine failure.
As U.S. combat troops prepare to exit Afghanistan later this year, U.S. government officials express hope that peace might be a dividend of America's longest war.
But Monday's attack in Zabul, has revived the concern that the Taliban, which once governed Afghanistan with ruthless impunity, is not ready to make peace with the idea of sharing power with an Afghan government backed by the U.S. military.
Posted on: Thursday 5/29/2014 2:54pm
WASHINGTON - As terrorism proliferates around the world, children are increasingly victimized, not only as targets but also as pawns, like the Nigerian girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram.
"Children are vulnerable. In many cases, they're easy to get a hold of and they can't put up much of a fight against a terror organization like Boko Haram," says WTOP's National Security Correspondent J.J. Green.
Organizations like Boko Haram know that they can capture the world's attention by doing something so unthinkable and unspeakable like kidnapping 276 school girls.
Terror groups believe, as in the case of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which unfolded on national television, that dramatic and brutal attacks bring them recognition and respect in the world of jihadism.
There are many ways children can be victimized: as child soldiers, spies or messengers. And there's a long history of using civilians, including children, as human shields.
Child soldiers date back thousands of years, with historical references to children used as chariot drivers or flag bearers.
One of the problems in today's society is the relentless spread of violent images in the media, which terrorist organizations try to use to further their own goals. And children help accomplish those goals.
"Things that are posted on the web -- messaging that's posted on social media by terror organizations -- some of them are children," Green says.
Many of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan have been children. And just a few years ago, American children of Somali families living in the Midwest were leaving the U.S. to head overseas.
And as much as the focus seems to be on children overseas, it is a problem here in the United States as well. A quick Web search turns up page, after page of instances of U.S. teens involved in terror plots during the last decade.
The incredible pace and wide availability of technology makes it easier for sophisticated terror planners to seduce and recruit children - a major obstacle for U.S. anti-terror efforts trying to prevent the spread of extremist groups.
"Smartphones, computers to many kids, games, things like that, that are on these computers are some of the ways in which they get involved," says Green.
He says terrorists recognize that they can use these tools to recruit children. As the children grow up, they become radicalized.
In many countries people consider children to be taboo when it comes to terror, but not always. And other terror groups could try to copy Boko Haram's tactics.
Posted on: Tuesday 5/20/2014 5:32pm
Posted on: Monday 4/21/2014 5:13am
WASHINGTON -- To achieve its mission in a rapidly evolving world, the Central Intelligence Agency is moving to blend in.
"Even going back to the times of the Greeks and Romans, the way you get information is not to look different from the people you're trying to get information from," said Harold Tate, the deputy director of support for management and modernization at the CIA.
The CIA's mission is: "Preempt threats and further U.S. national security objectives by collecting intelligence that matters, producing objective all-source analysis, conducting effective covert action as directed by the President and safeguarding the secrets that help keep our Nation safe."
During a discussion with five minority CIA officers about the agency's diversity and inclusion record, Tate, an African-American, said, "I'm a second-generation officer. My father started working here in 1955."
That year the CIA was struggling to get the upper hand on a formidable enemy in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon had announced plans to develop ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) armed with nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the agency, created in 1947, was struggling with its national identity. It reflected what America was waking up to: A civil rights struggle that would sweep the nation and penetrate the agency as well.
In December of that year, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, sparking a national civil rights movement that would shine a harsh spotlight on racial inequality in the U.S.
The CIA had already been thinking about that.
"The landmark study back in 1953 called the Petticoat Panel, which looked at women in the CIA, was really the first historic moment when CIA thought about its workforce and what it was experiencing," said Carmen Middleton, a Latina and director of the CIA's Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion.
Middleton says that another review in 1992, called "The Glass Ceiling Study," establishes that the CIA has "this rich history in taking on important, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable questions around diversity and inclusion."
Sheronda Dorsey literally came face-to-face with one of those "uncomfortable questions" in 1989, when she began working as an imagery analyst. "They had very few minorities; they had very few women and they had very few young adults," she said.
Now, deputy director in the Office of Corporate Business, she vividly remembers a pivotal interaction early in her career.
"I actually had a senior analyst make a comment to me saying 'I should've known that you wouldn't know the answer to that question,'" Dorsey said.
That moment, Dorsey said, set the course for her career, during which she's made it a point "to make sure I was viewed based on my competence -- not my age, color of my skin or my gender."
Keeping secrets and learning the secrets of others around the world is a key part of the CIA's job, but the agency has said that in order to do that, it needs to look, think and act more like the world.
In a 2007 interview with WTOP, Ricky Jasper, an African-American who was at the time diversity plans and programs manager, said it's all about mission success.
"In order to be successful as an organization, doing the mission that we do in the area of collecting information and analyzing it, we have to have diversity of thought, culture and views," he said. "Often the targets that we have as an organization are not Americans, quite frankly, so the diversity plays into the complete operation, from establishing what the operation will look like to execution of the operation."
Cyril Sartor, director of the Office of Analysis for Africa, Latin American and Global Issues, said he's seen the benefit.
Posted on: Friday 6/21/2013 6:58pm
Posted on: Monday 4/29/2013 6:59am
WASHINGTON - The mystery of how the Boston Marathon bombing suspects may have become radicalized and proficient enough as bomb makers to launch such a devastating attack earlier this month has deepened.
"Authorities now have legitimate reason to suspect that the older brother, Tamerlan, may have been associated with a larger terror organization," says a U.S. intelligence source.
And as federal law enforcement authorities question the parents of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and detain some of their friends, new information is emerging about a tactic terrorists allegedly are using to slip into the U.S. and to travel abroad.
WTOP has learned that the U.S. asylum system is a prime target for jihadist organizations because of the international acceptance that U.S. travel documents can provide.
"I know this from a very good source that al-Qaida is sending people into this country simply to get travel documents -- American travel documents -- so they can either operate here or abroad," says Robert Baer, a former CIA covert operative.
The alleged use of asylum loopholes by terrorists to get official country documents dates back more than 20 years.
The technique "was very popular in the 1990s, mainly in the U.K. Thousands of cases took place in Europe," Noman Benotman, a former terrorist and close associate of Osama bin Laden, tells WTOP.
According to U.S. intelligence officials, the leaders of the 19-man hijacking crew that attacked U.S. targets on 9/11 were a part of "The Hamburg Cell," which was based in Germany and lived and traveled using aliases.
The Tsarnaev brothers, ethnic Chechens from Russia who came to the United States about a decade ago with their parents, were granted asylum. Tamerlan Tsarnaev used that asylum status to become a permanent resident and obtained a green card.
Investigators say they now believe Tamerlan Tsarnaev became "radicalized" sometime between 2009 and 2010. Where it happened and who may have been involved in the process are among the questions investigators are asking, sources say.
In a statement, the FBI said Russian authorities told them in 2011 "that (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country's region to join unspecified underground groups."
WTOP also has learned the Russian FSB intelligence security service provided information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- including two possible dates of birth, his name in Cyrillic letters and a possible name variant -- in late September 2011.
That information was sent to CIA headquarters in October 2011 and formally passed to the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department and the FBI to be added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) watchlisting system, according to a U.S. intelligence source.
Avoiding detection is the name of the game for terrorists seeking to get into the U.S., Baer says.
"DHS is quite concerned that people are dumping their documentation (and) coming across the border using aliases," he says. "There is a good strong suspicion, well-founded suspicion, that al-Qaida-like groups, Salafis, and militants -- whatever you want to call them -- are trying to get American permanent resident alien (APR) documents so they can travel."
Tamerlan Tsarnaev apparently had APR documents in 2012 when he went to Russia, and Benotman doubts that his movements were limited to that country.
"There's a big possibility that he went outside of Russia for training," he says.
Baer says having American travel documents would allow him to do that easily.
"You can't travel freely with, let's say, an Iraqi passport or a Syrian passport, but you can travel with American docs (SIC) anywhere in the world and they (U.S. authorities) don't know who these people are," he says.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are two ways of obtaining asylum in the U.S: the affirmative process and the defensive process. It's the affirmative process that worries many in the intelligence and law enforcement communities.
According to DHS documents, to obtain asylum through the affirmative process a person "must be physically present in the United States.
"You may apply for asylum status regardless of how you arrived in the United States or your current immigration status," the documents say.
The defensive process is mainly utilized by those trying to avoid deportation. Baer calls the U.S. asylum system "broken" and says immigration courts are rubber-stamping those seeking asylum.
"The FBI can't watch them all, but let's not blame the FBI for this," Baer says.
WTOP contacted the DHS multiple times to ask for clarity on the issue but did not receive a response. Several people in the agency all said only the DHS press office could respond.
The State Department also has not responded to a request for comment about its role in the asylum process.
Meanwhile, as authorities try to determine the degree of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's involvement, a key question is whether he was a willing participant. Benotman says he thinks Tamerlan Tsarnaev recruited his younger brother.
"I think (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) was the one that organized everything -- during his mysterious trips to Russia," he says.
Benotman, who has denounced terrorism and is now a scholar with the Quilliam Foundation in London, was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and was present in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when the 9/11 attacks were planned in 2000.
Almost 12 years after 9/11, Benotman says, "I'm really concerned that (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) managed to be active, with no one noticing this."
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Posted on: Tuesday 2/19/2013 6:24am
WASHINGTON - Matthew Olsen swung open his door shortly after 3 p.m. More than a half dozen people were waiting, with writing tools and notes in hand. Judging from their varied expressions, there was good and bad news.
The impending meeting on Feb. 11 was one of several that Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in D.C., has each day to check the climate of the counterterrorism world.
While NCTC officials did not characterize the meeting or the level of urgency it carried, it came at a crucial point in the U.S. counterterrorism timeline.
In 2008, a report from the Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism warned: "Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing. In fact, on the current trajectory, we believe it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction - probably biological rather than nuclear - will be used somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
A stream of troubling developments starting in 2012 has reminded U.S. intelligence officials that this is now 2013.
Areas of North Africa have erupted into an insurgent-controlled terrorism cluster bomb that insurgents have detonated on multiple occasions, recently killing Americans in the process. An al-Qaida influenced coup in Mali in March 2012 that has since been arrested, but not fully staunched, started the hemorrhage.
The violence continued on Sept. 11, 2012 when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, enflaming political passions that are still raging in Washington.
On Jan. 19, three Americans were killed after Islamic militants stormed work and living quarters at the Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria.
In each case, the attackers deployed sophisticated weapons, which U.S. officials believe came from Libya. But among the most notable trends is that these attacks were launched quickly.
The attack in Benghazi appeared to be the manifestation of what former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was "part of a broader strategic challenge to the United States and our partners in North Africa."
U.S. officials say Libya's fledgling central government and immense stretches of ungoverned space have allowed numerous threats to generate in the region and endanger the continent and beyond.
Thousands of weapons have disappeared from stockpiles maintained by former Libya dictator Muammar Ghadafi. U.S. and foreign intelligence officials worry that chemical or biological weapons may be among the many regularly smuggled through North Africa.
Approximately 800 government analysts and hundreds of contractors from the intelligence community at the NCTC and elsewhere, are constantly picking at bits and pieces of intelligence -- looking for trends and clues that might head off a future attack.
"Groups have in some cases adopted the core intention of al-Qaida of attacking the United States in the middle or North Africa or attacking us in the United States," says Olsen, explaining the perpetrators' tactics.
The threat from what Olsen calls the core of al-Qaida has "greatly diminished" since the killing of key leaders such as Osama bin laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, he says.
"I think today the threat is a lot more decentralized, and it is more diverse and that in fact makes it in some ways unpredictable and harder to take steps against those threats," he says.
There are many other global hot spots that concern U.S. officials. Clinton said during her Senate testimony that there are more than 20 other diplomatic facilities around the world that are at risk.
Officials at the NCTC -- the main organization in the U.S. government that analyzes intelligence related to terrorism -- work around the clock, trying to piece together useful information.
"The first thing in the morning when I get here, we have a threat briefing and that's provided by a handful of briefers who have been here since two or three in the morning," Olsen says.
He says the briefers review information flowing in, including cable traffic from around the world and open source information.
"They are able to provide for myself and the other senior leaders here situational awareness," he says.
Even with more awareness, there seems to be less time to act.
Posted on: Thursday 2/7/2013 12:19pm
AL-NUSRAH - The CIA has expressed skepticism about claims by al-Qaida-linked groups to have weapons of mass destruction. The agency says that al-Nusrah made a point of asserting publicly late last year that any messages not disseminated via its official channels or specific Web forums were fake. Several videos have surfaced in recent days showing the group with what appear to be weapons of mass destruction and claiming to have stolen them from Syria.
BRENNAN CONRFIRMATION - Thursday Feb. 7 at 2:30 p.m., the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
JAPAN/CHINA TENSION - After a Chinese vessel near the East China Sea Isles locked its radar in on a Japanese Navy ship, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is urging China not to inflame tensions in the region.
CYBER ATTACKS - There have been several major breaches of bank, media outlets and other American companies by Chinese hackers in the last few weeks. Now there are reports that Anonymous has hacked and released the "security credentials for 4,000 U.S. bank executives."
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