Tags: active defense, anti-satellite, counterspace, deterrence, Gen. James Dickinson, Gen. Jay Raymond, Gen. John Hyten, Joint Doctrine 3-14 Space Operations, offensive space weapons, RAND, space command, Space Force, Space Symposium 2021
The push to declassify an existing space weapon is being spearheaded by Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
By THERESA HITCHENS on August 20, 2021
WASHINGTON: For months, top officials at the Defense Department have been working toward declassifying the existence of a secret space weapon program and providing a real-world demonstration of its capabilities, Breaking Defense has learned.
The effort — which sources say is being championed by Gen. John Hyten, the vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff — is close enough to completion that there was a belief the anti-satellite technology might have been revealed at this year’s National Space Symposium, which kicks off next week.
However, the crisis in Afghanistan appears to have put that on hold for now. Pulling the trigger on declassifying such a sensitive technology requires concurrence of the Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, and a thumbs up from President Joe Biden, sources explain; with all arms of the national security apparatus pointed towards Kabul, that is almost certainly not going to happen next week. And until POTUS says yes, nothing is for certain, of course.
The system in question long has been cloaked in the blackest of black secrecy veils — developed as a so-called Special Access Program known only to a very few, very senior US government leaders. While exactly what capability could be unveiled is unclear, insiders say the reveal is likely to include a real-world demonstration of an active defense capability to degrade or destroy a target satellite and/or spacecraft.
At least, that is what has been on the table since last year — when officials in the Trump administration viewed revealing the technology as a capstone to the creation of Space Command and Space Force. The plan apparently had been to announce it at the 2020 Space Symposium, which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic; the arrival of the Biden administration also led to a reevaluation of moving forward with the reveal.
Expert speculation on what could be used for the demonstration ranges from a terrestrially-based mobile laser used for blinding adversary reconnaissance sats to on-board, proximity triggered radio-frequency jammers on certain military satellites, to a high-powered microwave system that can zap electronics carried on maneuverable bodyguard satellites. However, experts and former officials interviewed by Breaking Defense say it probably does not involve a ground-based kinetic interceptor, a capability the US already demonstrated in the 2008 Burnt Frost satellite shoot-down.
Requests for comment to the offices of Hyten, Haines, and SPACECOM were not returned by deadline.
Many military space leaders believe that Space Force and Space Command must publicly demonstrate to Moscow and Beijing not just an ability to take out any space-based counterspace systems they may be developing or deploying, but also to attack the satellites they, like the US, rely upon for communications, positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
Notably, the second-in-command of the Space Force recently foreshadowed movement in the long-running debate about declassification of all things related to national security space — a multifaceted and complex debate which has pitted advocates against upholders of the traditional culture of secrecy within DoD and the Intelligence Community.
“It is absolutely a true problem,” Gen. DT Thompson, deputy Space Force commander, responded to a question about over-classification during a July 28 Mitchell Institute event. “I wish we owned our own destiny in that regard, but we don’t — it’s part of a broader activity and we just have to work through that. What I will say is, I think we’re on the verge of a couple of significant steps.”
The Transparency Dilemma
In fact, Thompson’s comments represented only one of several comments, quietly dropped in speeches or interviews, from top military space officials pushing for declassification of high-end systems, following several years of a steadily intensifying drumbeat on the issue. A who’s-who list of top officers, DoD civilian leaders, and key members of Congress have for years been arguing that over-classification is harming the ability to convey the growing threat of foreign counterspace to lawmakers, the public and allied/partner nations — as well as the ability to cooperate with industry and foreign partners to mitigate those threats.
Sources say that Hyten remains the biggest proponent of a new, declassified demonstration of counterspace capabilities. (And for this reason, there is some rationale to speculate that any announcement would come before he retires in November.)
Further, Hyten, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, and Space Command Commander Gen. Jim Dickinson all have asserted that offensive space weapons are a necessary part of that deterrent.
There is also precedent for using conferences to unveil black programs. In 2014, Gen. William Shelton, the then-head of Air Force Space Command, casually unveiled the existence of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites in the middle of a presentation.
But while there is broad consensus among DoD space leadership on the need for declassification, there is fierce debate about what actually should be brought out from behind the onyx curtain of mega-secrecy (in Air Force slang, often called “The Green Door”.)” The National Reconnaissance Office, for example, has long been loath to reveal much of anything about its spy satellites — with officials even attempting to slow-roll a 2018 Hyten policy lifting restrictions on access to basic orbital data about national security satellites.
The central dilemma isn’t hard to understand, but the devil is in the details of solving it.
“We need to take a very hard look at what capabilities we keep concealed, as in our, quote, ‘ace-in-the-hole’ capabilities, if you will, that we would only use in an actual conflict to ensure we maintain the military overmatch we would need to ensure victory, without allowing the enemy to devise ways to defeat that particular capability by having advance knowledge of it,” Matt Donovan, undersecretary of the Air Force under the Trump administration, said in a July 10 Mitchell Institute podcast.
“But what we would really like to do … is prevent that conflict from happening in the first place, by convincing the enemy that they cannot win in a conflict, that the costs of entering into a conflict would be so high to them they don’t start it to begin with; that is the essence of deterrence,” said Donovan, who now heads Mitchell’s Spacepower Advantage Research Center. “So, the problem with only having ‘ace-in-the-hole’ capabilities is they do nothing for deterrence.”
There are also a number of experts who believe that whatever decisions are made, the march of technology guarantees there soon will be no possible way to keep US satellites, or actions on the ground, secret.
“My overall perspective is that a fully transparent world is coming — and no government policy is going to stop it. So, the US — like other governments who are based in the rule of law, respect privacy and protect civil liberties — should not fight that inevitable outcome,” said Robert Cardillo, who spent many years in the Intelligence Community, and recently became board chairman of Planet Federal.
Not so fast, argued another former DoD space official, because the deterrence value actually depends on exactly what kind of weapon system is being discussed.
“Did you conceive of the capability with the idea that you would reveal it? Because if you didn’t, you shouldn’t be revealing it now, or you should really think hard before revealing it,” the source said. “We need to design things that can be that can be revealed without eliminating their effectiveness, and without causing escalation. That’s Step A.”
Military leaders “always want to argue about Step C, instead of doing the intellectual exercise of Step A first,” the former DoD official added.
Another source similarly opined: “The declassification thing is a disaster. … The genesis is supposedly for deterrence — but those doing it lack basic understandings of deterrence. It’s a f***ing shitshow.”
Deterrence — It’s Complicated
To be fair to decision-makers, there have been countless studies, essays and books written about deterrence theory, including about space deterrence, and there are just as many opinions as there are authors.
There is a general consensus among Western experts that strategists and policy-makers must be careful in attempting to map space deterrence to traditional Cold War nuclear deterrence. While there are some similarities — and importantly some strong linkages between nuclear stability and the use of space — there are too many differences, not the least of which is the fact that losing a few satellites is not parallel to losing a few cities.
The second area of general consensus is that deterring adversaries from attacking US space systems (military and commercial) will depend on the adversary. China is not Russia, or even the Soviet Union. Furthermore, because of economic entanglements, US relations with China are way more complicated than they ever were with the USSR.
A third and final point of agreement: space deterrence in particular is hard, and will require an entire tool box ranging from multi-domain military capabilities, to diplomatic actions such as signaling and building international consensus about threatening activities, to economic levers such as punitive sanctions.
Choosing what tools to use when, however, is where agreement breaks down.
This is particularly true with regard to China, which up to now has not had as great a military reliance on space as the US — and more importantly does not have a strategic view shaped by Cold War superpower nuclear deterrence theory (i.e. “mutually assured destruction.”) Following Beijing’s 2007 anti-satellite (ASAT) test, there have been oodles of studies inside and outside DoD specifically on deterring China in space, many of which come to the same conclusion, if not always the same solutions: it’s hard.
For example, RAND’s recent “Tailoring Deterrence for China in Space” has snagged a lot of DoD eyeballs. It highlights the obstacles to success, and argues that DoD might need a “demonstration of capabilities (emphasis ours) that would compromise the PLA’s space systems, perhaps through enhanced U.S. cyber hacking, spoofing, jamming or other dazzling capabilities against China, but could also include kinetic options as well.” But, it warns, any such Space Force activities must be “carefully calibrated.”
A 2008 Council on Foreign Relations report, “China, Space Weapons and U.S. Security,” based on meetings of an advisory board that included active and former DoD and IC officials plus think tank experts (including this author), came to essentially the same conclusions as RAND regarding the difficulties involved. It, too, recommended deployment of offensive ASAT weapons, but limited to non-kinetic systems with reversible effects — and coupling this with robust diplomatic initiatives to set norms and/or establish a treaty to ban debris-creating ASATs.
The US military tends to focus on two distinct types of deterrence, including in the space domain: reducing the vulnerability of US capabilities (i.e. building resilience/reconstitution/passive protections) and punitive military responses via offensive strikes.
In the blurry middle between those two is “active defense.” The key Joint Publication outlining milspace operations, JP 3-14 Space Operations (updated in October 2020), defines active and passive “space defense” (not to be confused with plain old active and passive defense as elsewhere, and differently, defined in the “DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms”.) It says:
Active space defense consists of actions taken to neutralize imminent space control threats to friendly space forces and space capabilities.
“The purpose of the US offensive counterspace capability has nothing to do with space. It has to do with protecting US forces on the ground,” a former senior DoD official attempted to explain. “The purpose of US resilience is to continue to provide mission capability to forces on the ground. And the purpose of active in-space defense is to protect satellites in space. So three different things here.”
And the terminology used by the US in declassifying a weapon will matter, because it affects the messaging, and how that message is received by the US public, allies/partners, and the broader international community. Indeed, these distinctions are often deliberately muddied by space weapons advocates out of concerns about US public perception, which to this day remains largely leery of space weaponization.
For example, one expert worried about the declassification plan’s potential negative ramifications for US efforts to set global norms of behavior for space — especially if there is an accompanying demonstration of capability akin to 2008’s Burnt Frost. (Ironically, DoD just last month issued its first-ever policy on space norms.)
In Burnt Frost, DoD took down a failed satellite that was tumbling back to Earth, using a modified Standard Missile-3 interceptor. The George W. Bush administration argued at the time that the move was necessary to avoid the potential spread of toxic rocket fuel, convincing almost no one.
Instead, the shoot-down spurred criticism inside and outside the US, including in allied nations, with observers perceiving it as a direct response to China’s ASAT test the year before. Critics argued that it was at best was an unnecessary demonstration US ASAT capability that until then was known but implicit; and at worst provocative, confirming long-standing allegations by Beijing (and Moscow) that US missile defenses were also designed as ASATs.
“The response of an offensive ASAT to a Chinese ASAT is not going to make them stop doing it,” one former government official said. “If you want to demonstrate a response, demonstrate … an unexpected maneuver or a LEO satellite that they had never seen before. But the fact that the response was, ‘well, I can shoot down satellites too,’ that doesn’t do shit about stopping them from shooting mine down.”
And even today, one concerned insider said, “A lot of the DoD work on space control ‘strategic messaging’ isn’t backed up by any real strategy, or red-teaming.”
The power failure was described by Iran as “nuclear terrorism” as talks were underway in Vienna to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.
By Ronen Bergman, Rick Gladstone and Farnaz Fassihi
April 11, 2021
A power failure that appeared to have been caused by a deliberately planned explosion struck Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site on Sunday, in what Iranian officials called an act of sabotage that they suggested had been carried out by Israel.
The blackout injected new uncertainty into diplomatic efforts that began last week to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal repudiated by the Trump administration.
Iran did not say precisely what had caused the blackout at the heavily fortified site, which has been a target of previous sabotage, and Israel publicly declined to confirm or deny any responsibility. But American and Israeli intelligence officials said there had been an Israeli role.
Two intelligence officials briefed on the damage said it had been caused by a large explosion that completely destroyed the independent — and heavily protected — internal power system that supplies the underground centrifuges that enrich uranium.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a classified Israeli operation, said that the explosion had dealt a severe blow to Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and that it could take at least nine months to restore Natanz’s production.
If so, Iran’s leverage in new talks sought by the Biden administration to restore the nuclear agreement could be significantly compromised. Iran has said it will take increasingly strong actions prohibited under the agreement until the sanctions imposed by President Donald J. Trump have been rescinded.
It was not immediately clear how much advance word — if any — the Biden administration received about the Natanz operation, which happened on the same morning that the American defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, was visiting Israel. But Israeli officials have made no secret of their unhappiness over Mr. Biden’s desire to revive the nuclear agreement that his predecessor renounced in 2018.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, described the blackout as an act of “nuclear terrorism” and said the international community must confront the threat.
“The action this morning against the Natanz enrichment site shows the defeat of those who oppose our country’s nuclear and political development and the significant gains of our nuclear industry,” Mr. Salehi said, according to the Iranian news media. “The incident shows the failure of those who oppose Iran negotiating for sanctions relief.”
Israel, which considers Iran a dire adversary, has sabotaged Iran’s nuclear work before, with tactics ranging from cyberattacks to outright assassinations. Israel is believed to have orchestrated the killings of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years, including an ambush on a key developer of its nuclear program last November.
Israel, as a matter of policy, neither confirms nor denies such actions.
The explosion at Natanz struck barely a week after the United States and Iran, in their first significant diplomacy under the Biden administration, participated in the new talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the nuclear agreement abandoned by Mr. Trump, who described it as “the worst deal” and a giveaway to Iran.
The talks to salvage the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or J.C.P.O.A., are set to resume this week.
It was not immediately clear how the incident at Natanz might affect that. But Iran now faces a complicated calculation on how to respond, especially if it concludes that Israel was responsible.
“Tehran faces an extremely tricky balance,” said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “It will feel compelled to retaliate in order to signal to Israel that attacks are not cost-free.”
At the same time, Mr. Rome said, “Iran also needs to ensure that such a retaliation does not make it politically impossible for the West to continue pushing forward with J.C.P.O.A. re-entry.”
Power was cut across the Natanz facility, Behrouz Kamalvandi, a civilian nuclear program spokesman, told Iranian state television. He said there had been no casualties or damage. But Iran has at times offered such assessments in the immediate aftermath of sabotage, only to revise them later.
Malek Shariati Niasar, an Iranian lawmaker who serves as a spokesman for the Parliament’s energy committee, said on Twitter that the outage was “very suspicious,” and raised the possibility of “sabotage and infiltration.”
The blackout came less than year after a mysterious fire ravaged another part of the Natanz facility, about 155 miles south of Tehran, the capital. Iranian officials initially played down the effect of the fire, which destroyed an above-the-ground facility for the assembly of centrifuges, but later admitted that it had caused extensive damage.
Further raising suspicions, the blackout came a day after Iranian officials lauded the inauguration of new, advanced centrifuges housed at a site constructed following the Natanz fire.
Some Iranian experts dismissed initial speculation that a cyberattack could have caused the power loss. The Natanz complex has its own power grid, multiple backup systems and layers of security protection intended to stop such an attack from abruptly shutting down its system.
“It’s hard to imagine that it was a cyberattack,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group. “The likely scenario is that it either targeted the facility indirectly or through physical infiltration.” The intelligence officials said it was indeed a detonation of explosives.
While there is no direct dialogue between Iran and the United States at the talks in Vienna, the other participants in the agreement — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, under the chairmanship of the European Union — are engaging in a form of shuttle diplomacy.
One working group is focusing on how to lift economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, while another is looking at how Iran can return to the terms that set limits on enriched uranium and the centrifuges needed to produce it.
Iran has said that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful. It has also said while it intends to steadily resume nuclear activities prohibited under the deal, it can easily reverse course if the sanctions are rescinded.
On Saturday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, celebrated the new centrifuges, which shorten the time needed to enrich uranium, the fuel for nuclear bombs. But Mr. Rouhani also insisted that Iran’s efforts were not intended to produce weapons.
“If the West looks at the morals and beliefs that exist in our country, they will find that they should not be worried and sensitive about our nuclear technology,” Mr. Rouhani said in remarks reported by Iran’s Mehr News Agency.
The new centrifuges were inaugurated on what Iran calls its National Nuclear Day, an annual event to showcase the advances the country had made in nuclear technology despite its economic isolation. The celebrations even included the debut of a music video that featured singing white-robed scientists standing beside centrifuges and holding photos of colleagues who had been assassinated.
Mr. Austin, the U.S. defense secretary, was in Israel on Sunday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the country’s defense minister, Benny Gantz.
It was unclear if they discussed the Natanz attack.
At the meeting, Mr. Gantz said, “We will work closely with our American allies, to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world and the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel.”
The United States and Israel have a history of covert collaboration, dating to the administration of President George W. Bush, to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.
The best-known operation under this collaboration, which was code-named “Olympic Games,” was a cyberattack disclosed during the Obama administration that disabled nearly 1,000 centrifuges at Natanz. That attack was believed to have set back Iran’s enrichment activities by many months.
Reporting was contributed by David E. Sanger, Eric Schmitt, Lara Jakes, Gerry Mullany and Patrick Kingsley.
ISTANBUL — One of Iran’s most prominent and well-guarded nuclear scientists was killed Friday in a daytime ambush on a rural road outside Tehran, an attack Iran’s foreign minister blamed on Israel and that sharply raised regional tensions in the closing weeks of the Trump administration.
The scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was seen as a driving force behind Tehran’s disbanded effort to build a nuclear weapon nearly two decades ago. His role in Iran’s current programs — reactors and uranium enrichment — was less direct and analysts said the killing would likely have a limited impact on Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.
It also underscored one of the many challenges ahead for the Biden administration as it looks to reset U.S. policies toward Iran after President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.
Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, described the attack as the work of “state terror” and implicated Israel as having a possible role. Officials in Israel had no comment.
The attack — which Iranian news agencies said involved a car bomb and gunmen — recalled the shadowy killings of Iranian nuclear scientists a decade ago and exposed holes in Iran’s security and intelligence agencies.
Just this year, it was the third high-profile attack to shake Tehran’s leadership.
In January, a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and head of its special-operations forces abroad. And in August, Israeli agents acting on behalf of American officials assassinated a senior al-Qaeda official in Tehran, according to a U.S. official.
Fakhrizadeh was once at the pinnacle of Iran’s nuclear program, including an effort to develop nuclear arms that U.S. intelligence says was scrapped in 2003. But his latest role was less directly involved in Iran’s nuclear sites, which include extensive centrifuge labs to enrich uranium.
While Fakhrizadeh had been a key figure in Iran’s bomb program, “that work is all in the past, and there is no reason to expect that if Fakhrizadeh is gone it would have any effect on Iran’s current nuclear program,” said Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA and a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
Analysts said the timing of the attack appeared linked to the impending change of U.S. administrations.
Trump — who withdrew the United States from a nuclear pact that Iran struck with world powers five years ago — has ramped up sanctions and other pressures on Tehran since walking away from the deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear program. Biden has pledged to work more closely with allies on Iran policies and work to rejoin the nuclear agreement.
Iran has recently increased its stockpile of enriched uranium since the Trump administration pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has insisted that the enriched uranium is intended only to power its nuclear energy plants and a research reactor. Iran’s foes counter that it puts the nation closer to producing warhead-grade material.
The Biden team also did not have an immediate comment. U.S. officials had no immediate comment, but Trump retweeted veteran Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, who described the attack as a “major psychological and professional blow for Iran.”
“The operation reflects thinking of those in the Netanyahu government — and/or the Trump administration — who see these next few weeks as their last chance to make relations with Iran as bad as possible, in an effort to spoil the Biden administration’s efforts to return to diplomacy with Tehran,” said Pillar, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A Middle Eastern intelligence official said Israel was behind the attack. “There was an opportunity and it was taken,” the official said.
Former CIA director John O. Brennan, a strong Trump critic, tweeted that the attack was “a criminal act & highly reckless.”
“It risks lethal retaliation & a new round of regional conflict,” he wrote. “Iranian leaders would be wise to wait for the return of responsible American leadership on the global stage & to resist the urge to respond against perceived culprits.”
Accounts of Fakhrizadeh’s killing indicated his movements were being tracked and the attack was coordinated.
The semiofficial Tasnim news agency said the attack began with a car bomb that detonated in the path of Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle. Then “terrorists started shooting,” it reported.
But Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami, Iran’s defense minister, described a different chain of events in an interview with Iranian state television, saying the attack started with gunmen opening fire on Fakhrizadeh’s car. A pickup truck about 50 feet away exploded a short time later, he said. The gunfire continued, wounding the scientist and two of his bodyguards.
Fakhrizadeh later died at a hospital, the minister said.
A gray sedan, its windshield riddled by bullet holes, was shown in photos taken by Iranian news agencies at the scene of the attack.
The killing spurred calls from Iranian officials for accountability, or revenge.
“Terrorists murdered an eminent Iranian scientist today,” Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, wrote on Twitter.
Iran has accused Israel and the United States of carrying out similar deadly attacks on nuclear experts in the past.
“This cowardice — with serious indications of Israeli role — shows desperate warmongering of perpetrators,” Zarif tweeted about the death of Fakhrizadeh. He said Iran calls on the international community, especially the European Union, “to end their shameful double standards & condemn this act of state terror.”
Hossein Dehghan, a former member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, wrote on Twitter: “We will descend like lightning on the killers.”
Fakhrizadeh “was one of the key individuals behind Iran’s nuclear program in the post-revolution era” and was deeply involved in shaping “the weapons phase of the program,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
“This is very significant politically and symbolically. It again exposes the deep flaws in Iran’s internal security. This is one of many incidents involving Iran’s nuclear program this year and one of several targeted killings on Iranian soil or affecting high-level Iranians,” she said.
Fakhrizadeh was widely regarded as the brains behind Iran’s nuclear program, including Tehran’s clandestine efforts to develop a nuclear bomb in the early 2000s. The physics professor, believed to be about 60 years old, has been identified by intelligence officials as the head of the Amad Plan, the secret nuclear weapons research program that sought to develop as many as six nuclear bombs before Iranian leaders ordered a halt to the program in 2003.
After the weapons program ended, he continued to supervise successor organizations that continued to employ many, if not most, of the Amad project’s scientists in conducting nuclear-related research, U.S. and Israeli analysts claim.
The current program is “now more focused on maintaining and developing nuclear weaponization capabilities rather than building the weapons themselves, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington nonprofit that tracks nuclear-weapons proliferation.
He called the attack on Fakhrizadeh a “shocking and disturbing development.”
Formerly a reclusive figure rarely seen in public, Fakhrizadeh has more recently allowed himself to appear on official Iranian websites, including during events held by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Albright said the increased visibility “may have made him more vulnerable, making his movements easier to track.”
Targeted attacks between 2010 and 2012 killed at least four researchers and others with links to Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran accused Israel and the United States of masterminding the attacks as part of a covert war. U.S. officials have denied any role, and Israel has not commented.
In 2011, Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electrical engineer doctoral student whose work involved nuclear applications, was gunned down outside his Tehran apartment.
In 2012, motorcycle riders attached a magnetic bomb that tore apart a car carrying Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a nuclear scientist working at Iran’s main uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz. Roshan, 32, had planned to attend a memorial for another nuclear researcher, Tehran University professor Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who was killed in a similar pinpoint blast in 2010.
An Iranian man convicted in the Mohammadi attack, who Iran claimed was trained by Israel’s Mossad spy agency, was hanged in 2012.
Berger reported from Beirut and Warrick from Washington. Souad Mekhennet in Washington contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s second-highest leader, accused of being one of the masterminds of the deadly 1998 attacks on American embassies in Africa, was killed in Iran three months ago, intelligence officials have confirmed.
Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Masri, was gunned down on the streets of Tehran by two assassins on a motorcycle on Aug. 7, the anniversary of the embassy attacks. He was killed along with his daughter, Miriam, the widow of Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden.
The attack was carried out by Israeli operatives at the behest of the United States, according to four of the officials. It is unclear what role if any was played by the United States, which had been tracking the movements of Mr. al-Masri and other Qaeda operatives in Iran for years.
The killing occurred in such a netherworld of geopolitical intrigue and counterterrorism spycraft that Mr. al-Masri’s death had been rumored but never confirmed until now. For reasons that are still obscure, Al Qaeda has not announced the death of one of its top leaders, Iranian officials covered it up, and no country has publicly claimed responsibility for it.
Mr. al-Masri, who was about 58, was one of Al Qaeda’s founding leaders and was thought to be first in line to lead the organization after its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Long featured on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted Terrorist list, he had been indicted in the United States for crimes related to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people and wounded hundreds. The F.B.I. offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture, and as of Friday, his picture was still on the Most Wanted list.
That he had been living in Iran was surprising, given that Iran and Al Qaeda are bitter enemies. Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, and Al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group, have fought each other on the battlefields of Iraq and other places.
American intelligence officials say that Mr. al-Masri had been in Iran’s “custody” since 2003, but that he had been living freely in the Pasdaran district of Tehran, an upscale suburb, since at least 2015.
Around 9:00 on a warm summer night, he was driving his white Renault L90 sedan with his daughter near his home when two gunmen on a motorcycle drew up beside him. Five shots were fired from a pistol fitted with a silencer. Four bullets entered the car through the driver’s side and a fifth hit a nearby car.
As news of the shooting broke, Iran’s official news media identified the victims as Habib Daoud, a Lebanese history professor, and his 27-year-old daughter Maryam. The Lebanese news channel MTV and social media accounts affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps reported that Mr. Daoud was a member of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant organization in Lebanon.
It seemed plausible.
The killing came amid a summer of frequent explosions in Iran, mounting tensions with the United States, days after an enormous explosion in the port of Beirut and a week before the United Nations Security Council was to consider extending an arms embargo against Iran. There was speculation that the killing may have been a Western provocation intended to elicit a violent Iranian reaction in advance of the Security Council vote.
And the targeted killing by two gunmen on a motorcycle fit the modus operandi of previous Israeli assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. That Israel would kill an official of Hezbollah, which is committed to fighting Israel, also seemed to make sense, except for the fact that Israel had been consciously avoiding killing Hezbollah operatives so as not to provoke a war.
In fact, there was no Habib Daoud.
Several Lebanese with close ties to Iran said they had not heard of him or his killing. A search of Lebanese news media found no reports of a Lebanese history professor killed in Iran last summer. And an education researcher with access to lists of all history professors in the country said there was no record of a Habib Daoud.
One of the intelligence officials said that Habib Daoud was an alias Iranian officials gave Mr. al-Masri and the history teaching job was a cover story. In October, the former leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, Nabil Naeem, who called Mr. al-Masri a longtime friend, told the Saudi news channel Al Arabiya the same thing.
Iran may have had good reason for wanting to hide the fact that it was harboring an avowed enemy, but it was less clear why Iranian officials would have taken in the Qaeda leader to begin with.
Some terrorism experts suggested that keeping Qaeda officials in Tehran might provide some insurance that the group would not conduct operations inside Iran. American counterterrorism officials believe Iran may have allowed them to stay to run operations against the United States, a common adversary.
It would not be the first time that Iran had joined forces with Sunni militants, having supported Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Taliban.
“Iran uses sectarianism as a cudgel when it suits the regime, but is also willing to overlook the Sunni-Shia divide when it suits Iranian interests,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Center.
Iran has consistently denied housing the Qaeda officials. In 2018, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that because of Iran’s long, porous border with Afghanistan, some Qaeda members had entered Iran, but they had been detained and returned to their home countries.
However, Western intelligence officials said the Qaeda leaders had been kept under house arrest by the Iranian government, which then made at least two deals with Al Qaeda to free some of them in 2011 and 2015.
Although Al Qaeda has been overshadowed in recent years by the rise of the Islamic State, it remains resilient and has active affiliates around the globe, a U.N. counterterrorism report issued in July concluded.
Iranian officials did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But on Saturday, after this article was published, the Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh denied the presence of any Qaeda members in Iran. He warned American media “not to fall for the trap of Hollywood scenarios fed to them by American and Zionist officials,” according to a statement on the ministry’s website.
Spokesmen for the Israeli prime minister’s office and the Trump administration’s National Security Council declined to comment.
Mr. al-Masri was a longtime member of Al Qaeda’s highly secretive management council, along with Saif al-Adl, who was also held in Iran at one point. The pair, along with Hamza bin Laden, who was being groomed to take over the organization, were part of a group of senior Qaeda leaders who sought refuge in Iran after the 9/11 attacks on the United States forced them to flee Afghanistan.
According to a highly classified document produced by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center in 2008, Mr. al-Masri was the “most experienced and capable operational planner not in U.S. or allied custody.” The document described him as the “former chief of training” who “worked closely” with Mr. al-Adl.
In Iran, Mr. al-Masri mentored Hamza bin Laden, according to terrorism experts. Hamza bin Laden later married Mr. al-Masri’s daughter, Miriam.
“The marriage of Hamza bin Ladin was not the only dynastic connection Abu Muhammad forged in captivity,” the former F.B.I. agent and Qaeda expert Ali Soufan wrote in a 2019 article for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
Another of Mr. al-Masri’s daughters married Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, no relation, a member of the management council. He was allowed to leave Iran in 2015 and was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria in 2017. At the time, he was the second-ranking Qaeda official after Mr. Zawahri.
Hamza and other members of the Bin Laden family were freed by Iran in 2011 in exchange for an Iranian diplomat abducted in Pakistan. Last year, the White House said that Hamza bin Laden had been killed in a counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Abu Muhammad al-Masri was born in Al Gharbiya district of northern Egypt in 1963. In his youth, according to affidavits filed in lawsuits in the United States, he was a professional soccer player in Egypt’s top league. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he joined the jihadist movement that was coalescing to assist the Afghan forces.
After the Soviets withdrew 10 years later, Egypt refused to allow Mr. al-Masri to return. He remained in Afghanistan where he eventually joined Bin Laden in the group that was later to become the founding nucleus of Al Qaeda. He was listed by the group as the seventh of its 170 founders.
In the early 1990s, he traveled with Bin Laden to Khartoum, Sudan, where he began forming military cells. He also went to Somalia to help the militia loyal to the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. There he trained Somali guerrillas in the use of shoulder-borne rocket launchers against helicopters, training they used in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu to shoot down a pair of American helicopters in what is now known as the Black Hawk Down attack.
“When Al Qaeda began to carry out terrorist activities in the late 1990s, al-Masri was one of the three of Bin Laden’s closest associates, serving as head of the organization’s operations section,” said Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Terrorism Project of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “He brought with him know-how and determination and since then was involved in a large part of the organization’s operations, with an emphasis on Africa.”
Shortly after the Mogadishu battle, Bin Laden put Mr. al-Masri in charge of planning operations against American targets in Africa. Plotting a dramatic, ambitious operation that, like the 9/11 attacks, would command international attention, they decided to attack two relatively well-defended targets in separate countries simultaneously.
Shortly after 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 7, 1998, two trucks packed with explosives pulled up in front of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The blasts incinerated people nearby, blew walls off buildings and shattered glass for blocks around.
In 2000, Mr. al-Masri became one of the nine members of Al Qaeda’s governing council and headed the organization’s military training.
He also continued to oversee Africa operations, according to a former Israeli Intelligence official, and ordered the attack in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002 that killed 13 Kenyans and three Israeli tourists.
By 2003, Mr. al-Masri was among several Qaeda leaders who fled to Iran which, although hostile to the group, seemed out of American reach.
“They believed the United States would find it very difficult to act against them there,” Mr. Schweitzer said. “Also because they believed that the chances of the Iranian regime doing an exchange deal with the Americans that would include their heads were very slim.”
Mr. al-Masri was one of the few high-ranking members of the organization to survive the American hunt for the perpetrators of 9/11 and other attacks. When he and other Qaeda leaders fled to Iran, they were initially kept under house arrest.
In 2015, Iran announced a deal with Al Qaeda in which it released five of the organization’s leaders, including Mr. al-Masri, in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who had been abducted in Yemen.
Mr. Abdullah’s footprints faded away, but according to one of the intelligence officials, he continued to live in Tehran, under the protection of the Revolutionary Guards and later the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. He was allowed to travel abroad and did, mainly to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.
Some American analysts said Mr. al-Masri’s death would sever connections between one of the last original Qaeda leaders and the current generation of Islamist militants, who have grown up after Bin Laden’s 2011 death.
“If true, this further cuts links between old-school Al Qaeda and the modern jihad,” said Nicholas J. Rasmussen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. “It just further contributes to the fragmentation and decentralization of the Al Qaeda movement.”
Adam Goldman and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, Farnaz Fassihi from New York and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.
The Army has outlined draft objectives for a range of Robotic Combat Vehicles, from an expendable light scout armed with a single anti-tank missile to a 30-ton unmanned tank as tough as the 70-ton M1 Abrams.
By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR. on November 09, 2020
WASHINGTON: On a future battlefield, seven-ton tracked robots scout the enemy. Some of these Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV) Light variants sweep paths through minefields. Others pop smoke to conceal the advance. Still others jam enemy transmissions and take potshots with anti-tank missiles.
Enemy return fire rips through the light robots’ unarmored hulls, but their computer brains keep on transmitting target coordinates to the rest of the force. Precision-guided long-range shells pound the enemy position as larger robots move up, 10-ton mini-tanks called RCV-Mediums that boast machine-guns, missiles, and 30mm chainguns. And the third wave follows not far behind: a hard core of humans in M1 Abrams tanks, escorted by wolfpacks of cannon-toting 30-ton RCV-Heavies.
This vision is years from reality, but the Army is experimenting with surrogate unmanned vehicles. Contractor Qinetiq has already delivered the first of four experimental RCV-Lights; Textron is making four Mediums. Building a prototype Heavy awaits progress on Active Protection Systems, miniaturized missile defenses meant to make a modestly armored 30-ton vehicle as survivable in battle as a 70-ton main battle tank.
The whole Robotic Combat Vehicle family will use common navigational software and control interfaces already being field-tested. Each variant will use the same electronic and mechanical standards, a so-called modular open architecture that should let soldiers in the field plug and play a range of payloads, from missiles to smoke generators to radio jammers.
“We understand four soldiers working with a red-lens flashlight in the middle of the night aren’t going to be able to pull off a 30mm turret,” said Maj. Corey Wallace, a young armored cavalry officer with extensive robotics experience now serving on Army Futures Command’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team. But, he told the NDIA Armaments, Robotics, and Munitions (ARM) conference last week, the goal is that “most things are modular” and troops in the field can “swap payloads in 30 minutes or less.”
What The Army Wants
The NGCV team has already drafted seven desired “characteristics” – not formal, mandatory requirements – for the RCV family:
The priority is assured wireless control, with autonomy in second place. That’s because the Army always wants a human gunner deciding whether to fire. For now, as well, the robots will need a remote-control driver as well, so each RCV requites two human operators, plus a sergeant coordinating each pair of robots.
Why? The software is increasingly adept at navigating around obstacles cross-country, well-trained humans are still better at maneuvering under fire from one covered position to another. So the current plan is to let the robots autonomously make their own way to the front line, but, as they close with the enemy, humans take over by remote control.
Based on field experiments so far, Wallace said, the rule of thumb is that the minimum effective range of the control link between the robot and the manned control vehicle should be at least half the effective maximum range of the control vehicle’s main weapon. That lets the control vehicle shoot at targets the robot spots, while keeping it out of ambushes and minefields the robot stumbles into.
The third and fourth characteristics are that the vehicles should have margin for growth and a modular design, compliant with standards such as the Pentagon Interoperability Profile and VICTORY 2. That way, instead of rewiring proprietary interfaces every time you make an upgrade, you can easily swap in new technologies and specialized payloads from any vendor as they become available.
The top priority payload, based on digital simulations and soldiers’ feedback? Defense against small drones, said Wallace. ISIS has already mounted hand grenades on drones, while Russia used drones to spot targets for artillery in Ukraine, so a future adversary is likely to flood the zone with swarms of scouts. The Army looked into drone-killing lasers, Wallace said, but the power supplies are still too bulky for the lighter RCVs. What’s far more compact and feasible, he said, is a jammer that keeps the drone from reporting your position to enemy artillery.
That brings us to the next priority: electronic warfare. Drones aren’t the only thing the Army wants to jam.
“Yes, you are very lethal [if you] blow the … turret off a tank,” Wallace said, “but you are even more lethal if you paralyze that formation’s ability to communicate.”
Defensively, he said, sometimes the best way to hide from enemy sensors is to pump out so much electromagnetic distortion that they know you’re out there, but they can’t tell where or how many of you there are. And if radiation-seeking missiles do find the jammer, well, it was unmanned.
The third-priority payload plays a similar role: smokescreen generation. Just as jamming hides the force from radio-frequency sensors, smoke hides it from visual ones – including infrared sensors.
The fourth priority: a multi-purpose deathzone detector to warn the human troops of chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) contamination. There’s no major-war scenario where CBRN detection isn’t useful, Wallace said. While it’s costly to build manned vehicles that can detect poison gas and radiation without endangering their crews, every RCV can have, as standard equipment, a compact short-range detector to warn the human troops following well behind. A long-range detector might be its own full-up mission package. MY ADD DARPA has done a great deal of work on smaller sensors to detect such things.
The fifth priority is handling another type of hazard: minefields and other obstacles. The Army already has an unmanned minesweeper, the M160 flail. Recently, it’s been experimenting with different specialized robots that can work together to clear obstacles while keeping human combat engineers out of range of enemy fire.
Other potential mission modules worth considering, Wallace said, range from anti-aircraft weapons like Stinger missiles to retransmission nodes for battlefield communications – both priority targets for high-tech enemies and at high risk of destruction. Air defense in particular, he said, “that’s the first thing the enemy wants to kill.”
Firepower & Armor
Besides these specialized load-outs, the Army wants all Robotic Combat Vehicles to be able to spot targets for the rest of the force – especially for artillery – and to have some onboard firepower and protection. The bigger the RCV variant, the bigger the weapons package and, since it’s less expendable, the heavier the armor.
RCV-Light will carry a single anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) to give it one shot against the toughest targets, but otherwise it’ll be designed to fight infantry and unarmored trucks. That could mean anything from .50 caliber machineguns like the 12.7mm M2, to a grenade launcher like the 40mm Mark 19, to even a 30mm M230 chain gun. A “missile boat” variant might carry a whole rack of ATGMs instead, firing on targets laser-designated by other RCVs . “We want you all in industry to innovate,” Wallace told the NDIA conference.
Defensively, though, it’s not worthwhile to weigh down RCV-Light with armor. Instead, the essential sensors, radio uplink, and computer core should proof against a 7.62 rifle round, so they can keep transmitting target data even when the vehicle is totaled.
“If it loses its ability to fire its weapon, it’s not a big deal. If it loses the ability to move, kind of a big deal but not absolutely a game-changer,” Wallace said. “But it needs to be able to sense and have its brain protected.”
RCV-Medium, by contrast, is a lot more like a tank. The Medium will carry a pair of anti-tank missiles to counter tanks and high-velocity 30mm autocannon to kill light armored vehicles like BMPs. The Army looked at a 50mm gun, Wallace said, but the weight was too much. Weight may also limit secondary weapons: The Army wants a machinegun atop the turret, able to aim independently at quick, high-angle targets like rooftop snipers, but it may not fit on the Medium.
How heavy is too heavy? Textron’s experimental RCV-M is 10 tons, just three tons heavier than Qinetiq’s RCV-L. While those are not the final designs, the Army does to want keep the Medium well under 20 tons.
Unlike RCV-Light, RCV-Medium will have armor, but not a lot. After studying heavier armor packages, Army decided the Medium only needs to withstand heavy machinegun fire – 12.7mm DShKs and the like – with optional add-on armor against greater threats. And it doesn’t have to be equally well-protected all over, just the brains (as on RCV-L) and the gun turret.
“Its critical function is to be able to shoot,” Wallace said. “It’s not really a big dealbreaker if it can’t move anymore.”
RCV-Heavy is the least clearly defined. It’s meant to be a “robotic tank” with firepower and survivability comparable to the M1 Abrams, Wallace said, but at less than half the weight: 20 to 30 tons, vs. 60 to 70 for Abrams depending on the model and armor kit.
But why does the RCV-Heavy need to be as survivable as an M1 tank, I asked over email, if it doesn’t have human troops inside? Unlike the Lights and Mediums, Wallace responded, the Heavies aren’t mean to operate far ahead of the manned force, but alongside it. It’s intended as a “wingman” maneuvering with the manned tanks, he said, so it has to withstand the same intensity of attacks. You don’t want a barrage of mid-caliber cannon fire can strip the M1s of their RCV-H escort.
“The RCV (H) cannot fulfill its fundamental purpose if it cannot maneuver alongside a tank while in contact with a threat,” Wallace told me. “If medium cannon rounds bounce off an M1A2V3 while they destroy the RCV (H) outright, then one can no longer consider the RCV (H) a decisive lethality wingman.”
Now, making a 20-plus-ton armored vehicle as survivable as 60-plus-tonner is one of the multiple Missions Impossible that sank the Future Combat System 11 years ago. Wallace is well aware of that. A decade later, the Army is urgently putting Israeli-made Active Protection Systems on the M1 Abrams and the 45-ton M2 Bradley. But current APS technology can only shoot down incoming anti-tank missiles, not stop armor-piercing shots from a tank cannon, which move much faster.
“That’s why we’re not going forward with the RCV-Heavy at the same pace, [because] we are acutely aware of the issues that programs like FCS had,” Wallace said. “We’re pumping the brakes with RCV-Heavy. We’re continuing to experiment with surrogates” to test technologies and tactics, he said, “but we don’t want to go full bore until we understand how to do lethality and survivability.”
In the spring of 1989, a Palestinian terrorist murdered an Israeli soldier. Twenty years later in Dubai, the Israeli secret service agency Mossad avenged the killing. The operation succeeded, but nevertheless has become a fiasco. SPIEGEL has reconstructed the attack. By SPIEGEL Staff
17 January 2011
He knew that he was a dead man. From the moment he shot the Israeli soldier sitting on the car seat behind him in the face, he knew that they would get him sooner or later.
For Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, it would take 20 years for that day to come. At about noon on Jan. 20, 2010, employees at the Al Bustan Rotana airport hotel in Dubai opened the door of room 230 to find the body of a man on the bed. According to the death certificate, the cause of death was “brain hemorrhage.”
At the time, no one knew who exactly the dead man was. Mabhouh was considered to be the chief weapons negotiator for Hamas, the Palestinian organization’s main contact to Tehran and the logistician behind rocket attacks on Israel coming from the Gaza Strip.
A man with a pedigree like that doesn’t die of a brain hemorrhage. In fact, al-Mabhouh became a marked man long ago.
MONDAY, JAN. 18, 2010
More than 100,000 passengers arrive at Dubai International Airport every day. The emirate has become a popular vacation spot for those seeking a respite from winter in the northern hemisphere. The temperatures are summery, the hotels first-class and the shopping malls legendary. But the 27 passengers who arrived in the space of several hours on flights from various European cities had not come to Dubai to go shopping or for a winter break. Instead, they had a mission to fulfill.
Twelve of them had British passports, six had Irish passports, four each had French and Australian passports, and one had a German passport, issued to a Michael Bodenheimer by a registration office in Cologne.
Most of these 27 people were members of an elite unit of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, assigned to the riskiest missions, and to do work involving sabotage, espionage and assassinations. This elite unit is called “Caesarea,” named after the ancient city in Palestine where a few leaders of the second Jewish insurrection against Rome were martyred.
The 27 people were waiting for another man, someone they knew was a dead man.
A few members of the Caesarea team had already been in Dubai earlier, in February, March and June of 2009, to observe “Plasma Screen,” their code name for Mabhouh. They wanted to be sure that they were targeting the right man. During their previous visits, they also familiarized themselves with the door locks used in various hotels.
In July 1973, a Mossad commando unit had murdered a Moroccan waiter in the Norwegian city of Lillehammer, acting on the erroneous assumption that he was a terrorist with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Several agents were sent to prison, and Israel paid compensation to the man’s surviving dependents. The agency’s reputation suffered as a result of the incident, and Mossad leaders were determined not to allow anything like it to happen again.
Perhaps the choice of the code name for Mabhouh was likewise a mistake. After all, images of the “Plasma Screen” operation were soon flickering across thousands of flat-screen TVs around the world. At first, many questions remained unanswered and many details unresolved. One year later, after investigations in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, the United States and Europe, and after interviews were conducted with several participants, police officers and intelligence agencies, SPIEGEL is now able to reconstruct the key storylines that intersected in Dubai between Jan. 18 and 20, 2010.
One of these storylines is the German one. Michael Bodenheimer, who landed in Dubai at 12:14 a.m. on Jan. 19, had planned his arrival long before. The story of how he got his passport can be reconstructed with great precision. It’s an important story, because it demonstrates that the Mossad was in fact behind what happened in the ensuing few hours.
On Sunday, March 29, 2009, two men arrived in Cologne on a Lufthansa flight from Tel Aviv. The men sought to avoid all contact with each other. They sat in different rows and waited in different lines at passport control. The men, according to their papers, were Alexander Varin and Michael Bodenheimer.
False Names, False Addresses
Varin and Bodenheimer had an appointment with a Cologne attorney the next morning. Varin, who referred to himself as a “crisis consultant,” already knew the attorney, who had petitioned for German citizenship on behalf Michael’s father, Hans Bodenheimer, allegedly a victim of the Nazi regime. Under the German constitution, those persecuted by the Nazis, as well as their children and grandchildren, can petition for repatriation.
The Israelis told the German attorney that Bodenheimer was born on July 14, 1967, in the Israeli village of Liman on the Lebanese border. The information was apparently false. No one in Liman knows a man named Bodenheimer. He also told the attorney that his last address prior to his move to Germany was in the Israeli city of Herzliya, in a four-story building at Yad Harutzim Street 7. There is an upscale kitchen design store on the ground floor of the building.
But the address also proved to be false. The name “Michael Budenheimer” appears among 19 names on a blue panel in the lobby. The name “Top Office” appears at the top of the panel.
According to its website, Top Office provides “virtual offices,” among other services. “Have your company name displayed on the entrance sign,” the site promises. When a SPIEGEL representative called Top Office, the woman answering the phone said her name was Iris, but she was unwilling to provide a surname. When the name Bodenheimer was mentioned, she ended the conversation. Two days later, the names “Michael Budenheimer” and “Top Office” had been removed from the panel in the lobby of the office building in Herzliya.
In Cologne, the German attorney filed the necessary documents in March 2009. When Bodenheimer and Varin returned three months later and checked into a Cologne hotel, the next mistake was made: Alexander Varin checked in under a different name, “Uri Brodsky.” But he continued to use his old name, Alexander Varin, with the attorney. Confusing two different identities was an inexcusable mistake, and investigators with the German federal criminal police agency, the BKA, would quickly discover later that it was one and the same man using both names.
On June 18, 2009, Bodenheimer picked up his new German passport. He was now a citizen.
On June 17, 2009, Bodenheimer, in an effort to bolster his German identity, rented a small apartment at Eigelstein 85, in a rundown neighborhood near the main train station in Cologne. He told the landlord that he was a coach for a triathlon team, and he paid his rent in cash.
Seven months later, on Jan. 19, 2010, Bodenheimer was standing at the airport in Dubai. He and his fellow team members had been told a week earlier that their victim would arrive in Dubai the next day. Although they didn’t know which hotel the man would check into, they did know that he would not be checking out again.
Everything was in place. All they had to do now was wait for their victim.
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, Early Morning
Mabhouh was on his way to the international airport in Damascus. As a VIP, he had his driver take him to a back entrance of the terminal, and he was able to wait in the lounge while his luggage was being checked and his passport stamped. Mabhouh was traveling alone.
The previous spring, he had given and interview to Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language news network, about the murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1989. The station had disguised Mabhouh’s face, but the Mossad had no trouble identifying his voice.
The Hamas agent described, in great detail, how he and an accomplice had dressed as Orthodox Jews and how, in the spring of 1989, they had kidnapped, killed and buried the two soldiers AviSasportas and IlanSaadon. They had trampled on the bodies and photographed themselves in the process. When asked whether he regretted the killings, Mabhouh said that he only regretted not having shot the second Israeli in the face. But unfortunately, he added, he had been sitting at the wheel of the car.
“Red Page” is the Mossad’s code name for an order to kill someone. Each of these orders is jointly authorized by the Israeli prime minister and defense minister. “Red Pages” do not have to be executed right away. In fact, they have no expiration date, and the orders remain valid until they are expressly cancelled.
As reported in a recent article on the Dubai attack in the US lifestyle magazine GQ, Mabhouh received his “Red Page” back in 1989. The Israelis don’t take kindly to the kidnapping or murder of one of their soldiers in uniform.
Mabhouh Planned Murders
Mabhouh was born in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1960. His name means “the hoarse one.” He joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man, and he was there when the Islamist mob began laying waste to the Palestinian coffeehouses that maintained gambling operations.
In the late 1980s, the Israeli occupying forces caught him with a Kalashnikov in his luggage and he was sentenced to a year in prison. He said that he was tortured in prison.
After his release, Mabhouh joined the military wing of the recently established Islamist movement Hamas. It was the period of the first Intifada, when most Palestinians were fighting the Israeli occupiers with slingshots and Molotov cocktails. Mabhouh planned murders.
In 1988, he was placed in command of Hamas’s “Unit 101.” The kidnapping and murder of the two Israeli soldiers in the Negev Desert was enough proof for Hamas that Mabhouh was the right man for the job.
Mabhouh hid in the Gaza Strip for the first few months after the killings, and then he fled to Egypt. The government in Cairo initially contemplated putting him on trial or extraditing him to Israel, but fearing that this could trigger an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, it decided to deport the Hamas agent to Libya instead.
Later on, Mabhouh went to Jordan, where he developed a Hamas base from which he smuggled weapons into the Palestinian West Bank and planned attacks against Israeli tourists. He was expelled from the country in 1995, just as the entire Hamas leadership would later be expelled. Mabhouh moved to Damascus, where he established contact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
He obtained money and rockets in Iran, and he collected donations in the Gulf States to fund terrorist attacks during the second Intifada. Until then, Hamas had waged its war against Israel with unguided short-range rockets, but under Mabhouh’s leadership, militants in the Gaza Strip obtained longer-range missiles.
In February 2009, Mabhouh narrowly escaped death when an Israeli drone attacked a convoy he was traveling with in Sudan. The trucks were presumably loaded with Iranian Fajr rockets.
Hamas and Iran – hardly anyone embodied Israel’s two enemies to the degree that Mahmoud al-Mabhouh did. It was time to turn the “Red Page.”
Mabhouh was constantly traveling between China, Iran, Syria, Sudan and the UAE. The Mossad agents decided that Dubai was the best place for an assassination. The city is open to tourists and businesspeople, and gaining entry with a Western passport is unproblematic.
A first assassination attempt failed in November 2009. A Caesarea commando unit had tried to kill Mabhouh, possibly with poison that had been smeared onto light switches and fixtures in his hotel room. The victim fell ill, but he survived. The agents vowed that the next time they would not leave Dubai until they could verify Mabhouh’s death with their own eyes.
At 1:10 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2010, the last two Caesarea agents, Gail Folliard and Kevin Daveron, landed in Dubai on a flight from Paris. Together with Peter Elvinger, who had flown in from Zurich, they formed the operations unit.
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, Late Morning
Unlike other intelligence agencies, the Mossad cannot provide its agents with real passports corresponding to a false identity. The primary countries in which it operates have no diplomatic relations with Israel. Even the most harmless-seeming tourists would be detained upon arrival if they were traveling on an Israeli passport. Instead, the Mossad usually uses the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship or forged passports from other countries.
Peter Elvinger and the members of his team checked into various hotels. All of their passports, with the exception of the German passport, were forged. They were operating like avatars, using stolen identities. The real people whose names were being used would later testify that they had been completely unaware of the operation.
The first part of the operation had succeeded. The Caesarea commando unit had put itself into position, safely and unnoticed. Elvinger and his team members paid their hotel expenses in cash or with prepaid money cards issued by Payoneer, a US company. This would prove to be a mistake in the “Plasma Screen” operation.
Because the Payoneer cards used by most of the 27 members of the commando unit are relatively rare in Dubai, investigators later managed to narrow down their list of suspects relatively quickly. The CEO of Payoneer, Yuval Tal, is a former member of an elite unit in the Israeli army.
The Same Contact Numbers
The commando unit made a second mistake when its members used intermediaries in Austria to communicate with one another. Under the system an agent would call a number in Vienna to be connected to another agent’s mobile phone.
Although this was done to conceal calls, the system had a drawback. As soon as investigators had obtained the call list of one suspect, they could easily determine who else was using the same contact numbers in Austria.
Both the use of the prepaid cards and the telephone server in Vienna were not mistakes that would jeopardize the entire operation. But they would make it more difficult for the team members to cover their tracks. Furthermore, the UAE is not one of the so-called “base countries,” where Mossad agents in trouble can take refuge in an Israeli embassy or get help from the intelligence agencies of Israel’s allies.
The Emirates are referred to as a “target country” in intelligence jargon. If an agent’s cover is blown there, he or she could face torture or even the death penalty. Given the risk, why were the Caesarea team members so careless?
They underestimated Dubai, and they underestimated a man whose office is on the sixth floor of the headquarters of the Dubai Police, about three kilometers (1.9 miles) from room 230 at the Al Bustan.
Lieutenant General DahiKhalfanTamim is not a man who cares much for diplomacy. He is a gruff cop with a biting sense of humor and possessing the kind of self-confidence government officials have who enjoy the full support of their superiors. Tamim has only one superior: the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
At 19, Tamim graduated from the Royal Police Academy in Amman, Jordan, the most respected police academy in the Arab world. Ten years later, in 1980, he was appointed police chief of Dubai. Since then, the emirate has boomed more than almost any other part of the world. Lieutenant General Tamim’s job has been to ensure that Dubai’s boom could move forward without significant crime problems.
Planes take off and land by the minute in front of the plate-glass window in Tamim’s office. Dubai is in a central location, roughly equidistant from Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. There are more Iranians and Pakistanis living there than natives of Dubai; the city has attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants from some of the world’s most explosive regions. People are constantly coming and going, large amounts of money are at stake, and the Islamic banking system is a nightmare for any police detective. Tamim knows that Dubai has everything it takes to become the region’s crime hub — and he has made it his mission to prevent that from happening.
He has purchased the best available hardware and software in the United States. Government funding for surveillance systems is unlimited in the UAE, and to make things even easier for the police, no one worries about data privacy.
Not Even a Proxy War
“We know,” he says, “that many Israelis come here with non-Israeli passports, and we treat them the way we treat anyone else. We protect their lives just as we protect the lives of others, and we don’t concern ourselves with their religion. But we also don’t want Dubai to become a third-party country where Israelis kill Palestinians.”
Tamim sees police work as a craft. Ideologues of all stripes — whether they are Arab ideologues, Marxists or Islamists — disgust him. “If I were a Palestinian,” he says, “I wouldn’t support Fatah or Hamas.”
There is no topic Tamim finds more interesting than Israel. The country that dealt such a devastating blow to the Arabs in 1967. That year, Tamim’s 16th, is a benchmark for him. “The Jews resemble us much more closely, in terms of religion, language and many other respects, than the Europeans or the Americans,” he says.
He says he even understands that the Jews must defend themselves, says Tamim, pointing out that millions of them were murdered in Europe. “(Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel) Nasser said that he intended to drive them into the sea,” he says. “Okay, then they had a right to fight back. But today? We don’t want war.”
Not even a proxy war, and certainly not one outside his office door.
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, Afternoon
Mabhouh arrived in Dubai on Emirates flight EK 912 from Damascus. He handed the immigration control officer a Palestinian passport in the name of Mahmoud Abd al-Rauf Mohammed Hassan, which stated his profession as “merchant.” At least that was correct.
A Mossad team had expected Mabhouh at the terminal and notified the others, who then followed him to the hotel. The Al Bustan, part of a group called “The Leading Hotels of the World,” is especially popular among transit passengers who need a place to stay after a late-night arrival.
Travelers are constantly pulling their trolley cases across the polished marble floors in the lobby, where noise is drowned out by the sound of water in the fountains or muted by thick carpeting. The rooms on the second floor are off a narrow hallway with only one access point, making the area easy to secure and the perfect place to commit a crime.
Two agents carrying tennis rackets and with towels thrown over their shoulders had been waiting in the lobby since 2:12 p.m.
Tamim would later explain that this was their most glaring mistake, because, as he says, no real tennis player walks around with his tennis racket out of its case.
He Knew He Was a Target
Mohammed Haroun, a Palestinian businessman with a German passport, installed the security cameras at the Al BustanRotana. “It’s funny that the suspects believed that they could hide under a cap,” says Haroun, the head of Security Advice Services. “But I know where and at what angle to install the cameras.”
The security camera images show Mabhouh looking around as he checks in at the front desk. He looked over his shoulder as he walked out of the elevator onto the second floor. He knew that he was a target of one of the world’s most effective intelligence agencies. He didn’t seem overly concerned about the two tennis players sharing the elevator with him.
When Mabhouh, an unobtrusive, rotund man with a moustache, stepped out of the elevator, he had five hours left to live.
The two tennis players noted Mabhouh’s room number, 230, a non-smoking room, and sent it to Elvinger in a text message. They also sent him the number of the room across the hall, 237, and Elvinger promptly called the hotel to reserve the room. Then he booked his return flight, to Zürich via Doha.
One of the cameras in front of the hotel recorded the mirror image of a white delivery van with tinted windows. A few of the agents walked to the vehicle but then turned around abruptly. They had apparently mistaken it for a vehicle being driven by an accomplice.
A Borrowed Name
This would put the investigators on the trail of a 62-year-old British citizen named Christopher Lockwood. According to the Wall Street Journal, Lockwood had his name changed in 1994 from the name he was using at the time, Yehuda Lustig. But that name, the Journal discovered, also proved to be false, a name borrowed from a young soldier killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
At 4:23 p.m., Mabhouh left the Al Bustan. Coincidentally, a Mossad agent was going the same way.
Despite their subsequent eagerness to show off their achievements, the Dubai police have had little to say about what Mabhouh was doing in the four hours before returning to the hotel. “As far as I know,” Tamim said at the time, “he had a ticket to China and then on to Sudan — or the other way around. He may have made a stopover here to unwind.”
For a man like Mabhouh, unwinding might include discussing an arms deal for the Gaza Strip, one of the world’s most explosive pieces of real estate. According to Israeli sources, Mabhouh met with a banker who had already helped him with a number of international arms deals in the past, as well as with his usual contact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who had flown to Dubai to coordinate two major shipments of weapons for Hamas in the coming months. It is understandable that the police chief in Dubai prefers not to discuss the issue. Although the UAE has pledged to strictly comply with international sanctions against Iran, implementation is another story. Iran is nearby, and there is a powerful Iranian community in Dubai.
Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, Evening
The actual kill-team entered the hotel at 6:34 p.m. There were two pairs of agents, all four of them broad-shouldered men wearing baseball caps and carrying backpacks and shopping bags. The two reconnaissance teams already in the Al Bustan were withdrawn, to avoid attracting attention, and replaced with two others. One of the teams was disguised as British tourists wearing sun hats.
At 8 p.m., the six agents took up their positions in the hallway outside Mabhouh’s room. A specialist manipulated the electronic lock to the door of room 230 so that the key card from the room across the hall would also work.
Gail Folliard and Kevin Daveron were assigned to secure the hallway. Both had already changed into new disguises at other hotels in the area, and both were wearing wigs. Daveron was wearing a false moustache and the uniform worn by Al Bustan employees. Just as the agents were working with the door lock, a man walked into the hallway, unable to find his room. Daveron, posing as a hotel employee, managed to divert the man away from the hallway.
At 8:24 p.m., Mabhouh returned to the hotel through the revolving door in the lobby. Carrying a plastic bag with new shoes, he took the elevator to the second floor. He didn’t notice the man with the moustache, wearing a hotel uniform, or the woman in the dark wig who had been pacing back and forth across the patterned brown carpeting for half an hour.
Under the Mattress
Mabhouh went into his room. It is unlikely that his encounter with the four killers waiting behind the door lasted very long. The only signs of a struggle were the few broken slats of the bed frame that were later found under the mattress.
While preparing for the operation, the team had agreed that they wanted Mabhouh’s death to look as natural as possible. Anything else would have resulted in a massive police effort. The airport would have been closed, making it impossible for the commando unit to safely leave the country.
The investigative report states that the victim was injected with succinylcholine, a drug that causes muscle paralysis in less than a minute. Mabhouh was then suffocated with a pillow, according to the investigators.
The truth is that it is still unclear how exactly the Hamas officer was killed. Succinylcholine is easily detected in the body of a dead person, and the injection site should also be visible. And as anyone familiar with TV crime dramas knows, violent suffocation produces clear marks in the face, including areas of compression, tiny burst blood vessels in the pupils and cracked lips.
It is hard to imagine that a technically sophisticated intelligence agency like the Mossad would resort to such simple methods — and certainly not in an operation on hostile territory.
By 8:46 p.m., the first two perpetrators were standing in front of the elevator that would take them down to the lobby. In the videos taken with the security cameras, it seems obvious that the men are pumped up with adrenaline, as they shift their weight back and forth, from one foot to the other, like boxers. One is still wearing a rubber glove, unusual for a hotel guest.
On a Plane to Paris
The members of the team left the Al Bustan in groups of two and took taxis to the airport. Folliard left the hotel holding the arm of another agent and with a plastic bag in her left hand.
Daveron secured the elevator. He was the last to leave room 237, talking on his mobile phone and pulling his trolley case behind him.
A short time later, Daveron and Folliard were sitting on a plane to Paris, while two others were on a flight to South Africa. The body of “Plasma Screen” had not yet been discovered and was still lying in room 230.
Everything had gone according to plan, at least up to that point. It would take almost a week before Tamim learned of the death of the senior Hamas weapons negotiators, who was killed practically within view of police headquarters.
JAN. 24 or 25, 2010
The Hamas leadership in Damascus noticed that something was wrong when it didn’t hear from Mabhouh. A man who had worked for Mabhouh was sent to the morgue in Dubai. After that, Hamas officials put in a call to Dubai police headquarters from Damascus. Yes, they admitted, they had allowed one of their senior members to travel to Dubai under a false passport, and they had neglected to notify Tamim, the super cop, in advance, and now something had gone wrong, very wrong.
According to eyewitnesses, Tamim then flew into a rage and shouted into the phone: “You can pack up yourselves and your bank accounts and your weapons and your fake passports and get out of my country.”
Tamim had a problem. Despite being equipped with the most sophisticated surveillance system in the Arab world, he had no idea that an Israeli commando operation had been executed successfully in Dubai, under his very eyes. He had been blind.
This explains his fit of rage. And it also explains the massive investigation he was now ordering his troops to undertake. He may have been unable to prevent the killing, but now, at least, he would get his revenge, in the form of the investigation. And he would ensure that the investigation itself would become a personal triumph — Lieutenant General Tamim, the supercop of Dubai.
Tamim had his team compile a list of everyone who had entered the country shortly before the killing and left soon afterwards. The names were compared with those of people who had traveled to Dubai in February, March, June and November 2009, the months in which Mabhouh was also there.
Some Hollywood Film
The names on this list, in turn, were compared with the hotel guest lists and the videos taken by well over 1,000 surveillance cameras. Tamim had the surveillance systems of hotels, malls and the airport analyzed. The process soon yielded an image corresponding to every name on his passenger and hotel guest lists, so that he was now able to compare the images with the Al Bustan security camera videos.
The other members of the commando unit were identified once Tamim’s agents had analyzed the Payoneer payments and the conspicuous calls to the numbers in Austria.
All of this took much longer than the “24 hours” Tamim mentioned in his first press conference. Nevertheless, it did enable him to portray the Mossad operation like some Hollywood film.
Two Palestinians were also arrested in Jordan and extradited to Dubai. Anwar Shaibar and Ahmed Hassanain, men believed to be associated with the Palestinian Fatah movement, had allegedly helped the team book hotel rooms and reserve rental cars. Investigators later changed their assessment of the Palestinians, concluding that Hamas had fabricated the story to implicate its political rivals in the case.
At first, Tamim had refused to believe that the Mossad had conducted an operation on his doorstep. “We thought, until the very last minute, that another Palestinian group had killed him,” says Tamim. “We never thought of the Mossad. Only after we had gathered together all the faces and all the disguises on the surveillance images did we realize that they weren’t Palestinians — that they couldn’t be.”
Friday, Jan. 29, 2010
Mahmoud Mabhouh was buried in Yarmuk, a Palestinian neighborhood in Damascus.
Tamim had assembled most of the parts in his puzzle. He notified his superior, the emir. And in an interview with Al Jazeera, he said that he could not rule out the possibility of the Mossad being involved in the murder. The Reuters news agency also reported Mabhouh’s death as a murder, but the news attracted little attention. Only a few people recognized the story’s potential.
SUNDAY, JAN. 30, 2010, EVENING
At a reception, US Ambassador Richard Olson asked UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed about the murder at the Al Bustan. After making a few phone calls, Zayed decided that the matter was important enough to be brought to the attention of his superiors.
The two de facto rulers of the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister and ruler of Dubai, debated on how to proceed in the case. They concluded that they could do nothing or they could “disclose more or less everything the investigations had uncovered.”
The two sheikhs chose the second option.
MONDAY, FEB. 15, 2010
It was time for Tamim to take his revenge. The police chief appeared before the press, holding up a piece of paper with the photos and names, against a red background, of 11 murder suspects. But that wasn’t all. A triumph has to be placed in context, and timing is critical.
Tamim presented the international press with the video footage documenting the crime.
He had already solved a spectacular jewelry heist at the Wafi Mall in 2007, secured the conviction of Egyptian real estate tycoon HishamTalaatMoustafa, a friend of President Hosni Mubarak, for the murder of a Lebanese singer in 2008 and, in 2009, had solved the murder of Chechen warlord SulimYamadayev. But his film about the Mossad assassination of Mahmoud Al Mabhouh was the highpoint of his career. DahiKhalfanTamim had made the Israelis look like fools.
In the ensuing days, Tamim paid close attention to the impact of his appearances. He was ultimately praised and even celebrated, not only in the Emirates, but also in Iraq, Iran and the West — and, in the end, in Israel. Tamim doesn’t remember the name of the Israeli journalist who interviewed him via email, but he does know that he responded right away. “She was young,” he says, “and very professional. The entire Israeli press, they all treated me very fairly.” Tamim was pleased with the way things had turned out.
WEDNESDAY, FEB. 24, 2010
The lieutenant general sent a document to the central bank and the foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi, together with the request that the minister of state forward it to the US Embassy. The document read:
“Excellency Sultan Al Suwiadi, UAE Central Bank Governor. Subject: Credit Cards MC 5115-2600-1600-6190, MC 5115-2600-1600-5317, MC 5301-3800-3201-7106. General Management of the State Security offers greetings, and asks your Excellency to direct the money laundry and suspicious transactions unit at the Central Bank to urgently obtain details of the above credit cards, in addition to details for purchases, accounts, and payments on those cards, as the users of those cards were involved in the murder of Mahmoud Mabhouh. Those cards were issued by META BANK in the state of Iowa, USA. Thank you for your kind cooperation.”
On the same day, State Minister Mohammed Anwar Gargash delivered the letter from Dubai to the legal attaché at the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Ambassador Olson forwarded the letter to Washington and requested that the matter be addressed promptly, noting that the issue had already been raised in a meeting between the foreign minister and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the previous day. The Americans knew who had used the credit cards in question.
All they had to do was ask the government in Tel Aviv.
On June 4, 2010, almost exactly a year after the Mossad agent had been issued a German passport, Alexander Varin traveled to Warsaw. Coming from Tel Aviv and on his way to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, he was merely changing planes in Warsaw. He showed the Polish border control agents his passport, which identified him as Uri Brodsky. An arrest warrant had been issued for a person by that name, following a request by the German federal prosecutor’s office. Varin, aka Brodsky, was arrested.
Investigators with Germany’s BKA had painstakingly reconstructed Varin’s flight routes. In the previous months, his travels had taken him to Austria, Lithuania, Latvia, Turkey and the Czech Republic, as well as several other places. Varin, a tall, heavy-set man, pulled a hood over his head when he was led into the Warsaw courtroom. He appeared to be a logistics expert of sorts for the Mossad in Europe, and he was outfitted with several identities. The Mossad had not known that the name Brodsky had already been used since the hotel stay in Cologne a year earlier. It was yet another mistake.
The matter of his extradition, which the German courts were requesting, turned into a tough battle. The Israelis applied a great deal of pressure to the Polish government in order to prevent extradition. The Poles eventually found a Solomonic solution: Brodsky, aka Varin, would be extradited to Germany, but once there he could only be charged with a passport violation.
Mossad Under Pressure
When the Israeli was extradited on Aug. 12, 2010, the embassy hired two of the best and most expensive German attorneys. They paid the bail money of €100,000, and when Varin was released from detention on Aug. 13, he left Germany for Tel Aviv the same day. At the end of last year, a court in Cologne suspended the case in return for a €60,000 fine. It was a solution that all sides could live with, that is, if it weren’t for the German arrest warrant against Varin, who was suspected of engaging in espionage. If Varin tried to enter Germany tomorrow, he would be taken into custody at the border.
The operation in Dubai has put the Mossad under great pressure (even though the Israelis have yet to officially confirm that they had anything to do with the matter). The head of the Caesarea special unit offered his resignation, but it was not accepted. This was not the case with Meïr Dagan, the head of the Mossad. Even though he had hoped for an extension of his term prior to the operation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a successor in the wake of the botched operation. Dagan left his office on Jan. 6, 2011.
In a press conference, Tamim called for the resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu and promised to pursue the culprits “until the end of time.” That seems to be about the amount of time he will need.
Nevertheless, most Israelis see the attack on Mabhouh as a success. “It is difficult to call the Dubai operation a failure,” says AviIssacharoff, an expert on the Arab world with the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz. Although Israel’s reputation has been harmed internationally, says Issacharoff, “the operational goal was achieved. Hamas has seen that it is vulnerable, and the attackers made it home unharmed.” The Israelis will simply have to be more careful.
Next time, that is.
By Ronen Bergman, Christoph Schult, Alexander Smoltczyk, Holger Stark and Bernhard Zand
(CNN) — When it comes to finding explosives, sniffer dogs are hard to beat — their noses are so sensitive they can pick up odors emitted from the chemical vapors found in bombs they are trained to detect.
But what if there was a technology that could do just the same, work 24 hours a day and at a fraction of the price?
Koniku, a Silicon Valley-based startup founded by Oshiorenoya Agabi, is trying to develop just that — high-tech sensors made from genetically modified living cells that can detect odors in the air.
“We take biological cells, so living matter, and we modify them to give them capabilities to detect a smell — in the same way that living biological matter in your own nose functions,” Agabi tells CNN.
The cells are fused with a silicon chip that processes odor signals and passes them through a machine learning system for classification, performance improvement and error correction. If a smell is identified as a security threat, the purple, jelly-like device — called a Konikore — lights up.
Having performed well in preliminary tests, Koniku — in partnership with aerospace company Airbus — will start field trials of the devices in December, at Changi Airport in Singapore and San Francisco International Airport.
First line of defense
“Our objective is to provide airports and airlines with 100% situational awareness on the chemical, explosive, bacteriological threat,” says Julien Touzeau, head of product security for Airbus America.
The devices would act as a first line of defense, screening people as they enter the airport — complementing existing methods for detecting bomb threats, such as security scanners and dogs.
Airbus works across the industry to provide security services. The main request it receives from airport partners is to find technology that is able “to detect a potential threat as early as possible,” says Touzeau.
Weighing less than 350 grams and about half the size of a smartphone, the devices could be installed in multiple locations: on the revolving doors at the entrance to a terminal, at check-in desks, or at the entrance to an aircraft.
This would not only make them easier to deploy than their canine counterparts, but more cost-effective.
“Dogs work for 20 minutes maximum, they can be easily distracted, and they are very, very expensive to train — it’s an average cost of $200,000 per dog,” says Touzeau.
The current Koniku prototype is worth around $3,000. Touzeau expects this to drop into the three-figure range once it is mass-produced.
Potential uses for the device do not stop at security, says Agabi. Recently, Koniku has been investigating whether the same technology could be used to detect viruses like Covid-19, following reports that dogs may be trained to sniff it out.
While they cannot detect the actual virus, respiratory diseases cause a change in the body odor of sufferers, which dogs — or “electronic noses,” devices that can detect odors — may be able to pick up on.
Treximo, a biotech consulting firm, is working with Koniku to test whether the devices can be used to detect Covid-19. The firm says that if the trials are successful, it will apply for an emergency-use authorization with the US Food and Drug Administration early next year.
This would transform its potential usage and demand, says Agabi, who envisages the technology being used across a wide range of public spaces, from restaurants to football stadiums.
“In the post-Covid world, the virus is more of an issue than explosives,” he says. “We could allow the screening of millions of people, potentially simultaneously, in shared spaces where economic activities take place.”
However, some scientists specializing in electronic noses are skeptical of the technology.
Timothy Swager, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that to pull off what Koniku claims would require “some technical miracle.”
Integrating natural proteins into silicon circuits is extremely difficult, he says, and the fragility of cells and the complexity of their interactions with chemical substances makes them hard to work with.
“The e-nose concept has long been problematic and there is a graveyard of companies in this general area,” Swager tells CNN.
Kenneth Suslick, a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in electronic noses, adds that the lack of publications detailing the technology from Airbus, Koniku or a third party, “screams alarm bells.”
“When you have a startup technology like this, the very first thing you want to do is patent,” he says. “After you’ve submitted your patent you want to publish, because those publications give you credibility … and they let other people evaluate the technology.”
Koniku submitted a patent for the technology in 2016, but the results are still pending. Agabi says that since Koniku is a company not an academic research group, “it has been sufficient to share all data with customers under non-disclosure agreements.”
Agabi is confident that Koniku will prove the critics wrong. He says recent trials conducted by Airbus, alongside Alabama law enforcement officials and FBI bomb technicians, found that the devices were able to detect explosives better than trained dogs.
The airport trials are the next big milestone. “It’s the first deployment of the new technology in situ, and we will try to understand how human beings interact with it,” says Agabi.
“Technology can be as advanced and cutting edge as you want, but if it’s not delivering value to people, it’s totally meaningless,” he says.
The age of Russian superweapons is upon us — at least that’s what President Vladimir Putin wants us to believe.
And they are cause for concern because the United States’ traditional early warning systems might not be able to see those weapons coming.
Hypersonic weapons such as Russia’s 3M22 Zircon fly so fast and low — at speeds of up to Mach 6 and at a low atmospheric-ballistic trajectory — that they can penetrate traditional anti-missile defense systems.
The missile flies with an advanced fuel that the Russians say gives it a range of up to 1,000 kilometers. And it’s so fast that the air pressure in front of the weapon forms a plasma cloud as it moves, absorbing radio waves and making it practically invisible to active radar systems.
U.S. Aegis missile interceptor systems require 8-10 seconds of reaction time to intercept incoming attacks. In those 8-10 seconds, the Russian Zircon missiles will already have traveled 20 kilometers, and the interceptor missiles do not fly fast enough to catch up.
According to Popular Mechanics, even if a U.S. ship were to detect a Zircon missile from 100 miles away, it would have only one minute to do something about it.
In order to intercept a Russian Zircon missile, the U.S. would either need to intercept it at launch or fly an object into its path.
Russia’s shift to hypersonic weapons is likely a means of contending with American superiority in size, technology and sheer number of aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy intends to maintain a force of 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
By contrast, Russia has one — and it deploys with a tugboat in case its engine breaks down.
While at sea, any of Russia’s 15 Buyan–class corvettes will be able to carry up to 25 Zircon hypersonic missiles. It would take fewer than a half-dozen of those missiles to sink even the most advanced American aircraft carrier, such as the USS Gerald R. Ford.
Some say that innovations like the Zircon are moving the development of military technology away from aircraft carrier-based systems, calling for the U.S. Navy to reconsider the role of the carrier entirely.
Iron Dome is getting more updates after nearly a decade in service as the threat of improving rockets, missiles, small drones, and more grows.
By Joseph Trevithick on January 13, 2020.
Israel says that an upgraded version of its combat-proven Iron Dome defense system successfully knocked down all of the simulated targets it faced in a recent series of tests. Israeli officials say that the updates will ensure that the system, which entered service nearly a decade ago, will be able to engage “evolving threats in the region,” which include terrorists armed with ever-improving rocket and missile capabilities, the growing danger posed by small unmanned aircraft, and more.
The Israeli Ministry of Defense announced that the tests had occurred on Jan. 12, 2020, but did not say when or where specifically they had taken place. The Directorate of Defense Research and Development and the Israel Missile Defense Organization (IMDO) conducted the testing program in cooperation with Iron Dome’s manufacturer, Rafael. The Israel Defense Forces first declared that the defense system, which it had developed with significant assistance from the United States, was operational in March 2011.
“We have completed a series of tests with a success rate of 100 percent,” Rafael’s Vice President Pini Yungman said in a statement. “The system intercepted all threats, which were simulated in an area secured for the purpose of the experiment.”
“When we deliver it to the Israel Defense Forces, the Air Force will be equipped to confront evolving threats in the region,” Moshe Patael, the head of IMDO, said in his own statement. He further added that these first deliveries of the upgraded Iron Dome systems would begin in the near future.
Israeli authorities have not offered any specific details on the improvements to Iron Dome. The complete system, at present, consists of launchers firing fast and agile Tamir interceptors, as well as associated air defense radars.
Tamir has an active radar seeker to home in on its targets and receives additional targeting information in flight via a data link for increased precision. It employs a high explosive blast fragmentation warhead with a proximity fuse to actually destroy the threat. You can read more about how Iron Dome works in detail in this past War Zone piece.
Since its entry into Israeli service in 2011, Iron Dome’s primary job has been countering rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds, also known as C-RAM. In this role, it forms the core of the low-end of Israel’s layered missile defense network.
However, it has already reportedly demonstrated its ability to engage other target sets, including cruise missiles. Improvements to Iron Dome could include further opening up Tamir’s engagement envelopes and other updates to better allow it to engage different types of threats.
Israel’s most immediate adversaries, especially the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, have made significant strides in recent years in expanding and improving their own rocket and missile arsenals, which presents new challenges for the country’s entire multi-tier missile defense architecture. There is also an increasing risk that those groups, among others, may field new systems, such as suicide drones and cruise missiles, that Iron Dome may not be best equipped to respond to in its present form.
Iran, Israel’s chief regional opponent, has been particularly active in proliferating unmanned aircraft, rocket, and missile technology to its proxies throughout the Middle East. In September 2019, Saudi Arabia, and, by extension, the world, saw just how serious these emerging threats could be when it suffered unprecedented suicide drone and cruise missile attacks on oil-related sites. The United States accuses Iran of carrying out those strikes itself and using proxies to provide plausibility deniability of its direct role.
Improving the probability of achieving a kill also reduces the total number of interceptors needed to ensure the destruction of a single target, which in turn effectively increases the magazine depth of the system. This would also improve the overall cost-effectiveness of Iron Dome.
“Throughout the last decade, we have conducted dozens of interceptions as part of a framework of tests and more than 2,000 operational interceptions,” IMDO head Patael said. The Israeli Ministry of Defense says that Iron Dome has successfully intercepted approximately 85 percent of all targets it has faced over the course of its operational history.
Concerns about opponents developing and employing countermeasures to Iron Dome, beyond just large scale attacks, can only be growing after nearly a decade of having the system in operation. Israel has been a pioneer in multi-mode seeker systems and could potentially be looking to integrate such a system onto Tamir. Adding an imaging infrared seeker to the interceptor, for example, would give it an alternate method of finding its target in the event of a jamming attack that blinds its radar guidance system and should provide a high probability of kill overall.
There is now an increased risk that Tamir’s engagement capabilities, in their existing form, may be compromised, at least to some degree. In November 2019, reports emerged that seeker and fuse sections from a Tamir interceptor had fallen largely intact in the Gaza Strip following a Hamas rocket attack, giving Israel’s adversaries a particularly worrying opportunity to examine how these systems work up close.
Any such updates that expand Iron Dome’s capabilities or improve its general performance will no doubt be of interest to existing and potential foreign customers, as well. The U.S. Army notably announced last year that it would buy two batteries worth of the defense systems, primarily for use in the counter-cruise missile role.
The Army subsequently said that it did not see Iron Dome as a long-term solution to its needs, but added that it might still acquire more in the future for lack of readily available alternatives. It’s Iron Dome batteries could easily see action overseas against a variety of threats.
They would be particularly well suited to operations in Iraq, for instance, where Iranian-backed militias were firing rockets at bases where U.S. forces are stationed on a regular basis even before the strike that killed Soleimani. The recent Iranian missile attack targeting American troops in that country underscored the pressing need for improved air and missile defenses and more of them to shield American troops from various threats, in general.
For Israel, the updates to Iron Dome show that the country continues to invest in the system and view it as an important part of its air and missile defense capabilities in light of various emerging and evolving threats. With these latest upgrades, and likely additional ones in the future, it wouldn’t be surprising if the system serves in Israel, as well as in other countries, for another decade.
This fall’s first Project Convergence exercise aims to feed targeting data from satellites to artillery so fast that gunners can unleash precision fire in much less than a minute. And that’s just the start.
By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR. on September 10, 2020 at 5:11 PM
WASHINGTON: Army experiments have shortened the kill chain remarkably – from the time a satellite or drone detects a target to the time an artillery unit opens fire – to “less than 20 seconds,” the head of Army futures Command said this afternoon.
When you’re fighting an enemy like Iraq, “it was probably okay to take tens of minutes between identifying a target and actually putting round on that target,” Gen. Mike Murray told a Center for a New America Security webcast. But in a future fight against “our near-peer threats, both Russia and China… it’s not going to be tens of minutes.”
The Army’s Project Convergence wargames at Yuma Proving Ground will test a kill chain this fall combining Army and non-Army assets, Murray said:
Sensors: : Targeting data will come from satellites in Low Earth Orbit – “not Army-owned, [but] joint and really interagency,” Murray said – as well as Army Grey Eagle drones and sensors on the ground.
Command & Control: That data will flow into a C2 hub at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, where it’ll be processed and analyzed by what Murray called “a developmental program” – almost certainly some form of artificial intelligence able to sort through information far faster than human staff officers. (McChord is also home to the Army’s first-ever Intelligence, Information, Electronic Warfare, & Space (I2CEWS) battalion, whose raison d’être is long-range targeting for both physical and cyber weapons, though Murray didn’t say whether or not they were involved). The C2 node then calculates the best weapon to destroy that specific target.
Shooters: “We’ll put rounds on target from either a [M109] self-propelled howitzer, or from a Grey Eagle, or from a ground platform,” he said.
From beginning to end, satellite to shots fired, Murray said, “right now, we have some success doing that in less than 20 seconds.”
‘Very Immature Technologies’
As head of Army Futures Command, Murray oversees development of 34 high-priority systems programs across six broad portfolios: long-range precision artillery, high-speed aircraft, armored vehicles, the tactical network, air & missile defense, and soldier gear. Project Convergence stems from the Army’s realization last year that, since all of these weapons need to work together on the future battlefield – and preferably as much more than the sum of their individual parts – Futures Command needed to start testing how they’d work together as early as possible in their development.
“We have… almost no programs of record at Yuma,” Murray said. “These are very immature technologies that we’re piecing together to understand potential, to understand what soldiers can do and really what commander can make out of these tools.”
It’s a tremendous work in progress. “Part of the magic out at Yuma is there are people recoding software every night to fix problems — and I see that on a future battlefield,” Murray said. “Brigade commanders and division commanders – if we [still] have brigades and divisions — are going to have kids in their command posts that are able to re-code software to solve problems they came up with that day.”
As the director of the Joint AI Center told me in a recent interview, software can adapt to new threats and opportunities vastly faster than you can upgrade your physical weapons. So in this software-driven way of war, constantly changing your code isn’t a bug – it’s a feature.
It’s not just the Army that needs to connect this way, either. All the services are striving to link together in a single Joint All-Domain Command & Control (JADC2) meta-network, an idea of increasing interest to US allies as well.
While the inaugural Project Convergence this fall will be largely Army, with the significant exception of the LEO satellites, observers from the Air Force and Great Britain will be present. Project Convergence 2021 will be “very much focused on bringing the joint force in,” Murray said, and 2022 will bring in foreign partners. “The UK is signed to participate in ’22 and they will be there this year [observing],” he said. “The Australians are talking about participating in ’22.”
But the new network will never be omniscient and omnipresent, Murray warned, not just because of real-life technical limitations but because enemy jamming and hacking will actively attack its communications links.
“JADC2 [has] been described variously as all sensors, all shooters, all C2 nodes,” the general said. “I think it’s a little more narrow than that, because we’re going to be in a contested environment, restricted bandwidth. We just won’t have wide open pipes to push data through.”
Topics: army, Army Futures Command, artificial intelligence, Fort Lewis Washington, Gen. John Murray, JADC2, Joint All Domain Command and Control, networks, Project Convergence, satellites, software, Yuma
CHINA has launched two missiles in the South China Sea in a furious warning to the United States.
By Bill McLoughlin Published: Thurs, Aug 27, 2020
Beijing has launched two medium-range missiles into the South China Sea in a scathing warning to the United States, as tensions between the superpowers soar, triggering World War 3 fears in the region. The move came on Wednesday morning, one day after China said a US U-2 spy plane entered a no-fly zone without permission. A source close to the Chinese military is understood to have told local media the missile launch was intended to send a warning to the United States.
The missiles were launched towards the Paracel Islands and the south-east of the Hainan province to the south of the Chinese mainland.
A source told the South China Morning Post: “This is China’s response to the potential risks brought by the increasingly frequent incoming US warplanes and military vessels in the South China Sea.
“China doesn’t want the neighbouring countries to misunderstand Beijing’s goals.”
It is also understood the missiles were aimed at showcasing China’s ability to deny any force entering the South China Sea.
A DF-26 missile can be used for nuclear or conventional strikes against naval or ground targets.
The second missile was a DF-21, which many have stated is the world’s first anti-ship missile.
Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military commentator said: “The US continues to test China’s bottom line in Taiwan and South China Sea issues, and this pushed China to showcase its military strength to let Washington know that even US aircraft carriers cannot flex their full muscle near China’s coast.”
Both China and the US have increased their presence in the region in recent months.
The Paracel Islands are one of several island chains claimed by Beijing under its One China policy.
The island chain is also claimed by Vietnam, although China insisted the islands should be associated with the mainland due to its historical rights.
Taiwan has also been claimed under the policy, with Xi Jinping insisting the autonomous island will soon join China.
Tensions were further heightened following US Health Secretary, Alex Azar’s visit to the island earlier this month.
Although Mr Azar claimed the landmark trip was in order to coordinate the two states’ coronavirus response, the visit was met with a dire warning from China.
Ahead of the visit, China’s foreign ministry insisted the move would threaten the peace and stability in the region.
A spokesperson said: “I would like to stress again that the Taiwan issue is the most important and sensitive issue in China-US relations.
“What the US has done seriously violated its commitment on the Taiwan issue.”
Due to China’s claims and militarisation of several islands in the region, the US has stepped freedom of navigation manoeuvres.
Both the USS Nimitz and Ronald Reagan have both been sent to the region in order to protect the sovereignty of states such as Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo has warned of China creating a naval empire in the region.
He has also claimed China’s continue presence and actions in the South China Sea are unlawful.
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The US intensified its economic pressure on China’s Xinjiang province on Friday, imposing sanctions on a powerful Chinese company and two officials for what it said were human rights abuses against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.
The move, the latest blow to US-China relations, came a week after US President Donald Trump closed the Chinese consulate in Houston, prompting Beijing to shutter the US consulate in Chengdu.
The US Treasury Department said in a statement it blacklisted the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, also known as XPCC, along with Sun Jinlong, former party secretary of XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, XPCC’s deputy party secretary and commander, over accusations they are connected to serious human rights abuse against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities rank as the stain of the century,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
China denies mistreatment of the minority group and says the camps holding many Uighurs provide vocational training and are needed to fight extremism.
Washington’s action freezes any US assets of the company and officials; generally prohibits Americans from dealing with them; and bars Sun Jinlong and Peng Jiarui from travelling to the US.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the company as “a secretive, paramilitary organisation that performs a variety of functions under the direct control” of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“They are directly involved in the implementation of the CCP’s comprehensive surveillance, detention and indoctrination… which we all know targets the Uighurs and members of other ethnic minority members in Xinjiang,” the official said.
The Treasury also issued a licence, authorising certain wind-down and divestment transactions and activities related to blocked XPCC subsidiaries until Sept 30.
Washington recently imposed sanctions on the autonomous region of Xinjiang’s Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo, the highest-ranking Chinese official to be targeted, blacklisting the member of China’s powerful Politburo and current first party secretary of the XPCC, as well as other officials and the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau.
Peter Harrell, a former official and sanctions expert at the Centre for a New American Security, said that from an economic perspective, Friday’s action was a “substantial escalation” of US pressure and sends a warning to companies engaged in activity in China.
“The Trump administration finally took meaningful sanctions … action on Xinjiang, as opposed to ones that were primarily symbolic,” Harrell said.
XPCC is a quasi-military group created in 1954. It was initially made up of demobilised soldiers who spent time in military training while developing farms on the region’s arid land.
Civilian members from eastern China later joined the corps, which now numbers 3.11 million people, or more than 12 percent of the region’s population. It is almost entirely made up of Han Chinese in a region that is home to the Muslim Uighur people.
Since humans have bent electricity to war, there has been a hunt for a special weapon that renders the technology particularly useless. Lurking in the annals of weapon design, and periodically re-emerging as a novel solution to some new machine, exist tools that target electronics, and electronics only.
Early in July, Russian media described a weapon that roughly fits into this tempo, using the phrase “EMP cannon.” EMP, or electro-magnetic pulse, is a real, observable phenomenon, but the primary way to produce the effect at scale is to use a nuclear weapon.When the nuke is detonated low to the ground, an electromagnetic pulse is one effect of many, limited in range and whose effect is largely overshadowed by the fire and death of the nuclear blast. When the nuke is detonated at high altitude, in the lower reaches of space, the pulse can travel quite a distance, though the effect is mitigated by hardening of second-strike nuclear weapons and the almost certain nuclear retaliation that would follow.
This Russian EMP cannon is neither of those effects, which makes the moniker vexing. Instead, the weapon as described more closely resembles microwave guns, a kind of directed energy weapon that’s seeing modern usage as an anti-drone tool.
In that sense, the weapon can be seen as “an extension of Russia’s pledge to develop breakthrough capabilities to counter what they perceive as the current Western overmatch in hi-tech and [Precision-Guided Munition] weapons,” says Samuel Bendett, adviser to the think tank CNA’s Russia program, who specializes in Russian unmanned military systems.
Creating a directed energy weapon that can specifically disable drones is one way to leap-frog into the future of war, as human-piloted and robotic aircraft look to contest skies filled with hostile machines. TASS notes that such a weapon is expected to be incorporated in the remotely piloted version of any sixth-generation fighters Russia produces.
“The cannons as described would also fit into Russia’s overall counter-drone research, development, testing, and evaluations,” says Bendett. “This work is carried out as an extension of Russia’s counter-drone lessons learned from its Syria experience, as well as part of defense against Western high-altitude drones that currently conduct surveillance missions near Russian borders.”
Whatever the nature of the anti-electronics weapon actually being developed, the future of war is likely to see far more new energy weapons, put to familiar use.
Iranian officials say that some of the explosions at factories and military facilities, and some forest fires, may have been sabotage but blamed weather and accidents for the others.
By Farnaz Fassihi on July 15, 2020
A large fire broke out at a shipyard in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr on Wednesday, burning seven ships and sending plumes of black smoke billowing above the city skyline, according to videos and Iranian media reports.
The fire followed dozens of recent fires and explosions across Iran’s forests, factories and military and nuclear facilities in the past three months that have rattled ordinary Iranians. Iranian officials have said that some of the episodes may have been acts of sabotage but blamed weather, accidents and equipment malfunctions for the others.
On Tuesday an aluminum factory in the industrial city of Lamard, in Fars Province, caught fire. On Sunday, a fire broke out at petrochemical plant in Khuzestan Province.
An explosion at the country’s top nuclear facility in Natanz two weeks ago damaged the structure where centrifuges were assembled and has been attributed to Israeli sabotage.
There have also been explosions at two power plants, a chlorine gas leak at a chemical plant and an explosion at a missile production factory at a military complex in Tehran.
Some Iranian officials have said privately that they suspect that at least some of the fires and explosions were part of an American and Israeli military campaign against Iran, but no official has publicly said whether any of the incidents are linked or blamed any country or group for them.
Some analysts speculate that various enemies of the Iranian government — not just the United States and Israel but possibly domestic groups as well — may be seizing the opportunity to stoke chaos.
“There is a belief that those who want regime change in Iran are throwing everything they have at Iran to see which one would stick,” said Foad Izadi, a conservative political analyst in Tehran. The waves of explosions and fires, he said, are “creating this sense of instability and chaos and insecurity.”
No casualties were reported from the shipyard fire on Wednesday. Local officials said the flames were so extensive that they had to call in additional fire engines from the navy, the Revolutionary Guards Corp and a nearby nuclear plant.
The fire was tamed after about five hours, local media reported.
Jahangir Dehghan, Bushehr’s top crisis official, said the cause of the fire was unclear but that high winds and the fiberglass used in boat construction had contributed to its rapid spread, according to the Tasnim news agency. Fiberglass, however, is not generally flammable.
While government officials have not linked the fires and explosions, they have acknowledged that the number and frequency are unusual.
Aside from military and industrial fires, more than 1,100 forest fires in the past three months have burned more than 150 square miles of woodlands. Parliament called in the ministers of environment and intelligence to question them about the forest fires, at least a fifth of which were believed to been caused by arson.
Many Iranians and some officials suspect that the fires and explosions are part of a coordinated covert operation by the United States and Israel to pressure the Islamic Republic government to negotiate a new nuclear deal, or to provoke a military confrontation.
The July 2 explosion at Natanz was part of a yearlong covert operation by Israel and the United States, American and Middle Eastern intelligence officials have said. Intelligence officials said the blast may have set the Iranian nuclear program back as much as two years.
Israel and the United States have sabotaged Iran’s nuclear program in the past. But officials from both countries said they had nothing to do with the explosion at a missile production facility near Tehran in late June.
But there have been so many things burning or blowing up that Iranians are suspicious of everything.
“Nobody believes these incidents are an accident even if they really are accidents,” said Abbas Abdi, a reformist analyst in Tehran. He said he thought the aim of these attacks was to project the sense that Iran’s government was losing control and to encourage opposition supporters inside Iran to rise up.
For many Iranians, anticipating what will blow up next has become a kind of parlor game.
Majid, a 63-year-old business owner in Tehran’s bazaar who asked that his last name not be used, said morning greetings with fellow shopkeepers are followed by speculation about what will explode or burn that day.
Hossein, a writer in Tehran who also asked his last name not be used, said that when he took a taxi last week, the driver quizzed the passengers about which sites had exploded and which they predicted would be next.
In the absence of a clear culprit or claim of responsibility, the government has been struggling to respond.
Analysts said some of the episodes had clearly demonstrated that there were security gaps and intelligence moles within Iran’s most secure nuclear and military sites as well as industrial complexes.
Not responding to sabotage risks appearing weak and vulnerable, while retaliating could set off a military confrontation that could be costly and painful. Some officials also fear that a war could improve President Trump’s re-election prospects.
Hence the government has said little about the fires and explosions that have damaged a military base in Birjand, the state broadcasting headquarters in Tehran, a port near Bandarlengeh, a steel plant in Ahwaz and a petrochemical plant in Mahshahrtaken, to name a few episodes that took place over just five days last month.
Instead, the government is embracing what one official calls “strategic patience.”
“Iran is neither prepared nor wants a war,” Mr. Abdi said. “The reason it won’t even acknowledge publicly that they are sabotage is to save face and not be cornered into a response.”
But if the attacks escalate, analysts said, a military response would be inevitable.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia warned on Tuesday that Washington could respond with sanctions against Chinese officials and enterprises involved in coercion in the South China Sea after the United States announced a tougher stance to Beijing’s claims there.
“Nothing is off the table … there is room for that. This is a language the Chinese understand – demonstrative and tangible action,” David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told a Washington think-tank when asked if sanctions were a possible U.S. response to Chinese actions.
Stilwell spoke a day after the United States rejected China’s claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful,” a stance denounced by Beijing.
The United States has long opposed China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and has sent warships regularly through the strategic waterway, through which about $3 trillion of trade passes each year, to demonstrate freedom of navigation. But Monday’s announcement was the first time it declared Chinese claims illegal.
China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of it. Beijing has built bases on atolls in the region but says its intentions are peaceful.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday the U.S. threat of sanctions was its latest attempt to stir up trouble and destabilise the region.
“The U.S. arbitrarily talks about sanctions … this is very pathetic,” she told reporters during a daily briefing in Beijing. “We are not afraid of sanctions.”
Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said declaring China’s claims illegal opened the way for a tougher U.S. response, such as through sanctions, and could also lead to more U.S. naval presence operations.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman earlier condemned the tougher U.S. stand on China’s claim, saying it “destroys regional peace and stability and is an irresponsible act.”
A U.S. Navy destroyer carried out a freedom of navigation operation on Tuesday near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the U.S. military said.
“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” the Navy said.
Such operations have been increasingly common in recent years.
The U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly tense recently over various issues, including China’s handling of the novel coronavirus and its tightened grip on Hong Kong.
Stilwell said the tougher U.S. position meant “we are no longer going to say we are neutral on these maritime issues.”
“When a (Chinese) drilling rig plants itself in Vietnamese or Malaysian waters, we’re going to be able to make a positive statement,” he said.
Stilwell had a particular warning about the Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop 200 km (124 miles) from the Philippines claimed by Beijing and Manila that China seized in 2012.
“Any move by (China) to physically occupy, reclaim or militarize Scarborough Shoal would be a dangerous move … and would have lasting and severe consequences for (China’s)relationship with the United States, as well as the entire region,” he said.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Martin Pollard in Beijing; Editing by Sandra Maler and Matthew Lewis
The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brings the United States in line with international law and opens the door for sanctions and a more unified response to Chinese “bullying” in the key waterway.
BY COLM QUINN | JULY 14, 2020
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo staked out the United States’ bluntest position yet on China’s illegal land grab in the crucial South China Sea, declaring both Beijing’s excessive maritime claims and its browbeating of smaller neighbors to be “unlawful.” It was a departure of sorts from years of cautious diplomatic speak and could open the door to tougher U.S. reprisals against Chinese behavior.
The new position, which takes specific legal issue with a host of over-the-top Chinese claims, is part and parcel of the Trump administration’s tougher approach to Beijing’s encroachment in the region—and part of a broader, and widening, showdown with China.
Washington is still embroiled in a trade war with China, has sanctioned Chinese officials involved in Xinjiang detention camps, plans to scrap the extradition treaty with Hong Kong over China’s imposition of a new national security law, is mulling tougher rules for Chinese firms listing on U.S. stock markets, and is successfully getting Huawei yanked out of telecommunications networks around the world.
In response to the new legal posture, a Chinese Embassy spokesperson called on the United States to “stop its attempts to disrupt and sabotage regional peace and stability.”
In recent years, China has sought to harden its claim to the resource-rich and strategically significant waterway by constructing artificial islands and placing military hardware on disputed shoals and atolls, even while claiming that underwater rocks somehow give Beijing license to exploit the area’s oil, gas, and fisheries wealth. In 2016, an international tribunal ruled against China in a case brought by the Philippines, finding its actions in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Although the United States has not ratified the convention, Pompeo’s statement at last brings U.S. policy formally in line with that ruling.
What exactly does the new U.S. position say?
The new U.S. posture takes direct aim at many of the legally specious claims that Beijing has used for years to attempt to grab ownership of the vast majority of the South China Sea. “We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo declared. For most of the past decade, China has used questionable claims to tiny specks of land in the South China Sea to lay claim to offshore fisheries and oil and gas reserves, chasing off ships from nations like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia that have their own claims to those waters and the resources in them.
The declaration was meant to bring U.S. policy explicitly in line with the landmark 2016 ruling, Pompeo said. That is particularly important for the Philippines, which brought that case and which has been battling China for years over access to fisheries and potential oil riches near little features like Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal. Pompeo also took issue with China’s illegal efforts to snap up waters off the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire,” Pompeo said.
How big a deal is this?
In one way, the new U.S. policy is the first full-throated rejection of China’s so-called “nine-dash line” that encompasses most of the sea. “Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its ‘Nine-Dashed Line’ claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009,” Pompeo noted.
But while the new U.S. policy is a big deal in terms of explicitly siding with existing international law on the disputed maritime claims, “it’s not a radical departure” from previous U.S. positions, said Greg Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Pompeo, for instance, took pains to describe China’s maritime claims as unlawful while still remaining neutral on questions of territory—in line with the 2016 Hague ruling.
“It makes explicit a lot of things that were implicit under the previous administration,” Poling said.
David Stillwell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the U.S. State Department’s top diplomat on the region, played down the significance of the announcement. Speaking on Tuesday at an online event hosted by CSIS, Stillwell said the decision simply recognizes existing maritime law. “This is housekeeping,” he said.
But housekeeping can do a lot of good. Pompeo’s announcement may have an impact politically, said James Kraska, the chair of the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College, by securing increased funding from Congress for radar and other monitoring equipment. Internationally, it serves as a signal to other nations that the United States is increasing its engagement on the issue—after smaller Southeast Asian nations have clamored all spring for a more muscular U.S. response to stepped-up Chinese aggression in the region.
Why now? China’s been doing this for more than a decade.
Kraska said the move is an acceleration of already established U.S. behavior in the region. He cited the use of freedom of navigation operations—a way of challenging existing claims by sending U.S. vessels or aircraft through disputed areas to demonstrate the right to transit—by the Obama administration that have continued under the Trump administration. The United States has increased its use of the tactic in the Trump administration, conducting four freedom of navigation operations this year alone, including an operation on July 14 that sent a guided-missile destroyer near the Spratly Islands, the day after Pompeo’s big statement. The Obama administration conducted just six freedom of navigation operations in eight years.
For Poling, the announcement stems from both a political motivation as part of the Trump administration’s ongoing feud with China and a reflection of the rapidly changing strategic environment. Poling said China’s maritime strength—with a big navy and a huge and aggressive coast guard—is making it increasingly difficult for smaller nations to operate.
“We’re not that far away from the South China Sea being a Chinese lake,” he said. “So if you don’t make your move now, you might as well not make it.”
What happens next?
In the near term, the shift from describing Chinese behavior from merely “destabilizing” to “unlawful” potentially opens the door to sanctions, Poling said, similar to those imposed on Chinese individuals over the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
When asked about sanctions at the CSIS forum, Stillwell didn’t say that route was being considered but said, “Nothing is off the table.”
In China, the nationalist Global Times in a through-the-looking-glass editorial called the Pompeo announcement “despicable” and accused the United States of making the statement as a “prelude to inciting more confrontations.”
“China has sovereignty and jurisdiction over the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and China also has historical rights in the South China Sea,” the editorial argued. (None of that is true, as the Hague ruling made clear.)
Although increased U.S. patrols in the area raise the risk of a China-U.S. confrontation, that’s unlikely, Poling said. More likely, he added, is a clash between Chinese ships and vessels from smaller Asian nations that could trigger U.S. mutual defense treaties—and an unintended great-power showdown. Pompeo last year explicitly included the disputed Scarborough Shoal under the umbrella of the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty, making the rocks a potential tripwire.
“We insert all the points along the flight path into a deep neural network that was trained to be able to predict the exact launch point and the location of the drone operator,” Eliyahu Mashhadi of Ben Gurion University says. Testing the model with the flight simulator, the team were able to locate and target the drone operator 78% of the time.
By Arie Egozi on July 10, 2020
The IRGC flew about 50 “offensive and combat” drones in the Persian Gulf, including the Saegheh drone, supposedly based on the American RQ-170. According to sources here, the drone flew for about 1,000 kilometers between designated targets.
TEL AVIV: In March 2019, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) held a drill codenamed “Towards Jerusalem 1,” near the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Now Israeli scientists are developing a system they believe will let them accurately locate the operator of hostile drones and neutralize him.
Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva in southern Israel, Gera Weiss and Eliyahu Mashhadi, are using a realistic simulation environment to collect the path of the drone when flown from launch point and monitor it its flight path. “We insert all the points along the flight path into a deep neural network that was trained to be able to predict the exact launch point and the location of the drone operator,” Mashhadi said.
Testing the model with the flight simulator, the team were able to locate and target the drone operator 78% of the time.
Today, counter-drone systems use radio frequency to locate the operators, while using electro-optical, radar and other sensors to track the drones. “All the approaches that we are aware of for locating operators, not just the drones, use RF sensors”. Mashhadi explained that there are automatic and semi-automatic methods for locating the operators based on radio communications between the drone and its operator. “There are a number of problems with this approach. Firstly, such methods are usually tailored to a specific brand of drones,” he said. “Furthermore, the radio signal can only be recorded near the drone. Finally, there are ways for malicious drone designers to apply cryptography and electronic warfare techniques to make localization by analysis of radio signals very difficult.”
Mashhadi explained that their experiments show the reactions of the operator due to environmental and physical conditions , give away enough information to obtain substantial information about the location of the operator by analyzing the drone’s path in the sky.
“To allow for a controlled environment, we conducted all our experiments with a flight simulator that provides a realistic flight experience for the operator that includes sun gazes, obstructions, and other visual effects that produce the reactions of the operators that allow us to identify their location,” he said.
The research team used AirSim (Aerial Informatics and Robotics Simulation), an open-source, cross-platform simulator for drones, ground vehicles and other objects.
“The neural network that we have designed was able to take advantage of these relations when we asked it to use only position or only rotation information,” Mashhadi said.
Israeli sources say a system able to find the operator in real time will become critical because, in most cases, the operator is flying more than one drone. There’s other work underway, including an effort by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and an Israeli start-up. They have signed a cooperation agreement for the integration of interception capabilities into IAI’s advanced anti-drone system, Drone Guard. The intercepting drone can be launched day or night from a docking station that hosts several ready-to-use drones. Several intercepting drones can be launched simultaneously to address several targets or swarms.
To date, IAI’s ELTA Systems, which develops and manufactures Drone Guard anti-drone systems, has sold more than 100 units that detect, identify and disrupt the operation of malicious drones. ELTA’s collaboration with Iron Drone is part of its strategy to collaborate with startups to leverage their innovative technologies for their existing systems to improve performance.
The radar detects drones as they enter Israeli airspace and an intercepting drone is launched and steered to the target with the help of the radar. The system uses sensors and computer vision to home and lock on the target. The entire process is autonomous, requiring no human intervention. According to IAI the new joint venture allows customers to react in areas where other defense systems cannot because of environmental factors such as airports, populated areas, power plants, sensitive facilities, and other infrastructures.
Beijing’s Ministry of State Security said to have used equipment to deal with anti-government protests by minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang
The satellite also provided communications services to China’s military as it built permanent installations on contested islands and reefs in the South China Sea
Agence France-Presse | Published: 24 Apr 2019
A fleet of US-made satellites helps China’s government police its people and supports its military despite growing wariness in Washington over Beijing’s power, it has emerged.
While the United States will not let China buy US-made satellites for national security reasons, it sells them to partly Chinese-controlled, Hong Kong-based Asia Satellite Communications, which then leases out capacity to Chinese and other customers, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.
Under that arrangement, China’s Ministry of State Security, which oversees domestic and international intelligence gathering, has used the US-built satellites for communications in emergencies, including dealing with anti-government protests by minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang in 2008-2009, the Journal reported.
And beginning in 2013, a Chinese state telecommunications firm used capacity on an AsiaSat satellite to provide mobile and internet services to China’s military as it built permanent installations on contested islands and reefs in the South China Sea.