Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Islamic State and Chemical Warfare: Old News

Summary: On 25 February 2016, photos surfaced online of rocket debris from a suspected chemical attack on the Sinjar province of Iraq. The attack was most likely carried out by Islamic State (IS) militants with chlorine-filled rockets. Though the use of chemical weapons is always cause for concern, it is neither new nor indicative of any increased threat in the Iraq/Syria conflict.

Rocket debris photographed in Sinjar (via Twitter, Matthew__Barber)
Weapon Analysis: The rocket’s characteristics are quite similar to that of the Qassam-1 rocket, most commonly found in the hands of HAMAS militants in the Gaza Strip. Overall, Qassam rockets are very low-tech, and it’s likely that militant groups in Iraq/Syria, including IS, could manufacture their own versions of the rocket. The payload is small, but capable of incorporating chemical agents such as chlorine. Chlorine can produce a choking sensation when inhaled, but quickly dissipates in open air and is rarely lethal. Furthermore, chlorine is already in use by IS in Iraq/Syria.

Additional Info on the Qassam-1:

Weight: 22 lbs (10 kg)
Length: 4-8 ft (1-3 m)
Effective Range: 2-8 miles (4-13 km)

Qassam rocket debris in Sderot, Israel; note similarity to previous photo (Source)
Final Assessment: Chemical attacks are likely to remain sporadic at best in Iraq/Syria. These attacks are more psychological than harmful due to the limited concentration of chemicals that can be stored in small-scale rockets and IEDs. Furthermore, chlorine is likely to remain the primary agent used in chemical attacks due to it's ready availability in most countries. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Venezuela: A Security Overview

Originally Published on 29 December 2015

Summary: Venezuela, by most international security standards, is considered a high- risk destination for business travel. Violent crime including kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder by street gangs and organized crime groups remain the largest threats to physical security in Venezuela. Recent reports indicate that the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, averaging 90 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015. Ongoing economic and political factors fuel the increasing violence, especially in the capital Caracas.

Economy: Venezuela’s economy is a key factor to the country’s rising crime rates. Venezuela is largely dependent on oil revenues from its national oil company. The lack of diversification has strained its economy in recent years, with the government often placing the blame on the private sector and Western capitalism. Additionally, the country’s poverty rate increased to over 30% in 2014. Violent crime is most active in poverty-stricken areas, or “barrios,” but many criminal groups operate outside of those areas. Foreigners have been targeted by violent criminal activity for their perceived wealth, most notably in 2014 when the home of a U.S. diplomat was robbed by armed gunmen while the occupants were forcefully restrained.

Government: The political situation also factors into Venezuela’s violence and unrest. Protestors and police violently clashed throughout much of 2013-2015 after the ruling party arrested opposition party leaders, and when the government faced shortages of essential products such as toilet paper. In December 2015, President Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) lost the majority seating in parliament to the opposition party, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD). Many street gangs form pro-PSUV militias, and attempt to intimidate voters by attacking polling centers during various local and national elections. Furthermore, many Venezuelan police forces are poorly equipped to tackle crime and are often accused of corruption.

Pro-PSUV militia intimidating citizens weeks before parliamentary elections (via Twitter Henrique Capriles)  

Final Assessment: Unrest and violence will likely remain high in Venezuela throughout 2016. The recent parliamentary win by the MUD promises to address economic issues, but many supporters of the PSUV, including President Maduro, are likely to oppose reform policies and fuel further unrest. International businesses operating in Venezuela are unlikely to be targeted specifically by violent crime, but Venezuela remains a high-risk destination nevertheless.  

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Private Sector, Turkey, and the Russia Factor

Originally Published on 5 December 2015

On 24 November, a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkish fighter jets along the Turkish-Syrian border, exasperating tensions between Russia and Turkey. Turkish officials claim the plane had failed to respond to multiple warnings, while Russia claims their plane never crossed the Turkish border. In retaliation, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of "serious consequences" and subsequently called for economic sanction on Turkey. Turkish airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) militants in Syria further complicate the security situation along the southeastern border. Though Russian sanctions add pressure to the already difficult situation, Russian military action against Turkey remains highly unlikely.

Immediately following the 24 November incident, Russia increased its air defense network on both land and sea in northwest Syria. The movement of advanced air defense assets provide Russia with a strategic deterrent to anyone threatening Russian aircraft. However, President Putin clarified in a speech on 4 December that he does not plan "engage in military saber-rattling [with Turkey]" and reiterated Russia's commitment to fighting terrorism. Additionally, Turkey's status as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) remains a large deterrent for any Russian military spillover into Turkey. As a member, Turkey would be able to call for military assistance from other members such as the US, UK, and France in the event of a Russian attack. On 28 November, Russia released a list of economic sanctions against Turkey. The sanctions included a halt on certain agricultural imports from Turkey, as well as a ban on chartered flights between both countries. Additionally, the sanctions prohibited Russian employers from hiring Turkish nationals starting in 2016 unless they were employed before 31 December 2015. Russia cancelled visa-free travel for Turkish citizens starting 1 January 2016. Furthermore, Russia announced on 3 December that it was suspending all meetings with Turkey for the creation of the $16 billion Turkish Stream gas pipeline. Turkey is Russia's second largest importer of gas.

While Russian sanctions against Turkey further complicate regional dynamics, the impact to many businesses will likely be limited to travel disruptions caused by new visa requirements and possible flight traffic modifications. Russian military action spilling over into Turkey remains highly unlikely due to Turkey's NATO membership. Meanwhile, sporadic acts of violence, either by IS or PKK militants, remain more likely due to ongoing Turkish air strikes against militant groups in Syria. Businesses operating in southern Turkey are unlikely to be targeted directly by violence in the region.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ukraine/Russia Recap Pt. 2

Continuing with Part 1, here are the next two events that have highlighted the situation between Ukraine and Russia for 2014.

3. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

At 13:20 UTC on July 17, 2014, civilian flight MH17 crashed in the contested Donetsk province of Ukraine. Not long after the crash, a post on VKontakte (a Russian social media site) by Dontesk pro-Russian separatist leader Igor Girkin talks of shooting down a Ukrainian AN-26 cargo plane in the province. However, Ukraine forces intercepted audio that identified the wreckage as a civilian plane. The pro-Russian separatists had used a Russian surface-to-air missile system three days earlier to shoot down a AN-26, and initially believed to have done the same on July 17. The crash investigation is ongoing, but there is still debate on how the forces in Donetsk acquired the missile system. Some, including German intelligence, believe that separatists captured the system from a nearby Ukrainian military base. Others insist that Russia directly supplied the separatists with the missile system.

BUK surface-to-air missile system (courtesy Reuters)

4. Significant increase in Russian military activity

Throughout the year, Russia has maneuvered its forces near its Western border with Ukraine. However, just like the tide, those forces have been removed numerous times as well. In instances such as the Russian aid convoy controversy, Russian military forces have been standing by for immediate action. These buildups provide excellent protection for pro-Russian separatists when receiving supplies, whether it be military or humanitarian, from Russia.

However, Russia's military activity has not been limited to Ukraine. NATO aircraft have encountered Russian aircraft over 400 times this year; this does not include more recent sightings this month. Many NATO allies are worried that these encounters are becoming too numerous and could endanger civilian lives, as exemplified by a near-collision on December 13.

A Russian Su-34 intercepted by by Dutch F-16s (image from video)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ukraine/Russia Recap Pt. 1

With 2014 coming to a close, it is important to look back on some of the major security events that made headlines. The global fight against Islamic extremism (particularly in Iraq and Syria) has been a critical focus point for six months, Israel and the Gaza Strip reengaged, but who could forget the conflict in Ukraine?

In response to then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's failure to sign the long awaited economic agreement with the European Union, protests broke out in Kiev at the end of 2013. By February 22, 2014, Yanukovych had fled the country and it appeared Ukraine could finally move forward. Less than a week later, Russian forces entered Crimea. Here are the four most significant events of conflict in 2014.

1. Russia invades Crimea while denying that they are invading Crimea.
Russian troops without insignia (courtesy Twitter account ST Foreign Desk)
Undoubtedly, pictures of the "green uniformed men in Crimea" were the highlight of the Crimean crisis back in March of this year. Without official insignia, early reports claimed these men were local militiamen seeking independence from Ukraine. However, Russia later admitted these men were in fact Russian troops; even though there was substantial evidence proving they were Russian to begin with. The giveaway was the military vehicles used during the invasion; most vehicles had Russian license plates.

2. Lugansk and Donetsk declare independence from Ukraine

After Crimea, many feared Eastern Ukraine as Russia's next invasion point due to troops amassing on the border. However, both Ukrainian territories declared independence via referendum on May 11 and May 12, respectively. Much like Crimea, Lugansk and Donetsk share a large population of ethnic Russians that disagreed with the protest outcome in Kiev. In response to attacks on government buildings by Pro-Russian separatists, Ukraine launched a military campaign into both territories. As of last month, the UN estimates over 4,000 people have died in conflict.

In addition to the ongoing conflict, Russia has continued to deny that it is supplying weapons and vehicles to Lugansk and Donetsk; instead insisting that Pro-Russian separatists captured all of their equipment from former Ukrainian military bases in the region. Again, there are numerous photos and videos that say otherwise.
Photographic evidence of Russian-supplied tanks (courtesy Twitter UK in Ukraine)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Kurdish Resistance of IS: Fulfilling the Anti-Armor Combat Role

Kobane, a Syrian town resting a long the border of Turkey, has come under siege in recent weeks from IS militants. One of the many complaints expressed from resistance forces was the failure to halt advancing IS tanks and artillery. There are a few potential reasons for this situation.

1. Limited Air Support. Even though there have been hundreds of airstrikes against IS, there have been relatively few against the Syrian-Turkish border in recent days. UAVs have been spotted near Kobane, but they have been unarmed and are likely carrying out reconnaissance.

UAV filmed near Kobane (YouTube, Agency Depths)

2. Limited Armor-Piercing Capability on the Ground. This video shows a YPG militia member firing an RPG-7 variant at an approaching IS tank in Kobane. He fails to hit the intended target and does not reengage. Kobane is now surrounded by IS and ammunition such as anti-armor warheads may be hard to come by; especially since there is no Kurdish supply line running into Kobane.

However, only a week earlier, this video shows YPG fighters defending Kobane with a variety of weapons. They are shown engaging IS infantry with RPGs, an anti-materiel rifle, and an electronic anti-tank system (MANPATS). The video fails to show whether or not the YPG were attacking armored targets, but it highlights that Kurdish resistance is able to obtain anti-armor weapons.

YPG member firing a MANPATS (YouTube, YPG in Syria)
Airstrikes are in high demand for their effectiveness against armored targets. They have proven effective against both mobile and stationary armored targets. However, airstrikes are not as immediate as ground-level resistance against tanks and other vehicles. Kurdish forces have shown that they are equipped with a substantial arsenal to combat armor. An emphasis may need to be placed on creating holes in the IS defense to allow for Kurdish forces to resupply. Synergy between air support and ground forces will be required to neutralize IS armor.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Islamic State, What's Next?

US CENTCOM has reported that it has conducted 93 airstrikes against IS since beginning combat operations on August 8. US air support has helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces take back the Mosul dam from IS militants; a critical victory for Northern Iraq.

Removing the Daash Flag, Originally posted on Twitter

However, IS made ground on the social media battlefield after uploading the execution of American journalist James Foley. As many have noted, social media has been a critical tool for the IS terror campaign. Consequently, many online users have called for the removal of IS accounts on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Many accounts have been removed on the grounds of violating site rules (i.e. posting disturbing images). These actions have neither stopped IS supporters from making new accounts, nor have they prevented IS from using other social media platforms.

It appears that the momentum following the June blitzkrieg made by IS has significantly slowed after the US began airstrikes. So what happens next for IS?

In order to maintain their current territory in both Syria and Iraq, they must continue to commit a considerable number of resources to waging conventional warfare. Fortunately for IS, they have no shortage of financial resources. If foreign military assistance and Iraqi security forces can continue to apply pressure, IS money may amount to little in terms of defending territory. At that point, IS may shift priorities and focus solely on conducting guerrilla warfare and hallmark terrorist activities. For example, IS has already been responsible for car bombings, suicide bombings, kidnappings/executions, and roadside IEDs. 

Should IS reach that point, the most concerning possibility would be an attempt by IS to build a strong global network similar to Al-Qaeda. IS has dominated the social media landscape, making it very easy to reach out to supporters and potential recruits. However, IS succeeded in distancing itself from other terrorist organizations due to a level of brutality similar to that of a Mexican drug cartel. It may have good financial connections, but IS may need to rediscover common ground if they plan to achieve a truly global reach on par with organizations such as Al-Qaeda. 

It is likely that the next challenge for defeating IS will be reclaiming the major cities of Mosul and Raqqa; locations in which IS strictly enforce sharia law and recruit members. Even with air support, the fight for these cities will not be easy. These locations are IS strong points and will be necessary for reclaiming both Syria and Iraq.