Presidential politics is the theme in Washington as the first event of the presidential nomination process, the Iowa caucuses, is a little over a week away.
The Monitor Analysis looks at last week’s capture of two American naval boats by the Iranians. The explanations by Washington have been weak and changing, which indicates that there is more to the story than they want to admit. We look at the event and the real possibility that they were lured into Iranian waters by Iran’s growing cyber warfare capability
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS says the West fails to take a larger view of terrorist attacks by ISIS. They note, “Unless the West recognizes the need to keep moderate Muslim states as critical partners in the fight against terrorism and extremism, it will remain a target and risks some extremist movement taking over a state or states that have a Muslim majority. Any U.S. and European actions that deal with their own Muslims in terms of bigotry and alienation will make things worse. Efforts to create barriers based on faith and religion will alienate Muslims in both the West and largely Muslim states. Any form of anti-Islamic extremism in the West will feed terrorism faster than improvements in counterterrorism can defeat it, and risk creating a vicious cycle of excessive repression in the West and growing Muslim violence.”
The Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute conducted an exercise to evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.One of their findings was, “ISIS and al Qaeda are more than terrorist groups; they are insurgencies. They use terrorism as a tactic, but these organizations are insurgencies that aim first to overthrow all existing governments in the Muslim world and replace them with their own, and later, to attack the West from a position of power to spread their ideology to all of humanity. Separating the elements of ISIS and al Qaeda that are actively working to attack the West from the main bodies of those groups fighting in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia is impossible. All al Qaeda groups and ISIS affiliates seek to take the war into the West to fulfill their grand strategic objective of establishing a global caliphate, albeit according to different timelines.”
The second part of the report looks at American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, and compares U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. One of the findings is that, “The superficial convergence of Iranian, Russian, Turkish, and Saudi strategic objectives with those of the U.S. on ISIS as a threat masks significant divergences that will undermine U.S. security requirements. Iran and Russia both seek to reduce and eliminate U.S. influence in the Middle East and are not pursuing strategies that will ultimately defeat al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, some linked to al Qaeda, stem from the ruling party’s intent to reestablish itself as an independent, Muslim, regional power. Finally, Saudi Arabia’s objectives remain shaped by perceived existential threats from Iran and a growing succession crisis, causing key divergences, especially over support to Salafi-jihadi groups. The U.S. must lead efforts to resolve the crisis in Syria and cannot outsource them to partners.”
The Washington Institute looks at the breakdown of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In looking at the rifts in the group, they explain, “Although the split within the Brotherhood is partly generational, it also reflects severe differences regarding the organization’s goals and strategy — whether it should seek power now, as the youths demand, or in the distant future, as the Qutbists believe, as well as what tools it should use to assert Islamist rule. Yet these questions are increasingly theoretical. The Egyptian government’s obliteration of the organization within Egypt means that the Brotherhood has no realistic shot at power anytime soon, and its various factions thus have little incentive to reunify in pursuit of shared ambitions. To be sure, the Brotherhood’s vision for establishing an Islamist state in Egypt won’t evaporate, but the rigid internal discipline that defined its decision-making and mobilization is now a thing of the past. As a result, the Iron Man is now a relic.”
The Carnegie Endowment says the official Palestinian institutions and leaders have lost their moral legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people who view them as working with Israel. They conclude, “And one of the clearest trends worth resisting is the hollowing out of Palestinian institutional life. The deterioration of the situation on the ground will not be easy to address simply by holding new elections…International actors cannot design Palestinian structures in any case. But they should indicate a greater tolerance for the evolution of Palestinian political structures. Current leaders are familiar. But as long as newer movements and approaches remain outside of the formal structures of politics, and as long as those formal structures offer Palestinians so little, international actors will find no authoritative interlocutor. Rather than pretending one exists or seeking to invent one, their efforts would be better directed to providing Palestinian politics with the respect and protection it needs to build the structures to speak with a unified national voice. Current struggles in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen show the domestic horrors and international complications that arise when states disintegrate. If current trends continue, Palestine could become a failed state even before it becomes a real state. Palestinians will not be alone in paying a price for that development.”
The CSIS looks at the Moroccan monarchy and reform. They conclude, “Morocco has made significant strides in many areas and shown an ongoing commitment to positive change. What Morocco has failed to do is address broader grievances concerning dignity and socio-economic justice. Progress in these areas is more difficult to measure and could take generations to achieve, even if the political will at the top existed. The crucial challenge for the monarchy is to avoid discrediting the reform process, either by undermining the elected government, by over-extending the king’s executive authority, or harassing its critics excessively. Though the reforms of 2011 did not change the balance of power in Morocco, they were an acknowledgement that there could be limits on the monarchy’s authority.”
The CSIS looks at the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal and the politics of it. They conclude, “The U.S. partisan political debate over the Iranian nuclear agreement far too often ignores both its short-term benefits and longer term challenges, and is focused on a comparatively narrow part of the region’s strategic challenges with limited regard to the broader strategic interests of both its Arab strategic partners and Israel. Worse, it ignores the broader political, economic, and social forces in Iran and the opportunity to at least encourage détente. This has long been a grim and uncertain area, but that does not mean that things cannot get better – rather than continue to get worse.”
The American Foreign Policy Council also looks at Iran’s cyber warfare capability and the chances it will increase in the near future. They note, “Over the past year and a half or so, experts have noted a marked decrease in Iranian hacking – a development that tracks closely with Iran’s attempts to conclude an agreement with the West over its nuclear program. But now, in the wake of this summer’s deal, the Islamic Republic is ramping up its offensive cyber capabilities, for both political and strategic reasons… Given the emphasis that Iranian leaders place on the exploitation of cyberspace, this confluence of political priorities and anticipated capital suggests that Iran is on track to become an increasingly formidable cyberpower in the not-too-distant future. In the process, Iranian cyberwarfare will become an increasingly grave challenge to the United States. Policymakers in Washington should be planning accordingly.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at Turkey’s ongoing problem with its Kurdish minority. They conclude, “The AKP seems to be pursuing the same ambitious goal that animated early Turkish nationalists: winning Kurdish loyalty without compromising the vision of a strong centralized state and a cohesive national identity. Indeed, armed with religion and a greater willingness to accommodate Kurdish cultural demands…the AKP has tools that the early Kemalist state lacked. But, as the current fighting demonstrate, the AKP’s vision also relies on a continued commitment to using force against those Kurds who don’t accept the state’s offer of inclusion on its own terms. That the AKP’s new multicultural language refuses to come to terms with Turkey’s violent legacy of forced assimilation suggests the party fails to understand the resistance their current efforts will create. To bring peace and stability to Turkey, the state must respond to legitimate democratic demands for a more inclusive national identity and greater regional autonomy. This, unfortunately, requires the government to deal with the PKK, which for better and worse has come to embody these demands.”
Questions Remain About Iranian Capture of 2 US Navy Boats
The Obama Administration and Pentagon downplayed the detention by Iranian gunboats last week of 10 U.S. Navy sailors aboard two riverine craft near Farsi Island. Meantime, differing versions of the event coming from government sources indicate that there are many questions remaining.
This is not the first time that the two forces have clashed. In December, the US accused Revolutionary Guards vessels of firing several unguided rockets near US warships including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Strait of Hormuz. The US later released video it said showed the incident.
According to the Navy, the two boats that were captured were on a training mission and travelling from Kuwait and Bahrain. They are based in Bahrain and were likely conducting exercises in the delta area separating Iraq and Kuwait.
This type of boat is used for port security, troop insertion or extraction, counter-insurgency operations on rivers, air and fire support, supporting amphibious landings, and supporting drones. They frequently work with Special Forces, although it appears that this wasn’t the mission at the time.
The administration’s earliest version of last week’s events is that one of the U.S. vessels had a mechanical problem and drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters near Farsi Island, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps outpost from which its naval forces operate.
However, since then, serious questions have emerged.
“The Navy has to explain why you have small ships transiting 300 miles of open ocean,” former naval officer Chris Harmer told CNN. He was once deputy director of future operations for the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and now at the Institute for the Study of War. Other officers have questioned why the boats didn’t hug the Saudi coast instead.
The fact is that the boats, which were GPS-guided, would have known long before they sailed into Iranian waters. In addition, the boats should have been in contact with other Navy ships in the area, which would have warned them they were getting closer to sovereign Iranian territory. In addition, the route taken from Kuwait to Bahrain would have been planned in advance by the boats officers and quartermasters, and that special attention would have been given to the avoidance of Iranian territory.
As for the “wounded” boat story, Navy experts say all such craft are thoroughly checked out mechanically prior to being sent on missions, and that they always carry more than enough fuel for the mission. The boats also have two engines apiece. The fact that two boats were on the mission indicate that in the unlikely event one became disabled it could be towed by the other.
As questions were raised about this story, the administration said that the boats were in good operating condition and were sailing in international waters but were intentionally intercepted by Iranian gunboats – craft that were faster and better-armed, leaving U.S. personnel little choice but to be taken captive. If that is the case, then it means the Iranians planned their intercept, and mostly likely because they knew in advance that the Obama administration – fearing an incident and eager to preserve its nuclear deal with Tehran – would downplay the incident.
Although the US response was mild, so as not to scuttle the nuclear deal, Iran was much more aggressive in its reaction. Experts agree that the Iranians should not have detained the U.S. crews in the first place, and that standard practice, if a vessel is disabled, is to provide assistance in international waters, not take crews hostage. In fact, US warships have assisted Iranian craft in the past.
Others have pointed out that capturing members of an opposing military and utilizing their capture as propaganda is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. However, the Obama State Department dismissed that.
John Kirby, the State Department’s spokesman said, “I think it’s important to remember, though, that the Geneva Convention only applies in time of war, and we’re not at war with Iran.” In that case, the capture and detention of U.S. sailors is even more egregious.
Given the aggressive reaction by the Iranians and the tight lipped reaction by the Obama Administration, many defense analysts think that the incident may indicate that the Iranians can disrupt American GPS systems and even “hijack” them.
This could be a major problem. The Naval Academy stopped teaching celestial navigation in 1998 because US naval ships were relying totally on GPS and Navy leadership had decided that navigation by the stars was no longer necessary. All celestial navigation training – even for navigators and enlisted ended in 2006.
Needless to say, the midshipmen were relieved. Celestial calculations were painfully difficult, requiring a nautical almanac and volumes of tables.
However, this 20-year lapse in celestial navigation training means that all the field grade and company grade naval officers are totally reliant on GPS – including the naval officers onboard the two boats.
Ironically, the Navy’s attitude was only reversed a few months ago as the academy reintroduced celestial navigation classes for the midshipmen. The reason was a concern that GPS could be “taken down” by a cyber-attack.
It now appears that fear is quit real. And the most recent event isn’t the first time it appears that Iran has “hacked” into GPS.
On December 4, 2011 a RQ-170 Sentinel crashed into the Iranian countryside. Iran claimed its electronic warfare unit brought the plane down. The Pentagon said the aircraft was flying over western Afghanistan and crashed near or in Iran.
However, the drone was found 140 miles inside Iran’s borders. Although the US dismissed the idea of Iran’s military having the technology to down one the most sophisticated drones in the world, it appears the Iranians didn’t just down the aircraft, they took control of it mid-flight. Dailytech.com later reported.
According to them, by using its knowledge of the GPS frequency, Iran initiated its ‘electronic ambush’ by jamming the drone’s communications frequencies, forcing it into auto-pilot. According to a GPS expert, ‘By putting noise (jamming) on the communications, you force the bird into autopilot. This is where the bird loses its brain.’
“The team then use a technique known as ‘spoofing’ — sending a false signal for the purposes of obfuscation or other gain. In this case the signal in questions was the GPS feed, which the drone commonly acquires from several satellites. By spoofing the GPS feed, Iranian officials were able to convince it that it was in Afghanistan, close to its home base. At that point the drone’s autopilot automatically kicked in and triggered the landing. But rather than landing at a U.S. military base, the drone was captured at an Iranian military landing zone.
Obviously the Iranians have acquired the complex ability to give the drone the proper forged distance and find and fine an appropriate altitude landing strip to make sure the drone landed as it did in Afghanistan.
The latest stories now indicate that the sailors got lost. According to Secretary of Defense Carter, “All the contributing factors to that we don’t know yet, and we’re still talking to those folks, and we’ll find out more … but they were clearly out of the position that they intended to be in.”
However, the chance that the two boats lost their GPS navigation systems at the same time is slim. In addition, it appears that both boats lost radio communication and all other communication during the incident. The most logical explanation for the loss of all communication equipment and GPS systems on two boats at the same time probably means electronic warfare.
Do Iran’s actions constitute an attack on the US? It’s not a simple question. Electronic warfare and cyber warfare have become common place. Russian penetrations of NATO airspace are a common electronic warfare tactic that reveals air defense frequencies and reaction of NATO forces.
The most important takeaway from this incident is to remember the high-tech military of the United States has a major vulnerability – its reliance on GPS. It’s a vulnerability that was exploited by Iran. And, Iran is not a nation that is seen as technologically well advanced compared to U.S. Obviously, if Iran can exploit it, China and Russia certainly can. There are also reports North Korea has been able to successfully disrupt the GPS system.
Beyond simple navigation, the US military employs the GPS system to guide missiles. If the Iranians can jam and spoof their way into controlling a drone, it isn’t a huge leap to believe they have the ability, or will soon have the ability, to do the same thing with guided missiles.
It also shows that the drone warfare system used extensively in the Middle East has a fatal flaw. Experts are hinting that Iranians and their allied forces may soon be able to defeat American drones throughout the region. This compounds a recently reported problem of US drones (especially the Reaper drone) crashing at records rates in 2015. And, without drones, the US will be forced to either send more men to the region or face defeat of its allies in Syria, Iraq, and other places.
We may never know the full story of the capture of the two boats. Experts believe the 10 American sailors will be specifically barred from talking publicly about the incident.
Some former special forces operators who specialized in such riverine missions say Iran likely stripped the American vessels of GPS and other equipment, making it impossible for the U.S. Navy to assert its vessels were not in Iranian territorial waters (if they were taken in international waters, as some believe). The electronics will also be invaluable for intelligence purposes and will help Iran upgrade its anti-GPS capability.
Iran After Implementation Day
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 17, 2016
The fact that the IAEA has found that Iran is in full compliance with the terms of Implementation Day is both a serious step forward in preventing a nuclear arms race in the Gulf and the Middle East, and a potential step forward in ending the tensions between Iran and the United States as well as Iran’s tensions with its Arab neighbors.
Power and Authority in Morocco
By Haim Malka
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 15, 2016
Morocco’s record over the last two decades demonstrates that widespread public protest can spur the monarchy to accelerate political reforms. Constitutional reforms in early 2011 helped stabilize Morocco at a time of spreading instability across the Middle East and North Africa. The challenge is that constitutional reforms only partly address widespread demands for socioeconomic change and opportunity, especially among young people. If these broader demands are not addressed, the future will remain turbulent.
The U.S., the West, and Islam: The Real Meaning of ISIS’s Expansion into Turkey, Afghanistan, and Indonesia
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 15, 2016
It is all too easy to react to each new terrorist attack by ISIS by focusing on that attack, on ISIS, and on terrorism, rather than the broader policy challenges involved. It seems equally easy to lurch from a concern on Syrian refugees to a focus on counterterrorism, excluding Muslims, treating all of Islam as extremists, and dealing with Muslims in terms that mix fear with bigotry. All of these actions, however, may do much to encourage terrorism, tension with the entire Islamic world, and undermine the real battle against extremism and terrorism. It is all too predictable that ISIS will take every opportunity to strengthen its image, its “legitimacy,” and its ability to raise funds and attract volunteers by affiliating with other violent Islamic extremist movements.
Palestine in Flux: From Search for State to Search for Tactics
By Nathan J. Brown and Daniel Nerenberg
January 19, 2016
Official Palestinian institutions and leaders have lost their moral legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people who view them as ineffective or even co-opted by Israel. A new generation of grassroots activists is shifting the focus from the goal of Palestinian statehood to the pursuit of new tactics to resist the Israeli occupation. To improve the lives of Palestinians, this new moral vanguard will need to transform and revive existing Palestinian institutions or build new ones.
Fallout Ploy: Iran’s Cyberwarfare Contingency Plan
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
January 12, 2016
Iran’s cyberwarriors are back in action. Late last fall, The New York Times reported that Iranian hackers had carried out an extensive hack on U.S. State Department employees. Among the victims were U.S. diplomats working on the Middle East and on Iran specifically, who had their email compromised and their social media accounts infiltrated. The hack was the latest in what U.S. officials say are increasingly aggressive attempts to glean information about U.S. policies toward Iran in the wake of this summer’s P5+1 nuclear deal. Iranian cyberwarfare is not new, of course. The past several years saw numerous and increasingly capable Iranian cyberattacks on Western and allied interests. Such strikes have receded in severity, frequency, and prominence as Iranian nuclear diplomacy has accelerated, culminating with the nuclear deal concluded in Vienna in July. Yet behind the scenes, Tehran has been quietly investing in the strength and capabilities of its cyber army.
Turkey’s “Kurdish Problem” – Then and Now
By Nick Danforth
Foreign Policy Research Institute
A decade ago many observers hoped that Turkey’s Justice and Development party (AKP) would at long last succeed in consolidating Turkey’s troubled democracy. Even as such hopes proved increasingly unfounded, it still seemed possible that the AKP would succeed in a more limited realm by finally bringing an end to the country’s long-running “Kurdish problem.” Today, though, renewed fighting between the government and the PKK has dashed these hopes as well, making stability in southeastern Turkey seem as elusive as ever. One way to understand both the AKP’s early potential and its eventual failure in regard to the Kurdish question is to examine how the party transformed the language of Turkish nationalism while sustaining its essence.
Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe
Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute conducted an intensive multi-week exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. The planning group weighed the national security interests of the United States, its partners, its rivals, and its enemies operating in or influencing the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. It considered how current policies and interests are interacting in this complex environment. It identified the minimum endstates that would satisfy American national security requirements as well as the likely outcomes of current policies. The group also assessed the threat posed by al Qaeda and ISIS to the United States, both in the immediate and long term, and tested the probable outcomes of several potential courses of action that the United States could pursue in Iraq and Syria.
Competing Visions for Syria and Iraq: The Myth of an Anti-ISIS Grand Coalition
Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute
This second report defines American strategic objectives in Iraq and Syria, identify the minimum necessary conditions for ending the conflicts there, and compare U.S. objectives with those of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in order to understand actual convergences and divergences. The differences mean that the U.S. cannot rely heavily on international partners to achieve its objectives. Subsequent reports will provide a detailed assessment of the situation on the ground in Syria and present the planning group’s evaluation of several courses of action.
The Brotherhood Breaks Down
By Eric Trager and Marina Shalabi
January 17, 2016
Muslim Brothers call Mahmoud Ezzat the “Iron Man.” The stoic 71-year-old deputy supreme guide earned that nickname on account of his lifelong struggle on behalf of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, including over a decade spent in Egyptian jails, during which he burnished his reputation for toughness as one of the foremost enforcers of discipline within the organization’s rigid hierarchy. Following the July 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first elected president, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Ezzat’s legend within the organization grew as he evaded the crackdown that landed most top Brotherhood leaders in prison, and then hid within Egypt even as other Muslim Brothers fled into exile. “He has the ability to hide because he was imprisoned prior to this for about ten years,” Brotherhood youth activist Amr Farrag said during an October 2014 interview in Istanbul. “He can sit for something like five years without speaking to anyone, sitting in only a closed room. He can do this.” Farrag added that Ezzat asked his Brotherhood colleagues not to contact him, presumably to avoid detection within Egypt.