Seaborne Stalkers: U.S. Navy weapons sharpened for next generation of welfare

Posted on: Friday 6/21/2013 6:58pm

JJ Green, WTOP National Security Correspondent

Terrorists suspected of using U.S. 'asylum' system

Posted on: Monday 4/29/2013 6:59am

AP: 18a45b36-7c3b-4d9e-acdc-d3bf7839d6c4
This photo provided by Bob Leonard shows third from left, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was dubbed Suspect No. 1 and second from left, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, who was dubbed Suspect No. 2 in the Boston Marathon bombings by law enforcement. This image was taken approximately 10-20 minutes before the blast. (AP Photo/Bob Leonard)

WASHINGTON - The mystery of how the Boston Marathon bombing suspects may have become radicalized and proficient enough as bomb makers to launch such a devastating attack earlier this month has deepened.

"Authorities now have legitimate reason to suspect that the older brother, Tamerlan, may have been associated with a larger terror organization," says a U.S. intelligence source.

And as federal law enforcement authorities question the parents of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and detain some of their friends, new information is emerging about a tactic terrorists allegedly are using to slip into the U.S. and to travel abroad.

WTOP has learned that the U.S. asylum system is a prime target for jihadist organizations because of the international acceptance that U.S. travel documents can provide.

"I know this from a very good source that al-Qaida is sending people into this country simply to get travel documents -- American travel documents -- so they can either operate here or abroad," says Robert Baer, a former CIA covert operative.

The alleged use of asylum loopholes by terrorists to get official country documents dates back more than 20 years.

The technique "was very popular in the 1990s, mainly in the U.K. Thousands of cases took place in Europe," Noman Benotman, a former terrorist and close associate of Osama bin Laden, tells WTOP.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, the leaders of the 19-man hijacking crew that attacked U.S. targets on 9/11 were a part of "The Hamburg Cell," which was based in Germany and lived and traveled using aliases.

The Tsarnaev brothers, ethnic Chechens from Russia who came to the United States about a decade ago with their parents, were granted asylum. Tamerlan Tsarnaev used that asylum status to become a permanent resident and obtained a green card.

Investigators say they now believe Tamerlan Tsarnaev became "radicalized" sometime between 2009 and 2010. Where it happened and who may have been involved in the process are among the questions investigators are asking, sources say.

In a statement, the FBI said Russian authorities told them in 2011 "that (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) was a follower of radical Islam and a strong believer, and that he had changed drastically since 2010 as he prepared to leave the United States for travel to the country's region to join unspecified underground groups."

WTOP also has learned the Russian FSB intelligence security service provided information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev -- including two possible dates of birth, his name in Cyrillic letters and a possible name variant -- in late September 2011.

That information was sent to CIA headquarters in October 2011 and formally passed to the National Counterterrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the State Department and the FBI to be added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) watchlisting system, according to a U.S. intelligence source.

Avoiding detection is the name of the game for terrorists seeking to get into the U.S., Baer says.

"DHS is quite concerned that people are dumping their documentation (and) coming across the border using aliases," he says. "There is a good strong suspicion, well-founded suspicion, that al-Qaida-like groups, Salafis, and militants -- whatever you want to call them -- are trying to get American permanent resident alien (APR) documents so they can travel."

Tamerlan Tsarnaev apparently had APR documents in 2012 when he went to Russia, and Benotman doubts that his movements were limited to that country.

"There's a big possibility that he went outside of Russia for training," he says.

Baer says having American travel documents would allow him to do that easily.

"You can't travel freely with, let's say, an Iraqi passport or a Syrian passport, but you can travel with American docs (SIC) anywhere in the world and they (U.S. authorities) don't know who these people are," he says.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are two ways of obtaining asylum in the U.S: the affirmative process and the defensive process. It's the affirmative process that worries many in the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

According to DHS documents, to obtain asylum through the affirmative process a person "must be physically present in the United States.

"You may apply for asylum status regardless of how you arrived in the United States or your current immigration status," the documents say.

The defensive process is mainly utilized by those trying to avoid deportation. Baer calls the U.S. asylum system "broken" and says immigration courts are rubber-stamping those seeking asylum.

"The FBI can't watch them all, but let's not blame the FBI for this," Baer says.

WTOP contacted the DHS multiple times to ask for clarity on the issue but did not receive a response. Several people in the agency all said only the DHS press office could respond.

The State Department also has not responded to a request for comment about its role in the asylum process.

Meanwhile, as authorities try to determine the degree of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's involvement, a key question is whether he was a willing participant. Benotman says he thinks Tamerlan Tsarnaev recruited his younger brother.

"I think (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) was the one that organized everything -- during his mysterious trips to Russia," he says.

Benotman, who has denounced terrorism and is now a scholar with the Quilliam Foundation in London, was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and was present in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when the 9/11 attacks were planned in 2000.

Almost 12 years after 9/11, Benotman says, "I'm really concerned that (Tamerlan Tsarnaev) managed to be active, with no one noticing this."

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Counterterrorism agency working against the clock

Posted on: Tuesday 2/19/2013 6:24am

Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center in D.C., is one of the many intelligence officials working around the clock to decipher information and fend off terrorist attacks. (Courtesy of National Counterterrorism Center)

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - Matthew Olsen swung open his door shortly after 3 p.m. More than a half dozen people were waiting, with writing tools and notes in hand. Judging from their varied expressions, there was good and bad news.

The impending meeting on Feb. 11 was one of several that Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center in D.C., has each day to check the climate of the counterterrorism world.

While NCTC officials did not characterize the meeting or the level of urgency it carried, it came at a crucial point in the U.S. counterterrorism timeline.

In 2008, a report from the Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism warned: "Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing. In fact, on the current trajectory, we believe it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction - probably biological rather than nuclear - will be used somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

A stream of troubling developments starting in 2012 has reminded U.S. intelligence officials that this is now 2013.

Areas of North Africa have erupted into an insurgent-controlled terrorism cluster bomb that insurgents have detonated on multiple occasions, recently killing Americans in the process. An al-Qaida influenced coup in Mali in March 2012 that has since been arrested, but not fully staunched, started the hemorrhage.

The violence continued on Sept. 11, 2012 when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, enflaming political passions that are still raging in Washington.

On Jan. 19, three Americans were killed after Islamic militants stormed work and living quarters at the Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria.

In each case, the attackers deployed sophisticated weapons, which U.S. officials believe came from Libya. But among the most notable trends is that these attacks were launched quickly.

The attack in Benghazi appeared to be the manifestation of what former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was "part of a broader strategic challenge to the United States and our partners in North Africa."

U.S. officials say Libya's fledgling central government and immense stretches of ungoverned space have allowed numerous threats to generate in the region and endanger the continent and beyond.

Thousands of weapons have disappeared from stockpiles maintained by former Libya dictator Muammar Ghadafi. U.S. and foreign intelligence officials worry that chemical or biological weapons may be among the many regularly smuggled through North Africa.

Approximately 800 government analysts and hundreds of contractors from the intelligence community at the NCTC and elsewhere, are constantly picking at bits and pieces of intelligence -- looking for trends and clues that might head off a future attack.

"Groups have in some cases adopted the core intention of al-Qaida of attacking the United States in the middle or North Africa or attacking us in the United States," says Olsen, explaining the perpetrators' tactics.

The threat from what Olsen calls the core of al-Qaida has "greatly diminished" since the killing of key leaders such as Osama bin laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, he says.

"I think today the threat is a lot more decentralized, and it is more diverse and that in fact makes it in some ways unpredictable and harder to take steps against those threats," he says.

There are many other global hot spots that concern U.S. officials. Clinton said during her Senate testimony that there are more than 20 other diplomatic facilities around the world that are at risk.

Officials at the NCTC -- the main organization in the U.S. government that analyzes intelligence related to terrorism -- work around the clock, trying to piece together useful information.

"The first thing in the morning when I get here, we have a threat briefing and that's provided by a handful of briefers who have been here since two or three in the morning," Olsen says.

He says the briefers review information flowing in, including cable traffic from around the world and open source information.

"They are able to provide for myself and the other senior leaders here situational awareness," he says.

Even with more awareness, there seems to be less time to act.

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Key issues to watch this week

Posted on: Thursday 2/7/2013 12:19pm

J.J. Green,

AL-NUSRAH - The CIA has expressed skepticism about claims by al-Qaida-linked groups to have weapons of mass destruction. The agency says that al-Nusrah made a point of asserting publicly late last year that any messages not disseminated via its official channels or specific Web forums were fake. Several videos have surfaced in recent days showing the group with what appear to be weapons of mass destruction and claiming to have stolen them from Syria.

BRENNAN CONRFIRMATION - Thursday Feb. 7 at 2:30 p.m., the Senate Intelligence Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of John Brennan to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

JAPAN/CHINA TENSION - After a Chinese vessel near the East China Sea Isles locked its radar in on a Japanese Navy ship, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is urging China not to inflame tensions in the region.

CYBER ATTACKS - There have been several major breaches of bank, media outlets and other American companies by Chinese hackers in the last few weeks. Now there are reports that Anonymous has hacked and released the "security credentials for 4,000 U.S. bank executives."

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New threat against westerners in Benghazi

Posted on: Thursday 1/24/2013 12:29pm

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - Coming on the heels of often animated Congressional hearings with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, over what happened in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, the British Foreign Office has issued an urgent call for its citizens to evacuate.

"We are aware of a specific, imminent threat to westerners in Benghazi. We advise against all travel to Benghazi and urge any British nationals who are there against our advice to leave immediately," the statement says.

The alert also says, "Following French military intervention in Mali, there is a possibility of retaliatory attacks targeting western interests in the region."

A U.S. intelligence source tells WTOP British expatriates and oil facilities are at risk.

As a result of the concern, British nationals are advised against all but essential travel to Tripoli, Zuwara, Az Zawiya, al Khums, Zlitan and Misrata, and the coastal towns from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian Border, with the exception of Benghazi. We advise against all travel to all other areas of Libya, including Benghazi.

Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers, authorities say. They also believe there is a threat of kidnapping in Libya.

In general, British nationals (including dual nationals) and all westerners in Libya are being advised to "keep a low profile and avoid all but essential travel in their local area and to other parts of the country, particularly at night."

The problem in Libya is law and order in the country is still being re-established and the threat from crime, including carjackings, remains high.

There is also limited police capacity to prevent or deal with the street crimes, including muggings.

The U.S. Department of State warned U.S. citizens in early January of the risks of traveling to Libya and strongly advises against all but essential travel to Tripoli and all travel to Benghazi, Bani Walid, and southern Libya, including border areas and the regions of Sabha and Kufra.

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(Copyright 2013 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Hacker claims 1.6 million government passwords exposed

Posted on: Tuesday 12/11/2012 5:11pm

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - The dark-side of the Internet erupted Tuesday with an announcement by a hacker group called TeamGhostshell that it had hacked servers at NASA, the Pentagon, the Federal Reserve, General Dynamics, the European Space Agency and many others. The group says it released 1.6 million hacked usernames and passwords from the organization's employees.

Taunting the agencies, they released the following self-described rant:

"'Kay, let's get this party started! ESA, NASA, Pentagon, Federal Reserve, Interpol, FBI try to keep up from here on out because it's about to get interesting. Since it's our final stand this year, we've made the call to invite you guys to our event as well. How? Well, how about by starting with the fact that anti-terror agencies have been keeping an eye on us from the beginning. GlobalTerrorAlert you and the rest thought were invisible just because your own websites were set to 'hidden'? Silly kids, if you're on the net, then you can be sure that someone is watching you, no matter how hard you try to hide."

A derivative of the Anonymous hacktivist group, TeamGhosthell indicated on Twitter and in its own blog the information came from insecure government databases. The organization claims it hacked the sites and posted the information to protest a U.N.-sponsored discussion in Dubai this week aimed at seizing more control of the Internet.

Russian and Chinese officials argued at the meeting that greater control over Internet content is necessary, but a U.S. delegation, ironically argued the same position that TeamGhostshell is taking; that those nations which already exercise tight controls would abuse more control.

TeamGhostshell claimed in its tirade that it emailed several agencies warning that "another 150 vulnerable servers from the Pentagon, NASA, DHS, Federal Reserve, Intelligence firms, L-3 CyberSecurity, JAXA, etc. consider it an early Christmas present from us."

None of the U.S. government agencies or firms I contacted would comment, but one cyber-security expert characterized the breaches as "significant."

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

NORAD to start security exercises Monday night

Posted on: Tuesday 9/4/2012 8:58am

J.J. Green,

WASHINGTON - Starting Tuesday evening, the North American Aerospace Defense Command - better known as NORAD - will conduct security exercises.

"Falcon Virgo" will last through Friday morning. During that time you may see and hear loud aircraft, including helicopters and fighter jets.

Flights are scheduled to take place during two different time periods each day: 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.

The exercise is designed to hone NORAD's intercept and identification operations.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Misery continues in Syria

Posted on: Monday 3/5/2012 11:30am

J.J. Green,

HOMS, Syria - The Freedom fighters have moved on from Homs, but the suffering reportedly continues. There are many new reports of killing, rapes and explosions coming in. In the meantime, Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will visit Syria on March 10 and U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos will also be allowed to visit.

WASHINGTON - Talked with WTOP hosts Bruce Alan and Nathan Hager Monday about the right time to strike Iran. Question: When will Israel strike Iran? Answer: They started two years ago (cyber and assassinations).

WASHINGTON - President Obama said Sunday that the United States will not hesitate to attack Iran with military force to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but he cautioned that "too much loose talk of war" recently has only helped Tehran and driven up the price of oil.

WASHINGTON - I spoke with Fox 5 in Washington, D.C. about the killing of Lt. Col. J.D. Loftis inside Afghanistan's Interior Ministry on Feb. 25. I met him in 2009 during and embed in Zabul Province. Good man! Did a WTOP feature on him.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Israeli diplomats warned about future attacks

Posted on: Tuesday 2/14/2012 10:04am

TEL AVIV - Israeli officials have put out a global alert telling their diplomats not to use official cars. They are easy to find with easily marked diplomatic tags. The order comes after the attacks in India and Georgia.

WASHINGTON - Chinese Vice Premiere Xi Jinping visits the White House Tuesday. Trade discrepancies, military concerns and cyber-attacks are likely to top the list of issues.

PYONGYANG - There are rumors today that newly installed North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un may have been assassinated. Some bloggers have noted unusual activity at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing as well as inside North Korea, but many think the increased activity to preparations for formal leader for Kim Jong Il's upcoming birthday. A heightened security posture by military forces has been noted on the Chinese side of the border.

ABUJA - The Nigerian Security Service has been running a public service announcement on TV encouraging citizens to keep their eyes open for terrorist activity by al-Qaida linked group Boko Haram. But Nigerians are criticizing it -saying the advertisement is not speaking to them, but to Westerners in Nigeria. The ad uses a distinctly American sounding voice. It allegedly uses misleading photographs and uses a quote from an 18th century Irish philosopher.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

Panetta: Israel could strike Iran by late spring

Posted on: Friday 2/3/2012 8:35am

J.J. Green,

CAIRO - Men with machine guns in Egypt have allegedly kidnapped two American women. They were reportedly traveling in the Sinai desert.

ABUJA - The Ibadan Nigerian Tribune Online says State Security Service in Borno State have confirmed the arrest of Boko Haram's spokesman Abul Qaqa in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. The Tribune says GPS tracking was used to find him.

MANILA - The Philippine military said it killed three of Southeast Asia's most-wanted terrorist leaders in a U.S.-backed airstrike that significantly weakens an al-Qaida-linked network that had used islands in the southern Philippines as a hideout and training base. The dawn strike targeting a militant camp on a remote island killed at least 15 people, including Malaysian Zulkifli bin Hir, also known as Marwan, a top leader of the regional Jemaah Islamiyah terror network.

TEL AVIV - Is Israel ready to launch an attack on Iran to stop its nuclear program? The Washington Post's David Ignatius spoke to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about it. Panetta says Israel's strike could begin in late spring.

WASHINGTON - I spoke with Newschannel 8's Capitol Insider about top national security threat for this year. Click the link, start the video and scroll to 3:25 in the timeline to view the segment.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)