Officials: Syria strikes targeted al-Qaida operatives to derail plot

Posted on: Thursday 9/25/2014 9:32am

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence and military officials watched al-Qaida for more than two years as it put together a special operations unit, but on Monday they could not afford to just watch any longer.

In addition to U.S.-led coalition air strikes against ISIL, "Last night, we also took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al-Qaida operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorasan Group," said President Barack Obama during a late morning news conference at the White House.

That strike, which U.S. military assets conducted unilaterally, took on added urgency in recent days.

Without specifying where or when, deputy White House spokesman Shawn Turner told WTOP, "There was intelligence that indicated that senior operatives in this group were nearing the execution phase for an attack in Europe or potentially here in the United States."

A U.S. government official also told WTOP, "Over the last three months, we've received multiple reports that that the plots were maturing to include the fact that they had moved to training operatives."

The official said, "We were concerned they were developing advanced explosives that might prove challenging to some of our overseas partners abilities to detect."

U.S. intelligence officials were particularly worried about the skill and cohesive nature of the specially chosen operatives in the Khorasan group.

In some cases, the operatives have terrorist experience dating back to the beginning of the U.S wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have distinguished themselves in attacks.

"They're very dangerous individuals, who made their way to the region after fighting and living together in countries including Chechnya, Iraq, Yemen and other places across North Africa," said Turner.

The principle anxiety for U.S. officials was the merging of hard-core, "seasoned" al-Qaida fighters with the technologically savvy bomb-makers from its affiliate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is notorious for developing powerful, concealed, cutting-edge bombs and U. S. homeland security officials have been worried some of these devices could be secreted into the international aviation stream.

While U.S. intelligence officials have steered away from divulging what Khorasan's principle targets were, there have been numerous hints so far in 2014 that the aviation sector was a target.

In March, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, in his oral statement before the Senate Foreign Relations, alluded to a group of senior level terrorists from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region were a serious threat.

WTOP reported in late June that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned U.S. airline passengers that they might experience, "enhanced security measures in the coming days at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States," and "officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft."

It became clear, on Tuesday, that concern about Khorasan was the genesis of that warning.

"We watched them plotting this attack in a very specific way and one of the things that concerned us is they actively recruited westerners," said Turner. Those individuals, according to Turner, "were going to be used along with some of their newly developed tactics and other techniques to launch the attacks."

U.S. officials declined to confirm whether the air strikes against Khorasan killed any of the group's leadership. They also say they are not sure if the strikes disrupted the plot to attack the U.S. and Europe.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on Facebook.

Mosul dam and surrounding region still at risk despite Kurds' success

Posted on: Wednesday 8/20/2014 11:00am

Karwan Zebari, director of the Kurdistan Regional Government office in Washington, speaks with JJ Green, WTOP national security correspondent

The Hunt: How does Iraq, the U.S. respond to ISIS 'caliphate'

Posted on: Wednesday 7/2/2014 4:51pm

Terrorism expert Robin Simcox joins JJ Green, WTOP national security correspondent

Former CIA official talks about the operation to nab Ahmed Katallah.

Posted on: Tuesday 6/17/2014 5:29pm

J.J. Green, WTOP National Security correspondent

'Friendly fire' incident in Afghanistan preceded by Taliban attack

Posted on: Tuesday 6/10/2014 1:31pm

WASHINGTON -- Five American troops were killed Monday during what the Pentagon is calling "a security operation in southern Afghanistan."

They died in what the Pentagon fears was fratricide.

The troops were part of a U.S./Afghan team conducting a joint patrol in the Arghandab district of Zabul province, in advance of Saturday's presidential runoff voting.

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement, "Investigators are looking into the likelihood that friendly fire was the cause. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of these fallen."

Military authorities have yet to confirm it, but it's widely believed they were killed by weapons fired from an aircraft providing close air support. That aircraft was called in after the team was attacked by Taliban forces as they prepared to leave the area by helicopter.

Zabul province has long been a thorn in the side of U.S. and international military forces.

In 2009, concerned about the possibility of friendly fire incidents, the Department of Defense sent an urgent shipment of laptop computers and other electronic equipment to Zabul province and other locations in Afghanistan to prevent friendly fire.

The shipment was part of the FalconView mapping system developed for the U.S. Air Force to support Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). Their job is to call in airstrikes.

In the heat of battle during the 13 years the U.S. military has been at war in Afghanistan, JTACs have called in many such airstrikes, some allegedly resulting in the deaths of U.S. troops.

In addition to air strikes, FalconView, was designed to help avoid incidents of friendly fire among ground forces, as was the case with Pat Tillman, NFL star turned Army Ranger, who was killed on April 22, 2004, while on patrol.

FalconView is a Windows-based, geo-spatial mapping software system created by the Georgia Tech Research Institute for the Department of Defense. It displays aeronautical charts, satellite images and elevation maps. It was targeted toward military mission planning users and oriented towards aviators and aviation support personnel.

It is believed that system is still being used by the U.S. military. The Air Force referred WTOP to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) for answers to questions about which system was being used at the time of the incident.

CENTCOM is investigating.

Monday's incident in Zabul is reflective of U.S. defense officials' concern about the persistence of the Taliban in the region and the evolving knowledge base of terror groups in Afghanistan.

The province, located in southeastern Afghanistan, next door to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, has been the scene of frequent violent attacks by the Taliban and other misfortunes for international military forces.

Including Monday's casualties; it's estimated, based on unofficial, open source information that 112 U.S. deaths have occurred in Zabul since November of 2001.

Only Helmand (452), Kandahar (368), Kunar (170), Paktika (134) and Wardak (115) provinces have more. There have been more than 2,100 U.S. casualties in all of Afghanistan during the war.

The last recorded casualties were on December 17, 2013, when a U.S. military helicopter crashed in Zabul killing six of those on board. The chopper came down after engine failure.

As U.S. combat troops prepare to exit Afghanistan later this year, U.S. government officials express hope that peace might be a dividend of America's longest war.

But Monday's attack in Zabul, has revived the concern that the Taliban, which once governed Afghanistan with ruthless impunity, is not ready to make peace with the idea of sharing power with an Afghan government backed by the U.S. military.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

Children increasingly victimized by terrorists, not just targets

Posted on: Thursday 5/29/2014 2:54pm

WASHINGTON - As terrorism proliferates around the world, children are increasingly victimized, not only as targets but also as pawns, like the Nigerian girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram.

"Children are vulnerable. In many cases, they're easy to get a hold of and they can't put up much of a fight against a terror organization like Boko Haram," says WTOP's National Security Correspondent J.J. Green.

Organizations like Boko Haram know that they can capture the world's attention by doing something so unthinkable and unspeakable like kidnapping 276 school girls.

Terror groups believe, as in the case of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which unfolded on national television, that dramatic and brutal attacks bring them recognition and respect in the world of jihadism.

There are many ways children can be victimized: as child soldiers, spies or messengers. And there's a long history of using civilians, including children, as human shields.

Child soldiers date back thousands of years, with historical references to children used as chariot drivers or flag bearers.

One of the problems in today's society is the relentless spread of violent images in the media, which terrorist organizations try to use to further their own goals. And children help accomplish those goals.

"Things that are posted on the web -- messaging that's posted on social media by terror organizations -- some of them are children," Green says.

Many of the suicide bombers in Afghanistan have been children. And just a few years ago, American children of Somali families living in the Midwest were leaving the U.S. to head overseas.

And as much as the focus seems to be on children overseas, it is a problem here in the United States as well. A quick Web search turns up page, after page of instances of U.S. teens involved in terror plots during the last decade.

The incredible pace and wide availability of technology makes it easier for sophisticated terror planners to seduce and recruit children - a major obstacle for U.S. anti-terror efforts trying to prevent the spread of extremist groups.

"Smartphones, computers to many kids, games, things like that, that are on these computers are some of the ways in which they get involved," says Green.

He says terrorists recognize that they can use these tools to recruit children. As the children grow up, they become radicalized.

In many countries people consider children to be taboo when it comes to terror, but not always. And other terror groups could try to copy Boko Haram's tactics.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on Facebook.

U.S. military actively hunting for Boko Haram in Nigeria

Posted on: Tuesday 5/20/2014 5:32pm

JJ Green, WTOP National Security correspondent

CIA seeking diversity to contend with global challenges

Posted on: Monday 4/21/2014 5:13am

CIA (Courtesy CIA)
From left to right, Sheronda Dorsey, Cyril Sartor, Kim Ofobike and Carmen Middleton are seen at CIA headquarters. (Courtesy CIA)

WASHINGTON -- To achieve its mission in a rapidly evolving world, the Central Intelligence Agency is moving to blend in.

"Even going back to the times of the Greeks and Romans, the way you get information is not to look different from the people you're trying to get information from," said Harold Tate, the deputy director of support for management and modernization at the CIA.

The CIA's mission is: "Preempt threats and further U.S. national security objectives by collecting intelligence that matters, producing objective all-source analysis, conducting effective covert action as directed by the President and safeguarding the secrets that help keep our Nation safe."

During a discussion with five minority CIA officers about the agency's diversity and inclusion record, Tate, an African-American, said, "I'm a second-generation officer. My father started working here in 1955."

That year the CIA was struggling to get the upper hand on a formidable enemy in Eastern Europe. The Pentagon had announced plans to develop ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) armed with nuclear weapons.

At the same time, the agency, created in 1947, was struggling with its national identity. It reflected what America was waking up to: A civil rights struggle that would sweep the nation and penetrate the agency as well.

In December of that year, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, sparking a national civil rights movement that would shine a harsh spotlight on racial inequality in the U.S.

The CIA had already been thinking about that.

"The landmark study back in 1953 called the Petticoat Panel, which looked at women in the CIA, was really the first historic moment when CIA thought about its workforce and what it was experiencing," said Carmen Middleton, a Latina and director of the CIA's Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion.

Middleton says that another review in 1992, called "The Glass Ceiling Study," establishes that the CIA has "this rich history in taking on important, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable questions around diversity and inclusion."

Sheronda Dorsey literally came face-to-face with one of those "uncomfortable questions" in 1989, when she began working as an imagery analyst. "They had very few minorities; they had very few women and they had very few young adults," she said.

Now, deputy director in the Office of Corporate Business, she vividly remembers a pivotal interaction early in her career.

"I actually had a senior analyst make a comment to me saying 'I should've known that you wouldn't know the answer to that question,'" Dorsey said.

That moment, Dorsey said, set the course for her career, during which she's made it a point "to make sure I was viewed based on my competence -- not my age, color of my skin or my gender."

Keeping secrets and learning the secrets of others around the world is a key part of the CIA's job, but the agency has said that in order to do that, it needs to look, think and act more like the world.

In a 2007 interview with WTOP, Ricky Jasper, an African-American who was at the time diversity plans and programs manager, said it's all about mission success.

"In order to be successful as an organization, doing the mission that we do in the area of collecting information and analyzing it, we have to have diversity of thought, culture and views," he said. "Often the targets that we have as an organization are not Americans, quite frankly, so the diversity plays into the complete operation, from establishing what the operation will look like to execution of the operation."

Cyril Sartor, director of the Office of Analysis for Africa, Latin American and Global Issues, said he's seen the benefit.

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."

Follow @WTOP on Twitter.