Opinion: Regardless of ISIS menace, Putin’s solely concern is the politics of terrorism

Editor’s Observe: Douglas London served 34 years as a CIA operations officer, a number of occasions as a Chief of Station and ended his profession because the company’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia. London is writer of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Misplaced Artwork of American Intelligence.” He teaches intelligence research at Georgetown College’s Faculty of Overseas Service and is a nonresident scholar on the Center East and World Nationwide Safety Institutes. The opinions expressed on this commentary are his personal. Learn extra opinion at CNN.


American officers have been warning of the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISIS-Ok) aspiration to conduct exterior assaults and sure capability to strike america inside six months for the reason that chaotic US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. However neither Russian chief Vladimir Putin nor Federal Safety Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov made any point out of the Islamic State after the phobia group claimed accountability for the March 22 live performance corridor assault that left 143 lifeless.

Moderately, each blamed the assault on “radical Islamists,” with Bortnikov including that it was “after all aided by Western providers,” accusing Ukraine, the US and Nice Britain of facilitating the assault.

As reported in 2018, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo welcomed Russia’s three principal intelligence chiefs to CIA headquarters for counterterrorism discussions. Sergey Naryshkin, the pinnacle of Russia’s Overseas Intelligence Service or SVR, then-Russian Army Intelligence (GRU) Chief Igor Korobov and Bortnikov all participated. However on the company, we understood Pompeo’s motive was to appease former President Donald Trump, who rejected the intelligence neighborhood’s evaluation that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election; the director had a mission to win over Trump by assembly virtually each morning on the White Home.

On the time, I used to be the CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia, answerable for ISIS-Ok. Following the Washington conferences, Pompeo ordered my workplace to ship a staff of analysts who studied the Islamic State to Moscow for the start of what the director hoped can be a seamless dialogue.

In response to shared issues concerning the Islamic State’s exterior capabilities, Pompeo reasoned that the Russians can be longing for assist dealing with the specter of Central Asian ISIS members returning dwelling from Syria and Iraq with newly acquired abilities, battlefield expertise and in depth jihadist networks.

The CIA wouldn’t allow me to explicitly deal with the habits of our Russian interlocutors, nor what they offered. However I can say it was in line with, if not certainly worse than, how a number of former colleagues captured Trump’s initiative for a 2020 Washington Submit opinion piece, once they stated that “the trouble to foster (counterterrorism) cooperation proved a failure. The Russian facet by no means offered significant intelligence or info.”

The Russians have, nonetheless, produced and unfold disinformation about ISIS. Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul put it plainly, noting that Russian state-controlled media and bloggers had propagated the parable that the US based the Islamic State below former President Barack Obama. Trump famously echoed the identical falsehood publicly made by Russian and Iranian officers.

Russia is aware of it has a terrorist drawback, regardless of its deflection and spin to protect Putin’s picture, however his priorities are elsewhere. Terrorism is just not an existential menace to Putin’s rule. Such a regime-endangering menace might be a cascading set of crises owing to his warfare towards Ukraine which will spark the vital mass of long-repressed worry, anger and wanting turn into a well-liked rebellion that overwhelms his safety forces.

And Putin believes a few of his personal rhetoric, tending to mission his personal habits onto others. In late 2017, the US quietly shared actionable intelligence that enabled Russia to thwart a deliberate Islamic State assault within the Russian metropolis of St. Petersburg, vital info sharing that Putin acknowledged by praising the CIA and personally thanking Trump.

On March 7, the US Embassy in Moscow made a public announcement, owing little doubt to its possession of credible albeit restricted element, regarding an “imminent” extremist menace in Russia. Whereas the US shared such consciousness with Russia prematurely of the general public announcement, Putin believed he was being arrange for embarrassment and failure as a result of he thought the US was offering a deliberate lack of element on the menace and brief timeline to behave on the warning.

Though the US and Russia share a typical enemy, they don’t share the identical circumstances, calculus or capabilities. The Islamic State is best positioned to prepare extra complicated operations in Russia and throughout Central Asia, just like the staff of gunmen who attacked the Moscow live performance and set hearth to the corridor.

ISIS is extra prone to hit US targets overseas and take purpose on the homeland by inspiring lone-wolf assaults. And the political penalties for the US from any assault can be extra extreme than these confronted by Putin, for whom there’s a web achieve.

Russians don’t have any outlet for public outrage and Putin has proven with this and former incidents that he can leverage his huge info enterprise to spin occasions to his benefit. However, he understands that Western leaders will likely be distracted from addressing Russian aggression by coping with the inner political penalties of such assaults on their dwelling soil.

Russian intelligence additionally suffers from systemic failings in recognizing, penetrating and dismantling terrorist cells, failings that stem from doctrine and a intentionally stovepiped construction that obstructs info sharing and agility. The Russian safety equipment applies the identical scorched-earth ways to intelligence as its army does on the battlefield. Endurance, subtlety and stealth is just not the FSB’s type, neither is implementing a hearts-and-minds outreach to win the belief of Muslim and Central Asian Russian communities.

Russians are probably to purchase into the Kremlin’s spin concerning the nation’s Muslim communities supported by photographs of FSB raids, a few of which have been shared on social media. Stress and theater are extra expeditious than cultivating relationships, albeit inefficient, however do produce metrics on suspects detained or killed, deceptive as they is likely to be in regards to the true impression of those operations.

FSB officers will coerce, threaten and intimidate potential sources with diminishing returns that may solely gasoline ISIS-Ok recruitment and fundraising, which is little doubt seeing a surge from its Moscow assault. Russian intelligence will likely be left to rely on the unwilling, ill-informed or duplicitous.

Working in Russia, the place Central Asians are ubiquitous, typically communicate the language and may mix in, offers invaluable operational benefits for ISIS-Ok. And the phobia group’s operatives can come and go on every day regional flights in addition to from throughout the Center East and Turkey, the gateway to Syria.

In response to Turkish officers, not less than two of the Moscow attackers had been in Istanbul not lengthy earlier than touring to Russia for the assault, moved freely between the 2 nations and boarded the identical March 2 Istanbul-to-Moscow flight. ISIS-Ok may search for help from an indigenous Muslim and Turkic-speaking inhabitants bearing the brunt of army conscription to combat in Ukraine. ISIS-Ok’s Central Asians may have a tougher time simply securing US visas and overcoming screening procedures in the event that they select to assault right here within the US, particularly these coming from Turkey and the Center East.

Central Asians have lengthy held key ISIS management positions. On the Islamic State’s top, Tajik Gulmurod Khalimov commanded its Iraqi capital of Mosul. Previous to Could 2015, Khalimov led a particular police department below Tajikistan’s Inside Ministry and obtained coaching in each Russia and america on this function.

In 2016, the Islamic State’s minister of warfare was Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili, higher referred to as “Omar al-Shishani” and “Omar the Chechen.” Batirashvili was a Georgian nationwide with a Chechen background, who fought the Russians in Georgia as a military sergeant. He and Khalimov had been each killed in US airstrikes.

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After conveying warnings to Iran of ISIS-Ok’s January 3 Kerman assault, which killed 95 folks in twin bombings, after which asserting prematurely the group’s plans to assault Russia, it stands to motive that US intelligence has one thing to supply even nations with whom Washington doesn’t have heat relations within the curiosity of combating a typical enemy. However Putin doesn’t assume like most People, nor do Iran’s rulers, one thing American political leaders appear unable to understand.

Washington’s extension of olive branches has reaped negligible intelligence returns and little affect on such Russian habits because the Kremlin’s March 2018 assault towards former Russian intelligence officer turned British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, England, approaching the heels of Pompeo’s outreach.

The US actually has motive to fret about ISIS, as does Russia, however to completely different levels. Sensible causes, other than the authorized “responsibility to warn” requirement and moral concerns, will compel us to share data even with adversaries as a result of profitable terrorist operations wherever facilitate affect, fundraising and recruitment that these teams will likewise use towards us. However doing so requires open eyes, regard for our sources and strategies and overcoming the error of making use of American logic to Putin and his intelligence providers.

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