The “SBU MH17 LEAKS”: Kremlin’s latest echo chamber

After a prolonged Russian-media lull on the topic of MH17, last week a Russian publication claimed to have landed an explosive scoop, which – if true – would imply a Ukrainian role in the downing of the Malaysian Boeing on July 17, 2014.

The original – alleged – scoop was published in the sensationalist weekly Sovershenno Sekretno (“Top Secret“), which claimed to have received several internal SBU (Ukrainian Secret Service) documents. The contents of the alleged memos suggested that in the immediate wake of the Boeing crash, SBU had been on the look-out for potential witnesses and/or evidence, arguably as part of a clean-up operation after a Ukrainian-caused downing. The paper claimed it only had “photocopies of a sample of a few documents” that were “part of a larger stash that was offered to us“. The paper said it was publishing them in the “hope of furthering debate” and of pointing the international investigation team in the direction of such hypothetical evidence.

Even before analyzing the content of the alleged SBU documents, the mechanism of the alleged leak suggested that it was an active propaganda measure, as opposed to an actual scoop.

A Russian, controlled propaganda/disinformation plant traditionally follows a particular “echo chamber”  pattern, which in its simplest form includes (a) an initial story drop in a fringe or sensationalist publication, (b) the story being “noticed” and “validated” by controlled, allegedly independent bloggers or experts, and (c) the story, thus validated, being picked up in (controlled) mainstream media, with the hope that (d) this will lead to reprints in non-controlled media.

On Day 1 (May 22), The initial story dropped in Sovershenno Sekretno: а recently pro-Kremlin paper that thrives on a mix of facts, kompromat and conspiracy, which over the years has struggled with a number of high-profile slander and defamation cases. Simultaneously, the story was published in English in a sister website FLB.ru under the clumsy heading “Kompromat: To Destroy The Facts of Conducting a Special Operation”.

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On Day 2, the story was picked up under the mellifluous heading  “SBU orders to destroy all evidence of the conducted special operation MH17″  by The Saker, a pro-Russian, anti-Bildeberg conspiracy blogger.  Saker used to describe himself as a “former NATO operative” until his former employee outed him as a Russian undercover blogger residing in Florida, who – in his own words – had to leave his previous residence in Switzerland “due to my strong pro-Russian views”.

On Day 3, the story received wider dissemination via hundreds of self-styled “independent news”, anti-establishment, pro-Russian and/or conspiracy  websites, such as www.thetruthseeker.co.uk, www.ninefornews.nl, sbu-intoorlogisgeenoplossing.blogspot.com, quemadoinstitute.org, and the like. By my count, this story was reprinted in at least 24 languages on Day 3 and 4, yet it was not picked up by any serious news outlet.

At about the same time, the narrative surfaced in US “intelligence information” sites, such as the  VeteransToday.com, where its senior editor Gordon Duff headlined it with the definitive-sounding:

“BREAKING: Documents Prove Kiev Downed MH17”

Duff, who promotes himself variously as a disabled/counter-intelligence/ counter-insurgency/mercenary/diplomat/veteran, and is a frequent guest-expert on Iran’s Press TV and RT, awarded the Russian SBU story its own “independent verification” stamp, as per this intro:

Editor’s note:  The article below with documentation came from Ukraine and has been vetted as “moderately reliable or better.”  I have set a team on it to do cleanup but we did review sources and decided to put it up with minimal reformatting out of “need to know.”  This is very much a public issue.

What this does is present documentation that Ukrainian security services planned the coverup of MH17, reasonable evidence that they are responsible for the downing of that crash.

(You may want to check this eerie interview with Gordon Duff where he openly admits that 30% of the information published on VeteransToday,com is “patently false”, and 40% of what he himself writes is “knowingly untrue”).

At the end of Day 3, following the story’s echo-chamber reinforcement in dozens of quasi-expert and quasi-independent “foreign outlets”, it found its way back into Russian mainstream media. For the international audience, it was carried by state-run Sputnik, which headlined with the quizzically titled: Could Ukraine Have Destroyed Evidence of Its Responsibility for MH17 Crash?  Sputnik reinforced the original story by quoting “an analyst” by the name of Vladimir Kornilov:

“Although I cannot confirm the authenticity of the documents,  SBU did a lot of suspicious activities in the hours after the crush (sic).. Since evidence [of what happened to air-traffic controllers tracking flight MH17] is absent, we can assume that this absence is the result of some special operations by Ukrainian security and intelligence agencies, including the SBU”

What Analyst Kornilov was apparently alluding to, was the debunked Russian narrative that certain air-traffic controllers – such as the fabled “Carlos the Spanish Air-Traffic Controller” – had been disappeared following the MH17 downing (What was disappeared was this Russia Today video which claimed to interview Carlos several hours after the plane’s downing).

Like Gordon Duff, analyst Vladimir Kornilov is a multi-functional expert. When he is not dispensing expertise on Ukrainian fascism and ballistics to foreign and Russian audiences,  he plays the part of a Ukrainian emigre in the Netherlands. This NYT investigation pinpointed Kornilov as a Hague-based agitator against the 2016 Ukraine-EU association referendum, during which he collaborated with Dutch Russia-friendly and anti-EU politicians such as Thierry Baudet, an up-and-coming star on the Dutch political landscape, and avid purveyor of Russian fake news such as the “crucifix boy” fable.

A similar echo chamber developed in Russian domestic media, where the Sovershenno Sekretno “scoop” was carried, with subsequent exaggeration , “expert” validation, and confirmation by dozens of Russian mainstream media. 

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Even without the benefit of an expert review of the alleged content of the “leak”, it is apparent that the “scoop” story makes little sense.  The original publication claims that the people who possess the original, verifiable documents – allegedly former, disgruntled SBU functionaries – were willing to sell them for a financial profit. However, the paper decided not to pay – yet still got photocopies, because “the source wanted the truth to be known”.  This makes no sense, obviously. If the “sources” indeed were after financial gain, they would not go to a fringe paper as their most likely transnational counterpart. They would have had a buffet of affluent Russian and international media to pick from, although they would be by far most likely to maximize their profit by selling the information to the Russian government. On the other hand, if they were after the truth-seeking effect, they would probably not hand over unverifiable photocopies, and again – unlikely to a fringe media outlet that literally has “kompromat” in its meta-tags.

A content analysis of the “leak”, while redundant in this case, confirms the forgery hypothesis.

First, the alleged SBU documents are rife with linguistic and stylistic errors suggesting a native Russian speaker authored them (note: this is not necessarily a smoking gun, as there are SBU officers who grew up with Russian as their mother tongue).

Second, as I tweeted immediately after glancing at the “documents”, the allimprobeged SBU memos refer to the “Donetsk People’s Republic”  (DNR) as a “neighboring state“. For anyone who has followed even perfunctorily the political, social and linguistic dynamics between Russia and Ukraine since the Russian invasion in 2014, it would be obvious that under no scenario other than contemplated suicide, would an SBU officer forego the official Ukrainian nomenclature for DNR as “a terrorist organization” (as per May 16 2014), in favor of  “neighboring state”.

My tweet did not go well with Ivan Rodionov of RussiaToday Deutschland, who chastised me for “distorting facts” because “single reference to Foreign States is part of the standard general classification of SBU investigation procedure”. I promptly asked Mr. Radionov to share with us said “standard general classification procedure”. I will share it with you as soon as Mr. Rodionov provides it.

Third, all “documents” published by Sovershenno Sekretno carry an official stamp on top of the signature of the SBU chief. This formalistic practice, which was a must-have in the Soviet block system, continues to exist in Russian documentary turnover. In Ukraine, however, it was discontinued in the early 90’s.  In my previous investigations on Ukrainian topics I have come across a number of actual SBU documents ranging 2012 through 2014; none of them have contained this unforgettable Soviet vestige.

Fourth, and most sloppily, the alleged documents are ostensibly addressed to the “Department of Military Counter-intelligence” (DVKR).dkvr

The Department of Military Counter Intelligence (DVKR) did exist within the SBU, indeed. In the brief period between 2003 and 2005, that is. The brainchild of the then SBU chief Gen. Igor Smeshko, the Military CI unit was supposed to be transferred from SBU to the Defense Ministry, as a measure against consolidating inordinate intelligence firepower in one agency. After Smeshko was terminated in 2005, his successor Turchinov liquidated DVKR, and military intelligence reverted to being a sub-unit within SBU’s Counter-intelligence department. Thus, as of the time of the alleged provenance of the “SBU documents”, the abbreviation DVKR had been out of use – and statutory existence – for nearly a decade.

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It is beyond doubt that the SBU document “leak” was an active dump of forged documents. The meticulous adherence to the traditional echo chamber pathway implies that it was not an amateur, but a state-sponsored active operation. This is further corroborated by the activation of state-owned media in the propagation of the narrative.

The real question is linked to the choice of timing. What tactical or strategic goals does Russia pursue in dumping this easily debunkable false narrative at a time when there is no tangible procedural event on the MH17 investigation horizon.

One possible answer is that the Kremlin is itself concerned with the lack of news on what is happening beneath the lid of the JIT investigation, access to which Russia has not received despite shrill attempts. Short of Signit and hacks, Russia has had to glean information about the investigation status from the occasional JIT reactions to Russian statements, such as this recent rebuttal of Russia’s claims that it provided complete and verifiable radar data to the JIT. It might well be that the Kremlin was simply stirring the pot to see what color the smoke coming from under the lid would be.

Alternatively, this may be a less sophisticated, routine disinformation implant, simply targeting to dilute the public’s trust in the ongoing investigation, or to provide fodder to the “multiple truths” narrative pushed by Russia since 2014.

It is unlikely we will find out the direct motives for this active measure. What it does provide us with, however, is a verifiable list of participants of the echo chamber.  Given the apparent implausibility of the underlying scoop legend – and the glaring defects upon closer review of the content – one could assume that the only parties that would willingly pick this story and give it exposure in a definitive, uncritical context – are in fact accessories – paid or not – of the active measure architect. 

A Balkan Gambit: Kremlin’s Outsourced Hybrid War in the Balkans

In this two-part investigation, I look into a series of active measures, hybrid warfare and false-flag operations in the countries of the Balkans orchestrated by Russian nationals working in close coordination with the Kremlin. 

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PART 1:

Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 2014:

On 2 October 2014, a short announcement appeared on the website of the Border Police of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The matter-of-fact alert was titled “Entry of nationals of the Russian Federation” and read:

“In order to objectively inform the public on the entry of citizens of the Russian Federation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we inform you that in the period from 25 September to 2 October 2014, 144 citizen of the Russian Federation entered the republic via the International border crossing of Raca, as  follows: on 25.09 (11 persons), 26.09. (36 persons), 27.09 (24 persons), 28.09 (24 persons), 29.09  (5 persons), 30.09 (40 persons) and 1.10  (4 persons). All persons satisfied the requirements for entry into Bosnia and Herzegovina, were not wearing uniforms and military artefacts, and among them were women and men of different age groups.”

This odd news item was the police’s attempt at calming the public, after local media had reported an unusual number of burly Russian men, all dressed in Cossack uniform, popping up in the tiny Balkan country in the weeks leading up to presidential elections on October 12. More alarmingly, the nation’s Federal TV had identified some of the Cossack visitors – in particular their leader, Nikolay Djakonov,  as having led a paramilitary Cossack unit during the accession of Crimea earlier that year.

Now, more than a hundred of these same men, wearing the same uniforms, were all heading to Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska – the 1.2 m-people, Serb-majority entity that together with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, makes up the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.   The purported reason for the Cossacks’ arrival was to take part in a folklore performance on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. However, local media quickly discovered that none of the sheep-skin hatted dancers seemed to know when the planned performances were going to be, nor how long they planned to stay in the country. Nor, for that matter, could they dance. The Cossack delegation was accompanied by knyaz Zurab Zhavchavadze, the monarchist son of a former Russian Imperial Guard commander, and director of the Russian charity fund Basil the Great. The fund, along with the RS Ministry of Culture, were the official organizers of the Cossacks’ visit to the Federation.

(read the full first part of the investigation at Bellingcat)

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Part 2: The Montenegro Zugzwang

Montenegro, July 2016

On July 14 2016, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted what appeared to be a series of messages threatening the tiny republic of Montenegro:

These vague threats came from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova as reaction to Montenegro’s prime minister statement that “people from the lowest classes in the Balkans falling prey to Russian propaganda.” This remark, in turn, was precipitated by increasingly hostile Russian rhetoric in the months following Montenegro’s decision to orient itself westward, and to accept NATO’s invitation to join the alliance – a political decision that was controversial from a popular perspective (between 40% and half of the population is estimated to be opposed to membership in the military alliance).

On December 2, 2015, Kremlin spokesman Peskov threatened that Russia would take “retaliatory measures” in case Montenegro accedes to NATO, and Russian parliament threatened to freeze all cooperation projects with the small Balkan country. Ignoring these Russian warnings, Djukanovic signed an accession protocol with NATO in May 2016, permanently depriving Russia of its only potential ally with naval access to the Mediterranean.

Despite all the warning signals, when on October 16th 2016 – the day of general elections in Montenegro – Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic announced that a day earlier, the republic’s special services had arrested twenty Serbian citizens who had been planning a paramilitary plot to throw the mountainous republic into chaos – and potentially have him assassinated. Global reaction was skeptical. The alleged plot, described over the next several days by prosecutors, ministers, and local media, in at-times contradictory renditions, sounded too cartoonish to be reported on seriously. The authorities alleged that two dozen Serb and Montenegrin conspirators, acting under foreign guidance, conspired to purchase arms, infiltrate parliament on election day dressed as policemen, initiate a false-flag police attack on crowds of protestors gathering outside the building, arrest – or possibly even assassinate the Prime Minister, and install a government led by the Democratic Front – the staunchly anti-NATO, pro-Russia opposition alliance. The story barely registered in the global news flow.

It was not until Serbia – initially just as skeptical of Montenegro government’s claims – on October 24th arrested two Russian citizens who – Serbian police said – were in possession of counterfeit Montenegro special-police uniforms, €122,000 in cache, and sophisticated encrypted telecoms equipment – that global media started paying attention to this story. On October 26th 2016, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev travelled to Belgrade on a previously scheduled visit. In early November, the Guardian quoted an undisclosed source close to the Serbian government as saying that Patrushev had apologized to the Serbian government for what he described as “unsanctioned rogue operations”, an assertion that Russia later publicly denied and called a provocation.

The Serbian Plot

Several days after Patrushev’s visit, on October 29th, Serbian police discovered a cache of weapons near Prime Minister Vucic’s family home in Jajinci, along the route the would be riding to work. The arsenal was hidden in a car parked in the forest approximately fifteen meters from the roadside, and included a grenade launcher, four hand-grenades and more than a hundred rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition, as well as ammunition for automatic weapons.

The startling discovery sent Vucic into hiding until the investigation was completed; an understandable reaction in a country that had already seen one of its prime ministers killed by a sniper in 2003. In a written statement to media, Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic alluded that the masterminds of the attempted assassination may have been powers from outside the country, unhappy with Serbia’s sovereign choices. “History has proven that a Serb hand is always available for hire to do their dirty work”, Dacic wrote.

At a press conference on the next day, Vucic downplayed the weapons find being a sign of an imminent assassination plot, but said that warnings and threats have been registered in the preceding days, and confirmed that investigators suspected a foreign link, but said that threats were “not as concrete and proven as the ones for the coup attempt in Montenegro”. Vucic confirmed that he had “seen and heard hard evidence as clean as a whistle in support of Montenegro prosecution’s allegations. I heard the conversations with my own ears; I was not satisfied with the transcripts, I wanted to hear with my own ears. Only after I heard them, do I dare confirm this to you”, Vucic said.

In the evening of the following day, November 1 2016, Serbian police, acting on the trail of the cache discovery, found an automatic “Heckler & Koch” gun with ammunition plus 200 grams of TNT, mobile phone paired to detonators, and a pistol. The weapons were stored in the trunk of a stolen Renault Megan parked in a garage in New Belgrade.

In the following days, Serbian media published unsourced information that two Russian citizens had been repatriated to Russia following Patrushev’s Belgrade visit.

The Montenegro Plot: The Prosecution Narrative

In the first press conference since the October 16th foiled coup announcement, on November 6th, Montenegro’s chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnić provided details of the alleged plot. Per his narrative, the plot involved citizens of Serbia, Russia and Montenegro, and had the goal of changing the political system in Montenegro.

The plan had been hatched, he said, by two Russian nationals, who had recruited a Serbian national – now a key indicted defendant – as the main organizer of the plot. Via him, further Serbian and Montenegrin nationals were recruited, with the goal to recruit up to 500 persons by election date.

The plan was, Katnić said, for dozens of conspirators to infiltrate crowds protesting in front of the Parliament building after 23:00 on election night. Then a certain politician from one political group (later defined as the anti-NATO, pro-Russian Democratic Front) would take the stage, and would trigger the crowd and the terrorists to storm Parliament by force. The infiltrated crowds would retain control over the building for 48 hours, and shooters would aim to assassinate Prime Minister Djukanovic. The end-game of the plot would be to change Montenegro’s political course and prevent its accession to NATO.

Katnic said a core group of fifty armed and trained terrorists with “military experience from fighting in third countries” had been recruited from within Montenegro, Serbia and Russia. He declined to confirm explicitly if that was a reference to Eastern Ukraine. Fifty automatic rifles and fifty pistols had been acquired to the criminals group.

The prosecution presented a three-minute video, provided by Serbian authorities, showing large quantities of riot police gear, Topcom and Motorola communication equipment, pepper spray, batons, gas masks, rolls of barbed wire, and drones; all allegedly captured in possession of plotters detained in Serbia at the request of Montenegro.

Katnic told reporters that the two Russians had been apprehended by Serbia’s special prosecution, and that they had been monitored surreptitiously by Serbia’s secret service and thus “the evidence could not be used in court”, as a result they “could not keep them in detention”. The two had already left the territory of Serbia, he said without specifying if they were in Russia.

The special prosecutor was careful to disconnect the accusations towards the suspected Russian nationals from Russia as a state. “We believe this was the work of Russian nationalists who wished to prevent Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration. We are cooperating with both Serbia and Russia on this case”, he said.

However, Montenegro’s position on Russian state involvement changed after it transpired that one of the two Russians whom Montenegro was searching via the Interpol red-notice alert system, had travelled under a false family name on an officially issued, fresh Russian passport. Furthermore, it transpired that the person – Eduard Shishmakov – had until recently served as deputy military attaché in the Russian Embassy in Warsaw. According to a former head of government of another Balkan country familiar with the matter (speaking to us on condition of anonymity), both the Serbian and Montenegrin prime ministers had initially taken Patrushev’s assurances that the initiatives were those of Russian nationalists unrelated to the state, at face value, and the discovery that at least one of them was linked to GRU came as a shock.

Read Part 2 in full at Bellingcat

UPDATED: General Flynn’s Russian Payments: The Real Question That Wasn’t Asked

Image result for general flynn moscow

Today US Congress Oversight Committee published a document outlining the sources and amounts of payments from Russian entities received by Gen. Michael Flynn in the period immediately preceding and in the course of the presidential campaign.  Most media coverage focused  on the amount paid by Kremlin’s so-called news TV channel, RussiaToday (RT), for Flynn to fly to Moscow in December 2015 and sit next to President Putin at the TV stations’ anniversary gala. And that’s understandable, given the unsavory optics of Flynn’s decision to, essentially, sell his body to Kremlin’s propaganda arm for 2 evenings and charge 55 k for it.

Lesser media attention was paid, however, to something potentially much more sinister. The Committee’s findings also disclose a payment of approx 11k from Volga Dnepr, a Russian aviation transportation company which has been a long-time market leader in delivering military equipment to hard-to-reach or highly dangerous locations; primarily thanks to its fleet of Antonov 124 large and sturdy planes. Volga Dnepr has for years been a logistics partner for the peace-keeping units of United Nations, and for the armies of European countries and the Pentagon. Or at least, it had been a partner until recently. We will come to that in a minute.

The Oversight Committee takes a jab at Volga Dnepr, implying poor judgement by Flynn in taking money from a company that was linked to a UN corruptoin scandal in 2007.

flynn

However, this incident predates Flynn’s possible engagement by nearly a decade and can  only imply poor judgement and a broken moral compass. But for this we already have the RT trip.

What could potentially be more meaningful is that around the time of the services for which Flynn charged $11,250, Volga-Dnepr was in serious trouble with the Pentagon, and was in dire need of help, legal and otherwise. Shockingly, the House Oversight Committee seems completely unaware of this.

Between 2002 and 2014 USTRANSCOM, Pentagon’s transportation procurement arm, had used Volga Dnepr as a subcontractor in approximately 13,000 missions  transporting military cargo to U.S. and its allies. Suddenly, on February 9, 2015, USTRANSCOM abruptly terminated its relationship with Volga Dnepr and informed it – and all Pentagon subcontractors by email – that it shall not be used for further military operations abroad.

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In two subsequent prohibition circulars from March 2014 (see second one below), USTRANSCOM stated that Volga Dnepr was “unsuitable” for sub-contracting by the Pentagon.

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USTRANSCOM provided no further information despite Volga Dnepr’s requests for clarificaiton of the reasons for termination. An email from AtlasAir, one of the Pentagon’s direct contractors previously sub-contracting Volga-Dnepr’s, to US CEO Sergey Reznikov from February 24 2015 made it clear that Volga’s blacklisting is not a “lightly made decision” and is not simply the result of the “political environment”. AtlasAir recommends Volga-Dnepr to go via the Russian Embassy in D.C. to check what, if anything, can be done to reverse the Pentagon’s decision.

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On July 27 2015, the USTRANSCOM informed Volga Dnepr that it cannot share the motivation for its blacklisting decision, citing the sensitive, classified  nature of the data.

 

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As Volga-Dnepra states in its pleading notes to a court filing at the US District Court in Columbia, in the year years following the termination notice in February 2014,

“Volga Dnepr made many efforts to learn why USTRANSCOM banned it from USTRANSCOM contracts and tenders”

but it was not able to get direct feedback from the Pentagon. Then, on May 11, 2015, Volga Dnepr filed a Freedon of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Pentagon, hoping to receive the requested information. To this end it hired Squire Patton Boggs, the US law and lobbying firm that represents other Russian companies, such as  Gazprombank, in their quest to get past the US sanctions.

The Pentagon was in a pickle: under US FOIA law, it had to provide information in its reasoning and decision-making process in dismissing a procurement relationship; yet this was not an ordinary supplier, but a Russian arms speditioner that works closely with the Russian government. Any information about specific reasons for terminating the agreements would likely provide information to Moscow about what the US knew about Moscow. And it’s likely that that in itself was a key motive for the FOIA request.

On December 15, 2015, 230 days after Volga Dnepr’s First FOIA Request, USTRANSCOM released a 41-page response to Volga Dnepr, of which 37 pages were redacted in part or in full. The statement referred to multiple examples of Volga-Dnepr breaching US laws and nationa-interest doctrine, but the examples themselves were fully redacted (except one). The headings above each example, however, were telling: Subcontractor activities Counter to US Interests, Support to anti-US Regimes, Weapons proliferation, Vulnerability to Exploitation, etc.

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The only unredacted example listed in the statement was the delivery of 2 SU-30MK fighters to Vietnam in December 2014 on account of Rosoboronexport, a sanctioned Russian state arms-export company, transacting with with which makes any US counterpart ineligible for business.

Volga Dnepr appealed this redacted response and took the case to court in October 2016, after failing to receive a reaction from the Pentagon.

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So it appears that four months after Volga-Dnepr’s contract with the Pentagon was terminated due to “unsuitability for transacting” with the the Pentagon, and after – in the company’s own words –  it  began to “make many efforts to learn why USTRANSCOM banned it from USTRANSCOM contracts and tenders”,   the Russian company made a payment of $ 11.250 to General Flyn.

General Flynn, as we know, was Donald Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor with ephemeral but full access to all state secrets, Pentagon or otherwise.  But this was not the first time he got such access. At the time he provided the unspecified service to the Russian company, he had been fired from his DIA job for a year but still had top-security clearance. This would suggest that Flynn would have been uniquely useful to Volga-Dnepr in their search to identify what the Pentagon knew or didn’t know about the company’s disqualifying projects.

 What is clear is that Flynn provided a service to a Russian company formally blacklisted by the Pentagon for  activities contrary to US Interests.  What is also beyond doubt is that at that very time, that company was searching for data that the Pentagon refused to share, because -as it would later argue in defending its FOIA redactions – the sources for such information was highly sensitive and its disclosure would affect US’s national security.

Yet, Flynn had access to such data due to his residual security clearance.

Based on Flynn’s security clearance level, he would have had access to the USTRANSCOM’s unredacted assessment dated February 18th 2015, which motivated the Pentagon’s conclusion that Volga-Dnepr was acting against US interests, was promoting weapons proliferation and was assisting regimes hostile to the US. He would have had ample opportunity to recuse himself from the engagement with Volga-Dnepr after such discovery. He did not, and proceeded to receive payment from Volga-Dnepr in August 2015.

I cannot be certain that Flynn was engaged and received payment for providing (or attempting to supply) confidential, classified data to a company blacklisted by the Pentagon. However the timing, as well as Flynn’s unique qualifications, at least suggest that the payment was likely to be linked to Volga-Dnepr’s struggle to obtain information that the Pentagon was refusing to share out of security concerns.

Neither Flynn nor Volga-Dnepr have responded to media requests for comments on the nature of the service relationship.

If my hypotethesis turns out to be true,  Flynn’s Moscow shopping trip may be the least of his problems. The scariest part is that none of this is in the Congress Committee’s report.

UPDATE ON 3/17/2017 at 10 pm:

Volga-Dnepr have published a statement that the $11,250 paid to General Flynn was for a speech Flynn made at a Middle East & African Spedition & Security conference in Washington, D.C . that was sponsored by Volga-Dnepr’s subsidiary Volga Dnepr Unique Air Cargo. Volga Dnepr, somewhat quizzically, says there is no connection between the selection of Flynn as speaker and his future appointment as national security adviser to Donald Trump.

At the time of the conference, Volga-Dnepr Unique Air was suffering significant loss of clients due to its reputatiin damage following its being blacklisted by the Pentagon, as can be seen in this letter by the company to USTRANSCOM from Feb 24 2015:

letter_june

Therefore, the idea that Unique Air would pay General Flynn, the former DIA chief, to speak at an international arms conference, at its invitation and on its behalf, would not be out of the question.

If this was the sole relationship between Flynn and Volga Dnepr, the only question that remains is that of the moral and political choice by Flynn to speak on behalf of a company of which he had knowledge to have been blacklisted by the Pengagon, over issues at serious odds with US law and national security interest.

 

 

 

 

 

Tower of Cards (part 1)

When Buzzfeed.com leaked ex-MI6 spook’s Trump Dossier last this past Wednesday, most critical thinkers’ initial reaction was wide-eyed skepticism. The combination of alphabetized sources, the improbable breadth of alleged access to top-secret information, and over-explicit details from the (not as improbable – more on this in a future post) alleged fetishes of a President-Elect, beggared belief.  Serious analysts like Mark Galeotti who cannot be accused of sympathy for Trump or Putin, challenged the dossier’s plausibility, arguing that the cited anonymous sources had suspiciously wide a network with access to diverse state secretes – and on top of that, were willing to share them via remote communication with a UK based handler.

My initial reaction was similarly dismissive. However, after playing devil’s advocate – and testing certain assumptions about how the dossier may have been compiled – I have shifted my position. We now know conclusively (against his will) that the report was written by an industry-respected former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Is it probable that Steele would have invented, purposely conflated, or embellished details in the report in order to please his client – or to substantiate his own Russophobic precepts? (the theory has been posited in the UK press that he may have been emotionally blinded by his own experience in handling Litvinenko’s case on behalf of MI6).

I strongly doubt the embellishment theory. Steele’s only gainful asset of late has been his reputation, both among private clients but also – crucially – among state actors who have used him to investigate transnational corruption cases such as the FIFA scandal. There is no plausible hypothesis in which Steele would knowingly embellish his report and then proceed to not only furnish it to his private clients (who, one could argue, might be gullible enough to accept Ludlumesque fiction as fact), but also to the FBI and CIA – who he would know would never trust him again if he once served them red herrings.

Therefore, I believe  Steele provided a bona-fide report of what he thought was the objective truth at the time of writing, and (importantly) in doing so, drew on actual sources, alphabetized or not, that he trusted. He did communicate with his sources, via proxies as described, and yes, such communication would have had to be remote, most likely via tradecraft-standard apps such as Signal (which at least a year ago intelligence operatives were swearing by). Whether or not what his sources fed him was truthful, is a different matter.

Now let’s move to the main substantive criticism of the dossier: the plausibility of existence of sources with such broad scope of access to Kremlin insiders – including to head of Rosneft and former PM Igor Sechin, presidential adviser Sergei Ivanov, Foreign Ministry officials, and even to Putin himself.

Indeed, such ubiquitous access to sources is extremely hard to acquire, especially for a non-state actor such as Christopher Steele. But impossible it is not.

A complex power-wielding apparatus such as the Kremlin cannot function without an extensive human support system.  While decision-making is highly centralized, information dissipation is inevitable, often as result of the eventual complacency that any successful authoritarian system promotes among its insiders. (let’s just remember the several mail hacks of senior Kremlin aparatchiks over the last 3 years – with one exception the “hacks” were not the result of foreign signit or cyberattacks, but of rather primitive humint – literally of passwords being visually pilfered as they were typed-in by self-assured Kremlin staff working at their macs in trendy cafes near the Kremlin.

But more importantly: namely because of the  concentration of the most sensitive information at the top of the power pyramid, any potential source in the vicinity of the top  would have access to not one, but to a variety of information vectors, that all lead to the very peak.

One such hypothetical source, who would have been well-placed at the crossroads of several of the information vectors drawn upon in Steele’s dossier, died in unusual circumstances on December 26 2016: a point in time when the dossier had been so broadly diffused in DC, London and Rome, that we may assume with near-absolute certainty it had landed on Putin’s desk.

On July 19, 2016, Christopher Steele reports for the first time of  having a source close to  Rosneft President Sechin:

“A source close to Rosneft President, Putin close associate and US-sanctioned Igor SECHIN, confided details of a recent secret meeting between him and visiting Foreign Affairs Adviser to Donald TRUMP, Carter PAGE. According to Sechin’s associate, the Rosneft CEO had raised with PAGE issues of future bilateral energy cooperation and prospects for associated move to liet Ukraine-related western sanctions against Russia. PAGE had reacted positively to this demarche by SECHIN but had been generally non-committal in response”

Three months later, in October 2016 Steele followed up with his alleged source to provide more details from the July 2016 meeting with Carter – arguably from the same source close to Sechin. In this more detailed section, it becomes clear that the original source – “a close associate of Sechin” – is confiding details to “a trusted compatriot”, and not directly to Steele. Here is the relevant section from the October 19 report:

sechin2

The content of the alleged discussion between Page and Sechin is explosive. Thus, calling the conduit of this information “a close associate” is an understatement. If indeed authentic, this source must have been unusually close to Sechin; trusted sufficiently to be made part of this most corrupt of geopolitical bargaining. To put it bluntly: it doesn’t get more “top secret” than this. It is safe to say that the source we should be looking for is not a PA or a chauffeur.

Sudden Death Syndrome

At 14:23 Moscow time, one of Russia’s most subservient news outlet with a  first-at-the crime-scene reputation –  Life.ru, ran the sensationalist headline:  “Sechin’s Chief of Staff Killed in Downtown Moscow”.  I caught a glimpse of this headline in real-time, as I have a browser alert for breaking news from Life.ru. I remember being particularly startled by the headline, as only a week earlier, a Russian mid-level diplomat had been found shot in the head, with two bullets, in his Moscow apartment.  The working hypothesis of the investigation was reported to be “accidental homicide or suicide”. Did I mention the two bullets?

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I read quickly through the new story. The gentleman in question, Gen. Oleg Erovinkin, had been found dead, by his driver, in the back seat of his corporate Lexus which had been parked in a downtown alley in Moscow’s China Town district. Erovinkin, 61, was a KGB/FSB general, who had been head of the Department for Protection of State Secrets at the Kremlin under Yeltsin, and later under the early Putin. In 2008,  Putin (then a fresh Prime Minister) appointed him Chief of Staff of his deputy PM Igor Sechin. When Sechin was promoted to President of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft in 2012, Erovinkin followed him into the ominous-sounding, if fuzzily-defined position of “Chief of Special Supervision of the President’s Apparatus.”  Insiders have described Erovinkin to me alternately  as “Sechin’s treasurer” and “the go-between between Putin and Sechin”.  One thing that everyone seems to agree – both in public and private sources – is that Erovinkin was Sechin’s closest associate.

The initial Life.ru story reported that FSB investigators were at the scene and working on determining the cause of death, and that doctors on site had only confirmed that Erovinkin was indeed dead.

By the time I had tweeted my observation that this murder would be the first time that a FSB General had been violently killed in Russia, Life.ru had already changed the headline of the story.  It was now “The Chief of Staff of Rosneft’s President found dead in Moscow. However, certain news aggregators managed to copy the story with the original headline. (Life.ru also appear to have neglected to delete a reader’s comment referencing the change of headline; the fact that the story headline in Russian media was altered was also noticed by this Ukrainian newspaper) .  The original story was also completely deleted from the popular Kremlin-funded news-tracker, Mediametrics.ru (Mediametrics has a history of removing stories deemed inconvenient to the regime.)

Subsequent coverage of Erovinkin’s death in Life.ru and other Russian media provided contradictory narratives of what exactly took place. It was universally reported that due to Erovinkin’s high position in a strategic state corporation, and his former government function, the investigation will be handled solely by FSB, including FSB forensic pathologists.

However, while some media reported that Erovinkin had been found dead in the back seat, others reported that he has been in the driver’s seat, and had managed to park the car after his heart failed. Yet other news sites reported he “caused a minor traffic accident after his death“.   There were reports that Erovinkin may  been “en route to or from the Kremlin where he had been delivering highly confidential documents”

Later in the day Life.ru published a follow-up story with the misleading headline “Rosneft Links Erovinkin’s Death With His Heart Problems”.  The actual text of the story contained a quote from Rosneft’s press officer who said “I spoke with him the other day…he felt perfectly okay“…and adds the speculative comment, “Heart [issues] are the typical problem for men this age“.

(Life.ru is known to take direct content instructions from the Kremlin and the FSB, as became clear thanks to a series of email leaks in 2015 and 2016, including hacked phone and email messages of the Life’ owner Arman Gabrelyan.)

Since the initial flurry of contradictory media reports on December 26th , there has been zero coverage of Erovinkin’s death in Russian media. Needless to say, FSB has not pronounced a cause of death, and is unlikely to ever do.

Was Erovinkin a Steele Source?

Steele’s source for the alleged Carter Page/Sechin convo must have fulfilled three mandatory criteria:

  1.  s/he must have been credible enough TO STEELE for him to risk including this bombshell – knowing it would result in heavy doses of skepticism, potentially detrimental to his reputation.
  2.  s/he must have been trusted enough by Sechin to be able receive access to this uniquely sensitive information.
  3. assuming a “strictly-need-to-know” principle, such information must have inevitable had to be shared with him/her, due to his/her function.

It seems safe to conclude that Erovinkin fulfills, probably uniquely, all three conditions. His career heritage alone (as Chief of Kremlin’s innermost secrets between 1994 and 2008) makes him a source of unparalleled reliability – if you can get him. That takes care of (1). (2) is self-evident.

In relation to (3) – the alleged, highly sophisticated equity-for-no-sanctions scheme, would require sophisticated planning, structuring and implementation in utmost secrecy. It would be unthinkable that Sechin might do any of this without the aid of his most trusted treasurer.

Thus, IF Steele’s direct source was truthful, it is extremely highly likely that the ultimate source had been Erovinkin.

Does the sudden death add credibility to the dossier?

As someone scolded me on Twitter following my original December 26 insinuating tweet, “But people die every day!“. Indeed, even FSB Generals must die one day.  It might be also plausible that ostensibly healthy, 61 year old FSB Generals die while driving a car but not before they heroically park it out of harms way. Or are found dead in the back seat by their driver, who is a plain clothes Ministry of Interior officer. (but rarely both together)

It might also happen that an FSB General dies, and the death is first honestly misreported as a murder, and then quietly re-reported as a heart failure by a media outlet with a long history of reporting-as-requested.  Put all of these in a mix, though, and it becomes statistically hairy.

As I wrote earlier, I have no doubt that at the time Erovinkin died, Putin had Steele’s Trump dossier on his desk.  He would – arguably – have known whether the alleged Carter Page/Sechin story is based on fact or fiction. Whichever is true, he would have had a motive to seek  – and find the mole (or, in the “non-true” hypothesis, the slanderer). For reasons similar to the reasons for which I wrote this, he would have had to conclude that Erovinkin was at least a person of interest.

What is not known is what happened next. It might have been nothing, in case Putin had evidence of a different mole, one unknown to us. Alternatively, he may have confronted Sechin and Erovinkin and asked for explanations (this alone may, in a kind-of-benign scenario, have brought about Erovinkin’s actual heart attack). Or it could have been more orthodoxally true to the spirit House of Cards.

[To be continued…

In the next part: Who in fact paid for and who acquired the 19% in Rosneft; who the direct source may have been; and why “germophobe defense” has holes]

Would you like fries with that conspiracy?

 

Remember that invitations-only closed-door meeting, organized by Konstantin Malofeev and Alexander Dugin for the top brass of the European far-right  in Vienna on May 31 2014? If you have forgotten, here’s a refresher.

Shortly after that get-together, Malofeev was put on the EU and USA sanctions list over his role in funding and coordinating the invasion of Ukraine.  The following year, Dugin was placed on the US and Canada sanctions lists, and while the EU did not sanction him officially, his freedom of travel in Europe has been severely restricted since his Schengen visa was revoked and he could not appear as honorary guest at Richard Spencer’s white-power conference in Budapest (full disclosure: Dugin blames me for his no-show).

Three months to the day after the Vienna meeting, Dugin penned a confidential internal document, mapping out the European extreme right and its various constituents’ attitudes towards Russia and Putin. He emailed a copy of his analysis to his colleague Georgi Gavrish, a former officer of the Russian embassy in Athens, and – like Dugin – at that time subsisting on Maloveev’s payroll. Gavrish’s emails were hacked in 2015, and thus our original copy.

The report makes for a mixed reading, alternating between passable analytical insights (as in, “the extreme right took the political space that the extreme left dominated in the 20th century due to the ideological intermarriage between the extreme left in the liberal mainstream”), and wild conspiracy (as in “the neo-Nazi movements in Europe and run by CIA and MOSSAD as part of Israel’s repatriation strategy”, or “Leaders of neo-Nazi movements are often Jews or gays”). There is also the plausible paradigm of the extreme right being split into two groups: an anti-Russian, pro-American half (bad, created by the CIA during hte cold war), and a pro-Russian, anti-American half (good,  the “New Right”, organically growing thanks in no little part to the teachings of the report’s humble author).

Clearly from the context, and from the numerous references to the Russian perspective, the report was meant by Dugin as a policy tool: if not for the Putin personally (by that time, Dugin’s personal sway with VVP had subsided significantly), at least for the Kremlin’s foreign-policy think-tank RISS, and for Dugin’s his geopolitically overreaching billionaire boss Konstantin Malofeev (you want a Hollywood mnemonic for Malofeev? Think of Otto Düring, from Homeland. And then think of the exact opposite).

If you want to read the whole exercise, I have uploaded a translation here.

I was re-reading this paper over the holidays, while doing some research for a French journalist who is putting finishing touches to a book detailing the Russian (financial) symbiotic support for the French extreme (and, more recently, the not-so-extreme) right.  But what shocked me during this re-read was the following paragraph:

In general, it is possible to predict a further (almost inevitable in the face of economic crisis) growth of the extreme right in Europe, making them an essential factor in European politics in general, and in Russian-European relations in particular.

  The main theses on the extreme right are:

  • The fight against immigration and immigrants
  • Nationalism and xenophobia
  • Criticism of globalism
  • Extreme conservatism, appealing to the political institutions of the past
  • Criticism of political liberal establishment
  • Anti-communism
  • Conspirology, theory of a conspiracy of the world financial elite
  • Sympathy for the historical forms of European fascism.

These points are common to all of the extreme right-wing movements and groups, regardless of whether they declare them openly or not. Those who have such views represent a major social and political mass of supporters of extreme right-wing views.

The reason this paragraph stood out was that it sounded disarmingly honest, and startling familiar  (And not only because, as someone tweeted, it was like a sheet torn out of Steve Bannon’s pocket book). This real-politik, condescending tone made me realize that Dugin – and his handlers, do not actually like back the extreme right wing; they simply understand it, instrumentalize it, and thus are able to direct it.

Shortly after Dugin penned this internal analysis, he – along with Konstantin Malofeev, Putin’s adviser Glazyev, and RISS’s chairman SVR-General Reshetnikov, launched Katehon, a multi-language website & think-tank,  speaking directly to the international extreme right in English, German, French, Spanish, Serbian and Russian.

I leave you with a few randomly selected headlines from the last few months, as tweeted out by Dugin himself. The overlap with the “theses” bullet-points from Dugin’s memo is, doubtless, not coincidental.

My take-away from re-reading this memo is that Dugin – and his handlers – do not believe the tinfoil-hat conspiracies they promote. They do not necessarily believe in the quasi-reactionary ideology that they pretend to espouse.  They just did market research – identified a niche – and are manufacturing and selling the product.  And are very likely privately laughing at the intellectual paucity of their customer.

No, Dugin & co are not Orthodox, Byzantine-ist nuts. They are savvy,  diligent manipulators of the West.

And the West is  utterly unprepared.

MH17: 2 years after

Last October I wrote an analysis of the Dutch Safety Board’s report for a think-tank. As it was not published in open access then, I thought I would now publish a portion of it headlined “Gaps between the lines.”

Given the US’s recent statement that their own data confirms DSB’s findings relating to the origin of the BUK’s trajectory, I thought this section may be of interest (some parts are obviously outdated).

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DSB Report: Gaps Between the Lines

Several elements in the DSB report suggest that the Dutch investigators, and their international partner services, may know more about the specifics of the missile launch circumstances than is disclosed in the report. One such element is the reference to classified information that was provided to the DSB team to inspect but without permission to cite it. Such information, the report said, was provided by the Dutch military intelligence and general intelligence services, and included information gathered by these two agencies and information from partner security services. This information “confirmed the report’s findings about the causes of the crash”, but due to national security considerations, could not be included in the report.

From a sub-report on the knowledge of the Dutch security services, included in a different section of the report, however, it becomes evident that the Dutch services had no substantial classified information or data-gathering operations in the area of the crash. Thus it is most likely that the information referenced was provided by foreign services. The only realistic source is the United States satellite surveillance operation in the area. The United States have not kept it secret that they have access to proprietary satellite surveillance in the area, as evidenced by a series of released satellite imagery purporting to show Russian GRAD rocket launches into Ukraine[1]. Russia has also tactically accused the US is not disclosing satellite data on the MH17 (although it has effectively not disclosed its satellite data, either).

In all likelihood, it was namely US satellite imagery that was presented to the DSB management, and gave them sufficient comfort to proceed with the definitive conclusion about the missile type and launch location. Shortly after July 17th 2014, the US Embassy in Kiev released a stylized image of a trajectory of the suspected BUK, originating from the area of Snizhne, precisely within the polygon later modelled by DSB.

The question arises why the US – and its allies – are withholding such vital data they are in possession of. There are three plausible hypothesis.

First, the data may in fact have already been submitted to the JIT, but in the interest of the criminal investigation, it will not be disclosed until the completion of that line of inquiry. Indeed, withholding similar “smoking gun” data is not unusual in criminal investigations, especially in ones of such cross-border complexity and possibly involving state-sponsored actors.

A second hypothesis is that the US does not wish to release such data into the public domain, for fear of exposing its data gathering methods to its enemies. This may be linked, for example, to the potential use of LEO (low-earth orbit) reconnaissance satellites above or adjacent to Russian territory.

A third hypothesis may be that the US and its allies are tactically deferring disclosure of such incriminating data, to allow Russia one last exit from the highway to a rogue state. If Russia cooperates with the West, and concedes to partial acceptance of blame, it may be spared the full public disclosure and its political consequences. Such cooperation may be embodied by delegation of guilt to pro-Russian separatists and to certain rogue elements in the Russian military, without whose involvement the separatists could not have realistically implemented the BUK launch.  While this would not exculpate Russia in full, it would give the Kremlin a deniability legend, which is mandatory for retaining the delicate consensus of the Russian elite, and for saving face on the international stage.

The West’s interest in such hypothetical self-censorship is solid.  A substantiated disclosure of the Kremlin’s involvement in the shoot-down of a passenger plane would create unquantifiable risks for international security. On one hand, Russia will lose any incentive to moderate its expansionist, retaliatory or subversive activities outside its boundaries, which are currently still mitigated by its desire not to pay a high reputation cost.  On the other hand, such development would lead to collapse of the internal consensus of the elite within Russia, which may lead to destabilization in an unpredictable political direction.  Neither of these prospects are acceptable to the West.

A possible nod towards this scenario may lie in certain unnecessarily open-ended conclusions in the DSB report on MH17. For instance, while the polygon computed by DSB’s experts clearly points to territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, no explicit reference to that fact is made in the text. When DSB director Tjibbe Joustra was asked if the missile launch area was controlled by separatists, he confirmed. When pressed further to confirm that, therefore, pro-Russian forces must have launched the missile, he declined to do so. When confronted by a reporter who asked “But does 2 + 2 not make a 4?,” Joustra replied: “Yes it does, but sometimes, someone else needs to make that calculation.”

A hint in the same direction is the fact that immediately after the publication of the report, Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte requested an urgent conversation with Sergey Lavrov. Significantly, this initiative was disclosed only by the Russian side, as part of the standard Russian diplomatic plaintive narrative about the West “that tries to boss Russia around”.

We believe this third hypothesis to be the most plausible. In its scope, an additional unknown variable is whether Russia will agree to such hypothetical political trade. Obviously, whether a similar transaction is desirable for the Kremlin depends on the balance between the domestic political cost of admitting that it has mislead its population for nearly two years, and the reputation cost of disclosure of incriminating information.

What the West may overestimate, however, is the discount factor that the Kremlin places on international reputation cost. Additionally, that reputation cost may be brought down to zero by extraneous events, such as for example the Russian intervention in Syria, laden with risks for massive civilian casualties.

Thus, if Russia does accept a hypothetical deal, it will be to preserve the fragile consensus of the domestic political and business elite, rather than to preserve its international reputation.  The Russian media coverage in the wake of the DSB report was substantially more objective than the defensive, patriotic press coverage following the downing of MH17 in July 2014. While this is far from a symptom of a dramatic collapse of the consensus of the elite, it does signal a tangible threat to Putin’s regime, in case the final report contains strong incriminating evidence. What has become clear now is that the Kremlin no longer has control over the mainstream commercial media and certainly not to the extent required to limit the diffusion of objective information.

In any event, under this hypothesis, these are decisions that the Kremlin must make in the next several months, if not weeks, in order to prevent the JIT investigation from crossing the point of no return.

Muslims vs Jihadists: A Letter from Mali

I wrote this originally in February 2014, after returning from my trip to Mali as part of a fact-fighting and training visit with the Blue Shield. I decided back then it was too cheesy, and did not post it. After what happened in Bamako yesterday, and because many people I meet, wrongly, believe the terrorists represent a part of Malian society, I thought I should publish it anyway.

*******************

At 6:00 sharp, I was awakened by the plaintive call of the muezzin resonating over Sevare, a military-base town of about 40,000 in central Mali. At 06:02, a second sound, coming from a different direction, superimposed itself. It was church bells, ringing on top of a muezzin call for prayer – a musical mash-up that raised hairs.

“Doesn’t sound too extremist, right?,” I tweeted from my army-issue cot in the bare-bones hotel room. I had been struggling to understand the fierce, relentless – while not always effective – fight that Malians had put up against the Jihadist invaders in 2012. Maybe this mash-up was the answer, I thought to myself. While being nearly universally Muslim, Malians were tolerant to their core, and couldn’t care less if a Christian church-bell (making a disproportionate noise to please a mere 1% of the population) interrupted their sleep. It was this tolerance, I thought, that must have enraged the militant jihadists who had tried to subjugate the country, and change their ways. And it was this mash-up that Malians refused to give up.

Over the following week of crisscrossing this huge country as part of a military convoy of Malian soldiers fighting Islamist terrorists, I tried to crystallize my fledgling spark of comprehension of the difference between “Muslims” and “Jihadists”, that is so often lost on non-Muslims. And I finally got it, in Timbuktu, of all places.

Timbuktu, that little town just off the edge of the world, had fallen to jihadist rule on March 30th 2012, and it was not liberated until nearly a year later. I was visiting it in January 2014, along with my friend Karl Habsburg who was there to train the Malian military in the non-intuitive art of protecting monuments of cultural heritage, during the bloodiest of wars (yep, Monuments Men stuff, except not as poorly acted out).

It was here that the jihadists had done their best to convert Muslims to “the correct kind of Muslims”. And had miserably failed, not only because the French flew in to kick them out of town, but also because they couldn’t convert a single soul. It wasn’t for lack of trying.

P (89).JPG

  “Welcome to Timbuktu, the town of the 333 saints”

read the inscription on this building in downtown Timbuktu before the jihadists took over to town. The 333 saints in question were all Muslim. That wasn’t good enough for the jihadists. Their interpretation of the Koran forbade any semblance of idolatry other than for their prophet. Up went the erasers.

The jihadistP (98)s’ next target were the remains of those unholy saints. They ransacked local mosques in search of idolatry, and blew up all graves they could find. Fortunately, they couldn’t identify them all, as local Imams shrewdly erased the saints’ names from most of the grave sites, confusing the jihadists as to what was to be obliterated and what not.

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Next on the jihadists’ laundry list were the Timbuktu manuscripts – the largest collection of written knowledge south of the Sahara. The Timbuktu archive had become the gathering place for tens of thousands of manuscripts written in Arabic between 13th and 19th centuries, containing single-copy texts: ranging from theological works, through grammar treatises, to formulas for medication against impotence. The manuscripts, some of them written in liquid gold, had for centuries been kept in a diversified “tribal cloud”, a sort of an analog torrent system where families and tribes would hold, in trust for humanity, a small portion of the total knowledge; usually a single manuscript at a time. None of the families could read the manuscripts, as they didn’t speak or read Arabic, but they knew, from prior generations, that they were to take care of them as if they were holy books.

It hadn’t been easy for the Malian government to persuade the families to hand over the manuscripts to a central safe-keeping institution, as they did not trust anyone could take care of their individual piece of knowledge as well as they did themselves. To persuade families to hand over the manuscript for safekeeping and protection from the elements, the government came up with a ruse: initially they organized a bank-type safe deposit box system: only the families had the keys to their respective safe-box which hosted their precious manuscripts. It took years before the families trusted the government enough to allow their manuscripts to be “released” into what became the Ahmed Baba Institute.

When the jihadists came, they made it their top priority to destroy all manuscripts; science and (Islamic) theology writings alike. The manuscripts were impure; they broadened the scope of knowledge beyond what the jihadists wanted be known, and believed.

The Institute’s researchers knew that this was coming, so during the days of fighting off the jihadists’ invasion in 2012, they moved many of the most precious manuscripts into unlit cellars, and smuggled back others to their original trustee families.

The researchers had to sacrifice some manuscripts – about 5,000, estimated the chief of the Ahmed Baba Institute – and left them to be found, to be burned, so that the jihadists would feel gratified, and not look too meticulously for the rest.

Needless to say, the jihadists went crazy over Timbuktu residents’ tolerance for other religions.  They pillaged the local Catholic church, and defaced a wooden statute of Mary. They had less luck trying to wrangle away the steel cross on top of the church; they managed to bend it somewhat, but could not fully remove it, and finally left it in place.P (168).JPG

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But the Jihadists’ main goal was to change the ways of life of Malians.

Local residents told us the Jihadists had tried to introduce the strictest, most cruel form of sharia law upon Timbuktu residents.

Music was banned.  This was especially cruel in a town that loved music, and for years had hosted a world-music festival, Festival au Désert.

Color, and diversity became crimes. This tailor, Seydou, told me he was forced to stop making “fancy” clothes and start sowing only three sizes of trousers: long, middle and short. Girth and color were to be universal.

Women, no surprise here, were told they couldn’t leave their homes without a male relative. Girls as young as 13, if found walking alone or in groups with their friends, were rounded up and taken to their fathers, who were then forced to hand them out in marriage, with the mahr, the Islamic reverse dowry, being forfeited in favor of the jihadists.

P (171)

Boys were scared they would be told they would be turned into soldiers and taught to kill.

Meet  Mohamed, an immensely sociable 12 year old boy, who turned 10 on the day when the jihadists came to town and shut down his father’s souvenir shop.  It had been just as well: no tourists were to drop in to get Timbuktu mementos from that day on.

Mohamed had been helping his father run the family shop after school, and had taught himself English, while communicating with the modest streak of non-French tourists who would occasionally brave the grueling 12-hour desert ride, to end up in Timbuktu. Over a couple of years, he had made dozens of friends from among the shop customers (watch the video to understand out why), and had collected a pile of visiting cards from foreigners from around the world.


When the jihadists took over Northern Mali, Mohamed was scared – not that he would die, not that he would be forced to kill, not even that his father couldn’t make a living now that there were no more tourists to frequent his shop. He was most scared that he would never be allowed to learn, he told me. His school was closed.

His teacher (on the photo below) – one of the most eloquent, and proud, philosophers I have ever spoken with – was forced to take a job as a butcher. P (175)

Then Mohamed got an idea. Locked up in his father disused shop, he started writing letters, dozens of letters, in French and in English, addressed to his “business-card buddies”. He wrote letters to friends in France, Finland, England, Australia, Russia, the US, and a whole bunch of other countries. All letters had the same plea:

“This is Mohamed from Timbuktu. I pray to you – please tell your government to send soldiers, to free us from the jihadists”.

He gave the letters, to be posted, to one of his father’s contacts who was smuggling goods in and out of occupied Timbuktu. Mohamed never saw that man again, but he told me he was sure the letters were posted, because

“one day the French soldiers did come, and liberated our town”.

Not everyone who had left Timbuktu came back. It was still not safe – it is still not safe today; and there are no tourists to be seen. The only Europeans here are the occasional UN staff, scurrying through the dirt roads in bullet-proof vans.

Abdramane asked us if the nuns from the Catholic church would come back soon. When the threat of jihadist invasion was imminent, the church staff had left Timbuktu, and a nun had asked him to keep an eye on the church. He was a caretaker at a nearby mosque, so he said he didn’t mind. He couldn’t save the church from pillaging, but he continued watering the plants, and is still closing and opening the gates when visitors ask to see it – now that the jihadists are gone.

We said we didn’t know.

The next morning, when the muezzin’s call awoke me in my room at a former hotel-turned-military-quarters, I had to wonder if, before the jihadists had come to town, the Catholic church bells had also been ringing, creating that surreal mash-up that defines Mali.

Epilogue

On January 2oth, 2015, Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim employee at a kosher supermarket in Paris, who helped save the lives of dozens of customers during the previous week’s deadly Charlie Hebdo-related attack, was awarded French citizenship. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve applauded the young man’s  act bravery, risking his own life to save the lives of customers from the Kalashnikov-yielding jihadist attackers.

“When he (the gunman) entered the store, people came rushing down saying there was an armed madman,” Bathily told FRANCE 24. “I thought the only option was to hide in the freezer, so I switched it off and got everyone inside.”

After police arrived, Bathily walked towards them with his hands up, and was mistaken for the attacker, forced to the ground and hand-cuffed for over an hour. It took the efforts of all the customers he had saved to convince the police he was the savior, not the attacker.

“I want to express my appreciation to the Mali citizen who helped save seven Jews”

Israeli PM Netanyahu said during a visit to the French capital’s Grand Synagogue.