Posts Tagged ‘Military’
Pakistan and the U.S. Exit From Afghanistan
By George Friedman
The 727 that Vanished
A case pursued by the FBI, the CIA, the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security, CENTCOM, and the sister of Ben Padilla.
Seven years after her brother disappeared from Quatro de Fevereiro International Airport in Angola, Benita Padilla-Kirkland is trying to persuade the FBI to re-open his case. She believes she has the “new information” agents told her they require. But she suspects that the agency already has more information than agents will admit to.
© Smithsonian Institution
A Botched Hostage Rescue in the
Created Aug 26 2010 – 10:55
Not Limited Open Access
By Scott Stewart
On Aug. 23, Rolando Mendoza, a former senior police inspector with the Manila police
department, boarded a tourist bus in downtown Manila and took control of the vehicle,
holding the 25 occupants (tourists from Hong Kong and their Philippine guides) hostage.
Mendoza, who was dressed in his police inspector’s uniform, was armed with an M16-type
rifle and at least one handgun.
According to the police, Mendoza had been discharged from the department after being
charged with extortion. Mendoza claimed the charges were fabricated and had fought a
protracted administrative and legal battle in his effort to be reinstated. Apparently,
Mendoza’s frustration over this process led to his plan to take the hostages. The fact that
Mendoza entertained hope of regaining his police job by breaking the law and taking
hostages speaks volumes about his mental state at the time of the incident.
After several hours of negotiation failed to convince Mendoza to surrender,
communications broke down, Mendoza began to shoot hostages and police launched a
clumsy and prolonged tactical operation to storm the bus. The operation lasted for more
than an hour and left Mendoza and eight of the tourists dead at the end of a very public
and protracted case of violence stemming from a workplace grievance .
Hostage-rescue operations are some of the most difficult and demanding tactical
operations for police and military. To be successful, they require a great deal of training
and planning and must be carefully executed. Because of this, hostage-rescue teams are
among the most elite police and military units in the world. Since these teams are always
training and learning, they pay close attention to operations like the one in Manila and
study these operations carefully. They seek to adopt and incorporate tactics and
techniques that work and learn from any mistakes that were made so they can avoid
repeating them. Even in highly successful operations, there are always areas that can be
improved upon and lessons that can be learned.
Indeed, in the Manila case, the events that unfolded provided a litany of lessons for
hostage-rescue teams. The case will almost certainly be used in law enforcement and
military classrooms across the globe for years as a textbook example of what not to do.
Breakdown of the Incident
Shortly after 10 a.m. on Aug. 23, Mendoza commandeered the bus and its occupants (his
police inspector’s uniform was likely helpful in gaining him access to the vehicle). Within
minutes, he released two female hostages. Soon thereafter he released four hostages (a
woman and three children). Mendoza used a cell phone to call the Manila police, inform
them of the situation and make his demands: that the charges against him be dropped by
the police ombudsman’s office and that he be reinstated to the police force. These early
hostage releases would generally be seen as a positive sign by the authorities, showing
that Mendoza had some compassion for the women and children and that even if he was
reducing the number of hostages for pragmatic, tactical reasons (to allow him better
control over the group), he was at least reducing the number by releasing people and not
The police maintained communications with Mendoza, who stayed aboard the bus and
kept the motor running. This not only kept the vehicle cool, but allowed Mendoza to watch
events unfold around the bus on the onboard television set. He had his hostages close the
curtains on the bus to make it more difficult for the authorities to determine where he was
in the bus.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Mendoza requested more gasoline for the bus and some food. He
released another hostage, an elderly man, in return for the gas and food. Two other
hostages, both Philippine photographers, were released as a 3 p.m. deadline for action set
by Mendoza came and went (one of the photographers was released before, one after).
There were also reports that Mendoza had initially set a 12:30 p.m. deadline for action.
The fact that these deadlines passed without violence would be an encouraging sign to the
authorities that the incident could be resolved without bloodshed. Food was again taken
out to the bus just before 5 p.m. During the afternoon, Mendoza could have been engaged
by snipers on at least two occasions, but since negotiations were proceeding well and
Mendoza did not appear to be close to shooting, the decision was made to try and wait
him out and not attempt to kill him. If the snipers failed to incapacitate Mendoza, it could
have risked the lives of the hostages.
During the ordeal, Mendoza continued to watch events unfold on the television inside the
bus and reportedly even talked to journalists via cell phone. Mendoza also ordered the bus
driver to park the vehicle sideways in the center of the road in an apparent attempt to
make it more difficult to approach without detection.
Things took a marked turn for the worse around 6:20 p.m., when negotiators,
accompanied by Mendoza’s brother Gregorio (who is also a police officer and who had
earlier helped convince Mendoza to extend his deadline), approached the bus with a letter
from the office of the ombudsman offering to reopen his case. Mendoza rejected the letter,
saying he wanted his case dismissed, not reviewed. At this point, there are conflicting
reports of what happened. The police negotiators told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that
Mendoza’s brother told Mendoza that the letter from the ombudsman’s office was garbage
and that he should not surrender. Other press reports indicate that the brother pleaded
with Mendoza to take him hostage and release the tourists and that his pleading was seen
as counterproductive to the negotiations.
Whatever the story, Mendoza’s brother was then arrested and his arrest was carried live
on television and seen by Mendoza in the bus. Shortly after his brother’s arrest, Mendoza
fired two warning shots and demanded in a radio interview that all the Manila Police
Department SWAT officers be removed from the scene. Shortly after 7 p.m., Mendoza
repeated his threats and refused to speak to his family members. Growing increasingly
agitated, Mendoza shot two of the hostages when his demand for the SWAT officers to
retreat was not met. He released the Philippine bus driver, who reportedly told police that
all the hostages were dead. (We are unsure why the driver said this when only two of the
passengers had been killed, but the police would have been able to tell from the volume of
fire that Mendoza had not truly killed all the hostages.)
At about 7:30 p.m., the tires of the bus were shot out and a police tactical team
approached the vehicle and began to smash its windows with a sledgehammer. The police
attempted to slowly enter the back of the bus by crawling through one of the shattered
windows from the top of a police truck but were forced back out of the window by gunfire.
At about 8:40 p.m., police deployed tear gas into the back of the bus through the missing
windows. Gunfire erupted and Mendoza was finally killed in a hail of bullets. Six additional
hostages also perished during the exchange of gunfire. It is unclear at this point if they
were intentionally shot by Mendoza or if they were caught in the crossfire.
By the time of the rescue attempt, the saga of Mendoza’s firing from the police force had
been going on for some time, and it is important to recognize that he did not make a
spontaneous decision to seize the tourist bus. Even if the bus was targeted shortly before
the attack, Mendoza’s path toward violent action would have included several significant
warning signs. As in almost any case of violence that stems from issues in the workplace,
once the chain of events are examined more closely, reports will emerge that warning
signs were either missed or ignored. Had those warning signs been noted and acted
upon, this situation might have been avoided.
Since the event was not pre-empted, once it happened and developed into a hostage
situation, the primary objective of the authorities was to resolve the incident without
violence. Skillful hostage negotiators do this by allowing the hostage-taker to vent. They
also work hard to defuse any tension that has the attacker on edge and to gently wear the
attacker down to the point of surrender. One of the essential principles in this effort is to
isolate the hostage-taker so that he or she cannot receive outside communication,
motivation, encouragement or other forms of support. Hostage negotiators seek to control
the flow of all information into or out of the crime scene. That did not occur in this case.
Mendoza was able to talk to outsiders on his cell phone and even gave media interviews.
He was also able to use the television in the bus to watch live media coverage of the
incident, including video of the deployment of police officers. This gave him a considerable
advantage and far more information than what he could have observed with his eyes from
inside the curtained bus.
As shown in the November 2008 attack in Mumbai, India, it has become more difficult to
isolate assailants from outside communications in the cell phone era, but there are ways
that such communications can be disabled. It is not known why the Manila police did not
attempt to jam the outside communication signals going to and from the bus, but that is
certainly something that will come up in the after-action review, as will their handling of the
media and onlookers (one of whom was wounded) during the incident.
As negotiations are proceeding in a hostage situation, the authorities must always be
busily preparing to launch an assault in case negotiations fail. When the assailant is
agitated or mentally disturbed, the situation on the ground can sometimes change quite
rapidly, and the rescue team needs to be prepared to act on a moment’s notice. Usually
the team will come in with an initial assault plan and then alter and refine their plan as
more intelligence becomes available, and as they become more familiar with the site and
If the hostages are being held in a building, the rescue team will get the blueprints of the
building and collect as much information as possible in an effort to plan their assault on
the location where the hostages are being held. In this case, the hostages were being held
on a stationary bus, which made it far easier to collect that type of intelligence — a bus is a
bus. The authorities also had access to released hostages who, had they been debriefed,
could have described to authorities the situation inside the bus.
In a protracted hostage situation, the authorities will frequently employ technical measures
to gather additional intelligence on the activities of the hostage-taker. This may involve the
use of overt or clandestine video equipment, parabolic microphones or microphones
surreptitiously placed in or near the site. Even thermal imaging sets and technical
equipment to intercept cell phone communication or radio transmissions are sometimes
All the information gleaned from such efforts will not only go to the negotiators, to help
them understand the hostage taker’s frame of mind, but will also be used to help the
rescue team fine-tune their assault plan.
Meanwhile, as the assault plan is being tweaked, negotiations continue and the hostage
negotiators work to wear down the hostage-taker. It appears that the negotiators in the
Mendoza case were doing a fairly good job of keeping the situation calm until the situation
flared up involving Mendoza’s brother and the letter from the ombudsman’s office.
Authorities clearly erred by not sending him a letter saying they had dropped the case
against him. (They did not need the extortion charges now that they could arrest him and
charge him with kidnapping and a host of other crimes.) It is hard to understand why the
police department quibbled over words and refused to give him the piece of paper he
expressly demanded. The police then aggravated the situation greatly with the public
arrest of Mendoza’s brother. Those two events caused the situation to deteriorate rapidly
and resulted in Mendoza’s decision to begin shooting. Once he shot the first two hostages,
the negotiations were clearly over and it was time to implement a tactical solution to the
The Use of Force
In a hostage situation, the use of force is a last resort. If force is required, however, the
rescue team needs to hit hard, hit fast and hit accurately. There is little time for hesitation
or error: Lives hang in the balance. This is where things began to get very ugly in the
Mendoza case. Not only was there a delay between the murder of the first hostages and
the launching of the first assault attempt, the assault was not hard, fast or accurate. To
succeed, an assault should be dynamic, assume control of the scene by overwhelming
force and use surprise and confusion to catch the hostage-taker off guard and quickly
incapacitate him. The rescue team needs to dominate the place where the entry is being
made and then quickly and accurately shoot the assailant. When the police began to
smash the windows of the bus with sledgehammers and then continued to beat on the
windows for more than a minute, Mendoza had ample time to kill his hostages had he
wished to do so. The only thing that saved the hostages who did survive was Mendoza’s
apparent reluctance to kill them.
It appears that the intent of the police was to smash the rear window to provide an
opening and then to continue smashing windows as they moved forward in an effort to
draw Mendoza’s attention to the front of the bus while the assault team entered from the
rear. When the police did attempt to enter the bus using the roof of the police vehicle,
however, it was a slow, clumsy attempt that was quickly repelled by Mendoza once he
opened fire on the team. They did not enter the bus quickly, and their tepid approach
caused them to lose the element of tactical surprise, denied them the opportunity to
employ overwhelming force and allowed Mendoza time to think and react and begin firing.
There was no hope of the assault team’s dominating the breaching point (or the rest of the
bus) when they entered in such a half-hearted manner. Then, instead of following through
with the assault by storming the front door while Mendoza was firing at the police in the
rear of the bus, the police withdrew and went back to the drawing board. Again, had
Mendoza wanted to kill all his remaining hostages, the withdrawal of the assault team
gave him ample time to do so.
More than an hour after the first assault, the police again approached the bus and
deployed tear gas grenades through the broken windows at the back of the bus. This
flushed Mendoza toward the front of the bus and, after a brief exchange of gunfire, he was
killed. There were some reports that he was killed by a police sniper, but we have seen no
evidence to corroborate those reports, and it appears that he was shot from a relatively
short range. Eight of the hostages survived the ordeal.
Granted, a bus does offer some challenges for a takedown operation, but is also a very
common form of transportation throughout the world, and there have been numerous
hostage situations involving buses in many different countries. Because of this,
professional rescue teams frequently practice bus takedowns in much the same way they
practice building takedowns or aircraft takedowns.
It was very apparent that the Manila SWAT unit lacked the experience, equipment and
training to conduct effective hostage-rescue operations, and we have seen this problem in
other local police departments in the developing world. We have not been able to learn
why the police did not seek the help of a national-level hostage-rescue unit for the tactical
aspect of this situation rather than leaving it to the Manila SWAT team to resolve. Given
the prolonged duration of the situation and the location in the nation’s capital, higher-level
assets should have had time to deploy to the scene.
Unlike many cases of workplace violence, this one did not involve a disgruntled employee
charging into his former office with guns blazing. Instead, Mendoza embarked on a course
of action that would, as it turned out, cause a great deal of public humiliation for his former
employer. Indeed, the head of the Manila police district tendered his resignation Aug. 24.
Four leaders of the Manila SWAT team were also placed on administrative leave.
In the past, some botched rescue attempts have spurred inquiries that have resulted in
countries creating or dramatically improving their hostage-rescue capabilities. For
example, the failed rescue attempt in Munich in 1972 led to the creation of Germany’s
GSG-9, one of the most competent hostage-rescue teams in the world. It will be
interesting to see if the Mendoza case spurs similar developments in the Philippines, a
country facing a number of security threats.
Terrorism/Security Scott Stewart China Philippines Security Portal: Featured
Analysis and Intelligence Security Weekly
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© Copyright 2010 STRATFOR. All rights reserved
Source URL: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100825_botched_hostage_rescue_philippines
<a href=”http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100825_botched_hostage_rescue_philippines”>A Botched Hostage Rescue in the Philippines</a> is republished with permission of STRATFOR.
U.S.: CIA Secretly Pays Afghan Officials
August 27, 2010
The CIA is making secret payments to multiple members of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s administration to help the agency maintain a deep roster of allies within the presidential palace, according to current and former U.S. officials, The Washington Post reported on Aug. 27. A CIA spokesman denied a statement that a significant number of Afghan officials are on the payroll. A U.S. official said Turkey and Saudi Arabia are among the other countries funneling money into Afghanistan to influence events in the country.
Clash mars Venezuela election campaign start
* Legislative vote tests Chavez support ahead of 2012
* Opposition gains assured after boycott five years ago
(Adds polling numbers, more details on rallies)
CARACAS, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Venezuelan soldiers fired tear
gas at opposition candidates on Wednesday at the start of
campaigning for legislative elections that will test support
for President Hugo Chavez amid a recession and high crime.
Struggling opposition parties are all but guaranteed gains
in the Sept. 26 vote after boycotting an election for lawmakers
five years ago, leaving the major U.S. oil supplier's national
assembly entirely in the hands of the president's allies.
National Guard soldiers, who have policing powers, used
tear gas to repel a small group of opposition candidates near
the legislature on a busy downtown street, TV images showed,
after they appeared to clash with parliament workers.
"We were walking towards the assembly. We were going to
read a document, and without warning the National Guard started
firing tear gas," candidate Stalin Gonzalez told opposition TV
station Globovision. The parliament issued a statement accusing
the candidates of trying to force their way into the building.
Elsewhere, thousands of bouyant Chavez supporters dressed
in the Socialist Party's signature red color flocked to large
rallies across the country of 30 million people to kick off a
race the president dubbed "Operation Demolition." Pre-campaign
debate has been dominated by criticism of the government's
record on tackling Venezuela's murder rate.
"Let's go to battle!" Chavez's campaign chief Aristobulo
Isturiz bellowed at one raucous rally.
The elections -- a barometer of backing for Chavez's
policies ahead of a presidential vote in two years -- are a
chance for opponents to take back some of the power he has
accumulated over more than 11 years in office.
For background, click [ID:nN24260828] and [ID:nLDE67M0MB]
Insider video clip, go to link.reuters.com/duq27nn
Despite sky-high crime and economic woes, Chavez remains
Venezuela's most popular politician, helped by social spending.
But the ex-soldier, who has also polarized the country between
backers of his policies favoring the poor and those who call
him a dictator, has seen his ratings dive this year.
Opposition parties have fielded unity candidates to
increase their chances of denting Chavez's grip on parliament.
They hope to capitalize on his relative weakness after
months fighting crises such as electricity cuts and a scandal
over rotting food that dragged on his ratings.
Pollster Saul Cabrera of Consultores 21 on Wednesday said
his most recent survey conducted in July showed Chavez's
popularity down 7 points this year to 36 percent. Other polling
firms tend to put Chavez's popularity slightly higher, but they
have also shown a ratings downturn this year.
Most analysts expect Chavez's socialist party to lose seats
but still hold its majority, helped by changes to electoral
districts that critics call gerrymandering.
It is possible the socialists will end up with a majority
of seats without winning a majority of votes, an embarrassing
outcome for a populist leader such as Chavez.
There is a slim chance the opposition will win the most
seats, which could cause political instability. Their goal is
to win at least a third of the legislature and limit Chavez's
ability to pass major legislation.
Usually an expert at setting the political agenda,
especially ahead of elections, Chavez seems to have been caught
off balance by an early campaign from opposition media to
highlight the government's failure to tackle violent crime.
Venezuela has one of the world's highest murder rates with
between 13,000 and 16,000 people killed last year, according to
leaked police numbers and a non-governmental watchdog,
Last week a court ordered two newspapers not to publish
violent pictures after they printed a gory archive photo of
bodies piled up in a morgue. [ID:nN18125440]
The government, which also responded angrily to a New York
Times story comparing Venezuela's violence to Iraq, says it is
working hard to bring down crime and that a new national police
force has slashed homicide rates in a Caracas pilot project.
A handful of lawmakers who defected from Chavez's ranks in
2007 are the opposition's only presence in the current
parliament, giving Chavez legislative carte blanche.
He has used that power to start remolding one of the
continent's most Americanized nations as a socialist society,
while expanding his sway over courts and other institutions.
Critics say the 56-year-old ally of Cuba is following his
mentor Fidel Castro and installing an autocratic communist
dictatorship in the baseball-mad nation studded with fast food
restaurants and shopping malls.
Chavez, who has lost just one of over a dozen elections
since 1998, says he is a democrat committed to freeing
Venezuela from U.S. dominance and local oligarchs.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Patricia Rondon,
Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Cynthia
Under New American Management Al-Qaida Now Poses Inner Threat
By PAUL SPERRY
Posted 08/13/2010 08:17 PM ET
If al-Qaida looks and sounds different as we approach 9/11’s ninth anniversary, it’s because it’s under new American management. No fewer than four U.S. citizens and a permanent U.S. resident have risen to senior leadership posts.
These five English-speaking leaders are actively planning or facilitating attacks against their countrymen, while recruiting and radicalizing other American turncoats to carry them out.
By remaking itself into an American enterprise, al-Qaida is now more lethal than ever. Its new generation of leaders understands the way America works, having lived here for decades. They have a better sense of our security blind spots. They also know which kinds of attacks will produce both mass panic and maximum economic damage.
Al-Qaida’s indigenous rebirth, moreover, befogs our military strategy. We’re no longer at war with just a foreign enemy, but fellow Americans recruited by the enemy. They’re supplied, in turn, by a seemingly endless stream of homegrown foot soldiers, fed by a native Muslim population once believed quiescent and nonthreatening.
Shockingly, the War on Terror has morphed into a mini-civil war, and it’s posing major new challenges to its prosecution. We’re now battling our own citizens. How do we deal with wartime traitors? Can the CIA assassinate them? Can it spy on them? What about their civil rights?
This muddies an already muddy war — and it’s all part of al-Qaida’s plan.
After 9/11, the group vowed to convert our own people against us, something once thought impossible. But it’s managed to groom a startling number of American citizens and residents and install them in top leadership slots, including:
• Adnan Shukrijumah: The long-time Florida resident, who obtained a green card while living in the U.S. for more than 15 years, has replaced 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as chief of al-Qaida’s terror operations.
Believed to be directing U.S. terrorist cells from Pakistan, Shukrijumah, 35, recently was indicted as a conspirator in last year’s plot to blow up the New York subway. There’s a $5 million reward for his capture.
• Adam Gadahn: The California-born Muslim convert assists Shukrijumah and Osama bin Laden as al-Qaida’s chief propagandist. He tailors the group’s message to American Muslims, as well as disaffected minorities ripe for conversion.
In 2006, Gadahn invoked U.S. Muslims to attack military bases, singling out California’s Camp Pendleton as a candidate for “a shooting spree.” Three years later, a Muslim soldier went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood. Gadahn, 31, praised the attack and urged more.
The first American to be charged with treason in 50 years, Gadahn is hiding in Pakistan with a $1 million bounty on his head.
• Anwar Awlaki: Articulate and media savvy, the American-born cleric is al-Qaida’s top recruiter of Western suicide cells.
Awlaki has recruited or radicalized countless homegrown terrorists, including the Fort Hood shooter and the Times Square bomber, both English-speaking citizens. Authorities also believe he ordered the Christmas airliner attack, which puts Awlaki in the middle of the last three major terror acts on U.S. soil.
Thought to be bin Laden’s heir, Awlaki has called on American Muslims to turn against their government, and has even justified killing American civilians. “Jihad against America is binding on every other (American) Muslim,” he said.
The 39-year-old Awlaki lived in the U.S. for 21 years before fleeing to Yemen after 9/11. Treasury last month designated him a “key leader of al-Qaida” and froze his assets. He’s also on the CIA’s terrorist hit list.
• Samir Khan: A U.S. citizen who grew up in New York and Charlotte, N.C., the Web-savvy 24-year-old is now in Yemen helping Awlaki target American audiences as al-Qaida’s newest propagandist.
Khan is editor of al-Qaida’s splashy new organ, “Inspire,” a Webzine that provides jihadists step-by-step instructions in English on making bombs that can elude bomb-sniffing dogs.
• Omar Hammami: The ex-Baptist convert to Islam grew up in the Alabama suburbs before joining al-Qaida.
He’s now, at 25, a field commander in Somalia, another key al-Qaida hot spot, where he’s recruiting and training U.S. jihadists. His trainees include dozens of Minneapolis college kids, including one who earned the dubious title, “first American suicide bomber.”
This new cadre of al-Qaida leaders is enlisting a growing faction of the U.S. Muslim community, many of them African-American and white converts who don’t fit the Arab terrorist profile. As many as three dozen U.S. converts are said to have gone through al-Qaida training in Yemen, where they’ve received Awlaki’s blessing. They reportedly include blond-haired, blue-eyed types — fitting a profile of Americans that al-Qaida in the past could only dream of recruiting.
Its recruiting effort is made all the easier by some 15,000 jihadi Web sites — 80% of which are operating off servers based inside the U.S. Across the country, moreover, mosques and Islamic bookstores sell Awlaki’s recorded sermons as CD box sets. It’s all protected “free speech.”
“Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie,” Awlaki boasts. More and more, he warns, terror attacks will come “from within” — even within our own military.
Meanwhile, the so-called moderates of the Muslim establishment are sitting on their hands. Major Muslim groups have refused to cooperate in terror probes until the FBI backs off mosques. Their cold war turned hot last fall, when a Muslim leader in Detroit died in a shoot-out with agents, triggering outcry throughout the Muslim community.
It’s just a matter of time before a homegrown nut inspired by a radical mosque or Web site overcomes their bomb-making learning curve and successfully detonates one, blowing up a building or a mall or a plane inside America. And then we’ll all wonder why more wasn’t done to shut down these sites. Of course, by then we’ll be sweeping up the remains of victims, and it will be too late.
“America cannot and will not win,” Awlaki hisses. With Washington running from the war, disengaging from an enemy that now counts our own citizens among its senior ranks, we cannot afford to dismiss his words as bluster.
• Sperry, formerly IBD Washington bureau chief, is a Hoover Institution media fellow and author of “Infiltration” and “Muslim Mafia.”
More Than 5 Reasons Why Israel Won’t Strike Iran Anytime Soon
by Judith Miller
August 19, 2010
History sometimes repeats itself in the Middle East, but not always. Twice before, Israel has attacked Arab nuclear reactors before they were loaded with the fuel rods that could have produced plutonium Pu 239 for an atomic bomb. Both strikes against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and Syria’s North Korean-built reactor in 2007 were surprise attacks. In neither case did Israel receive Washington’s blessing. In the case of Iraq, Israel didn’t even warn its close friend, Ronald Reagan, in advance.
This pattern has led two former Bush administration officials – John Bolton and Michael Anton — and a very well-connected journalist to warn that Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear installations soon if sanctions fail and Washington does not strike.
Jeffrey Goldberg argues in the Atlantic that Israelis think such a determination is likely to be made by spring of 2011. Bolton added fuel to the nuclear fire this week, so to speak, by arguing that if Israel does not strike before Russia is scheduled to load nuclear fuel rods at Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr this Saturday, it will lose the chance to stop Bushehr. Attacking a nuclear plant once it has gone “critical,” warns Anton, would risk the release of a radioactive plume that might kill civilians and poison surrounding areas, causing what he calls in what is surely the week’s understatement “a P.R. uproar.”
No one really knows what Israel’s military and political elite or President Obama, for that matter, intends to do about Iran next year, after sanctions have a chance to bite.
Avner Cohen, whose new book “The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb,” is being published in October, tells me that “any pretense to predict or even to assess the likelihood of war against Iran is really the pretense of knowing something we truly do not know.” He fears, as I do, that a confrontation with Iran might start inadvertently, over a non-nuclear issue.
But I also doubt that Israel is likely to move against Bushehr before it goes critical — or anytime soon, for that matter.
First, and not foremost, Israel and America are both far more concerned about Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities than the Bushehr reactor. Why? Because Moscow is not only supplying, but charged with removing the spent, or used fuel rods at Bushehr and getting them out of Iran. This agreement, plus monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog, gives some modest assurance that the reactor’s nuclear fuel won’t be secretly diverted to make a bomb.
Also, as Anton notes, even if Iran manages to divert some spent fuel, it’s not clear Teheran has the technology, or the capability, to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods for a bomb.
No, this is not perfect. Russia’s behavior, too, leaves much ground for suspicion. But altogether, it suggests that Bushehr is not as grave a danger as Iran’s dogged determination to develop an independent fuel cycle with a nuclear enrichment capability at existing and planned new facilities, despite more than a dozen United Nations Security Council resolutions warning it not to do so.
For better or worse, the Obama administration does not see the Bushehr reactor as a grave proliferation risk. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, the administration agreed not to oppose Russian help to Bushehr to help secure Russia’s vote for the latest round of U.N. sanctions in June.
Second, attacking Iranian nuclear facilities is obviously a far tougher military challenge – to say nothing of the likely political ramifications — than demolishing a single nuclear reactor in Iraq or Syria. Iran’s facilities, as we have been repeatedly told, are widely dispersed, buried, and hidden.
Third, Iran has the ability to strike back – using its proxy, Hezbollah to Israel’s north, and Iranian-assisted Hamas in Gaza, to Israel’s south. Nor would such retaliation likely be directed solely at Israel. Hezbollah has long tentacles and has previously struck in South America, Europe, and even Egypt. As American intelligence agencies have also warned, it also has a network of agents and supporters inside the United States.
Fourth, the Obama administration thinks that its sanctions, though nowhere nearly as tough as those imposed against Iraq, are already hurting Iran. Even Iranian economists complain that sanctions are making it more expensive and difficult for Iran to do business abroad, modernize its nuclear and oil sectors, and attract foreign investment. No one knows, however, whether sanctions will bite sufficiently to change Iranian behavior.
Fifth, Israeli leaders still suspect that Washington will strike Iran so that it doesn’t have to, when and if it becomes clear that Iran is not changing its nuclear policies. This may be a false hope. Many Obama officials agree with Robert Kaplan, who argues, also in The Atlantic, that containing a nuclear Iran is the least-bad of all the bad policy options available.
Finally, putting aside the wisdom (or dangerous folly) of such a military strike, conservatives and liberals alike tend to agree, Israeli military action against Iran before Washington concludes that its sanctions policy is not working IS likely to poison already tense U.S.-Israel relations, which as John Bolton acknowledges, “are more strained now than at any time since the 1956.”
A rupture with the U.S. may not be an existential threat. But as Anton writes, “it would be dire enough that it’s not worth risking unless the consequences of inaction truly are existential. That’s a hard and unenviable call to have to make.”
For all these reasons, history may not repeat itself in the Middle East. Israel may not strike Iran as it did Iraq and Syria.
But other indicators suggest an increasingly perilous Middle East, with or without such Israeli military action. The Arab-Israeli peace process appears deadlocked. America’s withdrawal from Iraq and its losses so far in Afghanistan create the perception throughout the region, rightly or wrongly, of American weakness and exhaustion.
Israel is being subjected to a fierce campaign to delegitimize its right to exist.
And Iran, after the failure of its Green Revolution, is in ever more dangerous hands. As Gary Sick, whose website hosts a fierce debate about Gulf policy, wrote recently, Iran increasingly resembles “the corporatist states of southern and eastern Europe in the 1920’s and 1930’s that we call fascist.”
Yes, things do change in the Middle East, but as Atlantic editor James Bennet warned in the introduction to his dueling articles on what to do about Iran, “in fits and starts,” and since the collapse of the Oslo peace talks over a decade ago, not for the better.