Green is the New Black: Making a Gas Cartel

As the disastrous civil war in Syria stretches into its sixth year, the conflict is beginning to take shape as a struggle for influence between Russia and the United States and their respective proxies. The Russian interest in Syria, initially limited to protecting the naval base in Tartus and keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, is now widely believed to have a regional and global power dynamic. Russia controls 26% of proven global natural gas reserves and has long been frustrated by its inability to export to customers other than the European Union (EU) and NATO member states. Not only does this geographic reality leave Russia dependent upon a single block of customers that has access to other suppliers, but it limits Moscow’s ability to influence politics with its overwhelming market share. In late 2015 however, the Russian military mission in Syria began to present other opportunities to exploit the politics and the pipelines that crisscross that war-torn region, thus giving birth to the prospect of a new natural gas cartel.

The global energy market is changing. Traditional, fossil-based energy supplies like coal and oil are becoming increasingly expensive to find and extract. Political turmoil in the Middle East coupled with popular pressure to address climate change, make natural gas a more attractive option for future energy needs, particularly in Europe. With average global gas consumption likely to increase approximately 1.6% annually until 2040, Europe needs a strategy to secure supplies from beyond the Russian monopoly. This is not a minor concern in Brussels. Moscow’s 2014 closure of gas pipelines into Ukraine highlighted the linkage of Europe’s energy future to Russia’s political ambitions, yet EU sanctions against the Russian oil and gas industry are seen as a delayed and ineffective western response. Europe, like Russia, now has its eye on massive natural gas reserves in the Middle East.

A Layered Strategy

The war in Syria is a catalyst for strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran. By bringing together the combined weight of their massive natural gas reserves, Moscow and Tehran would be able to influence Europe in powerful ways. If they bring Qatar’s reserves into the deal they could create an OPEC-like gas cartel with control of 60% of the world’s reserves; a frightening degree of dominance over the increasingly strategic commodity. However, there are many geographic and political obstacles to this ambition, and it is in these spaces the Russian strategy is taking shape.

Russia Natural Gas
Together, Russia, Iran, and Qatar possess more natural gas reserves than the rest of the world combined. Photo credit: http://www.energybc.ca/naturalgas.html

Distribution of Iranian reserves to Europe depends on the outcome of conflicts in Syria and Iraq and on the political independence of Kurdistan. These countries contain much of the existing regional natural gas pipeline transmission capacity. Stabilization of those conflicts presents an opportunity for positive Russian engagement with Turkey and forms the basis for a recent trilateral accord signed in Kazakhstan between Russia, Turkey, and Iran aimed at ending the Syrian civil war; an agreement made possible by an expansion of the Russian military mission there. Turkey, with an intense interest in the political future of Kurdistan, plays a unique role by controlling access to many of the natural gas pipelines aimed at Europe. More importantly perhaps, Turkey is the southernmost outpost of NATO and hosts the important US military base at Incirlik.

The notable absence of the EU, the US, and the United Nations from the Kazakhstan talks reflects an important aspect of Russia’s strategy: limiting western—particularly US—influence in the region. Though Iran is an enthusiastic and powerful ally in this endeavor, strategy alone is not enough as the US has some very real ties to the region. American bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar form a defensive network that bolsters the political stability of many of Iran’s rivals; not the least of which are Israel and Saudi Arabia. As mentioned, Turkey’s own security is still based largely on NATO, and most of the Gulf Emirates are completely dependent on American hard power for their defense. Given robust and longstanding support for this political-military structure in Washington, it is not surprising that Russia and Iran are exacerbating tensions between all of America’s allies in the region, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Russia and Iran are the unseen beneficiaries of fractured relations between the two important US allies. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is hardly an ally of Qatar, though enduring cultural links exist between the two states that can form a basis for renewed affinity. There is evidence Russia is encouraging an economic tie as well through business deals between Rosneft, the integrated oil company controlled by Moscow, and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). It is here, where Russian, Iranian, and Qatari interests converge, that the possibility of a joint pipeline project begins to make sense.

Russia Gas Cartel
The eventual route from the Persian Gulf South Pars/North Dome gas field (red region, bottom right) to Turkey is of strategic importance in the Middle East. Photo credit: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7421h.ct002142/ (pipeline routes added by Chris Golightly)

Overland transport of gas reserves from Qatar’s North Dome gas field will converge at the existing terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey, but could take several different paths. While Russia prefers a pipeline (IGAT-IX, above in black) along the Iran-Iraq border, the US backs a route that transits Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and possibly Israel and Syria. Whatever the eventual route, stability in Syria is vital for security of the entire coastal strip. Achievement of the Russian design depends upon three key elements: politically isolating the United States, fracturing its allies, and stabilizing the Syrian conflict on terms that are favorable to the Kremlin.

Though Russia clearly hopes to position itself as the lynchpin in the arrangement, neither Moscow nor Tehran possess the technology required to construct IGAT-IX or the high-end LNG export facilities required at its terminus. For that they require easing of western sanctions that currently prohibit US or European oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil from sharing technology. The framework for this collaboration already exists. In August 2011, Russian President Putin, and the Executive Chairman of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, met Rex Tillerson in Sochi when he was still CEO of Exxon-Mobil. There, the three signed co-operation agreements for ten joint ventures, including drilling projects in the Russian Arctic, exploration in the Black Sea, a joint Arctic research center, and substantial options for Rosneft to invest in projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. Consequently between 2011 and 2013, Exxon-Mobil became the partner of choice for Rosneft and now puts Russia and Iran high on the priority list for exploration. The reciprocal cooperation and the elevation of Tillerson to Secretary of State increases the expectation that sanctions will eventually be lifted, or at least not increased. Already, the bill for increased sanctions against Russia, which includes prohibitions against certain dealings with its oil and gas industry, is hung up in the House of Representatives due in no small part to efforts by the US oil lobby.

The Cost of Inaction

The prospect of Russia and Iran controlling 60% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves aims right at the heart of European security. Addressing it will require energy-specific strategies that not only reduce demand through the use of renewable sources, but also political solutions that guarantee supply by stabilizing the Middle East. With European unity hamstrung by homegrown nationalist movements, and the United States distracted by an endless series of domestic political dramas, it is difficult for either to formulate such strategies for the long-term. While the West limits its efforts in the Middle East to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Russia and Iran are playing a much broader game that will ultimately be more effective.

The potential for a tightening of gas supply options is a sober call for Europe to overcome domestic distractions and concentrate on a comprehensive energy security strategy; one that incorporates development and commercialization of a suite of renewable energy technologies. This should include solar and offshore wind, advances in nuclear fusion, offshore methane gas exploration, and clean, dry fracking. Until Europe reduces its reliance on Russian gas and takes measures to ensure political stability in the Middle East, there will be a risk of unwanted influence from Moscow and continued uncertainty.


Chris Golightly is an Independent Consulting Engineer specializing in offshore renewable energy, based in Brussels. Prior to 2010 he worked in the Oil & Gas industry.

Chengdu: Canary in the Coal Mine

Feature Photo: Chengdu Global Center is the largest building in western China. It contains a mall, hotel, conference center, and water park.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-central China, is a lighthearted community. Famous as the home of the Giant Panda conservation program, Chengdu occupies an important place in the heritage of greater China. The attractive and prosperous city is also known for the beauty of its women, the spicy heat of its food, and the self-effacing sense of humor of its inhabitants. They will need it. In many ways, Chengdu is a microcosm of China’s rise and may also serve as a canary in the coal mine should the country’s experiment with capitalism begin to fall apart.

Founded during the warring states period by Lord Kaiming as a capital for his dominion, Chengdu means “Becoming a Capital.” With 15 million inhabitants and 3.87 million cars, the youth there sarcastically refer to it as “Becoming a Carpark.” The city’s traffic is indicative of the transformation that has affected China as a whole. Since the 1980s, an entire generation of rural Chinese has migrated to the cities looking for work in the new economy. Their flight has emptied the countryside, changed family dynamics across China, and forced a residential construction boom like the world has never seen. In Chengdu, the pace of change is so astonishing people joke they sometimes go to work in the morning and get lost on the way home because everything changes so quickly. The joke is not far from the truth.

Growth and Prosperity

The rapid transformation of China from a rural Communist backwater in the 1980s to the economic powerhouse of today is arguably the single greatest human endeavor since the Second World War. Since 1978, an estimated 800 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s adult literacy rate in 2012 was 95.1% and climbing with youth literacy reaching 99.65%. Its infant mortality rate dropped from 4.2% in 1990 to 1.2% in 2012. Life expectancy in 2012 was 75.2 years, up from 69.5 years in 1990. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita increased an average of 9.3% annually from 1990.[1] In the space of a single generation hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens stopped having to worry about survival and became concerned about enjoying life. A Chinese version of the American Dream took hold in which young couples marry for love, own their own homes, and expect to retire comfortably without dependence on their children. This “Chinese Dream” once ignited, cannot be extinguished without calamity, forcing Beijing to seek resources to satisfy its growing industry and appetite for consumption.

China’s political aspirations have risen with its economic power. There is a sense at every level of Chinese society that after centuries of shameful disunity and perceived exploitation by outsiders, it is finally time to reclaim China’s place at the “center of the universe.” An air of inevitability and a disregard for short-term consequences now permeates Beijing’s foreign policy, but China lacks the cool confidence exhibited by Japan or Thailand, the only two Asian nations that were never colonized. Instead, China bullies its neighbors with incomprehensible urgency. Shamelessly and without hesitation, Beijing attempts to divide and conquer in political and economic matters, raising the level of uncertainty in the region and leaving little doubt it will act militarily if required. East and Southeast Asia are regrettably vulnerable to this approach, leaving only the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the US system of alliances to thwart Chinese hegemony in the region. In this way, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet is the ultimate regulator of China’s military, economic, and political aspirations—and this makes Beijing restless.

In response, China’s military expansion is almost as astonishing as its economic growth. Since 1989, the budget of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has increased an average 9.56% per year though some estimates put the figure much higher.[2] China has the luxury of focusing its military efforts against a single paradigm: the United States Military. In pursuit of parity, the PLA has acquired nuclear weapons, carrier and stealth aviation, modern command and control systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and special operations capabilities. Some believe the Chinese may actually lead the world in cyber, anti-ship ballistic missile technology, and even quantum computing—a capability that could obviate any attempt at communications security. Though the United States Military is a large and robust rival, China’s drive for parity requires only that it learn from the Pentagon’s successes and avoid its mistakes. Accordingly, Chinese officers miss no opportunities to study America’s weaknesses and develop countermeasures. For them, parity is only a matter of time and persistence, something the Chinese are more comfortable with than Americans are. It is not surprising then that the PLA is not just a military force, it also carries political and economic weight within the Chinese system.

chart
This chart illustrates the rapid but steady rise of China’s military budget.

China’s Future: Unite or Ignite?

Unfortunately, China simply cannot sustain the economic growth required to keep it all going. The problem is dire. Even a moderate reduction in the pace of growth will profoundly affect tens of millions of workers. If a contraction stratifies and unbalances China’s economy, the country’s fractures will begin to re-emerge. Income and quality of life will become a matter of struggle between ethnic groups and geographic regions. China’s coastal cities are extremely important to its economy; those in the interior are less so. Profound cultural differences exist between those from the north and those from the south as well as between east to west. Xinjiang and Tibet already dream of an independent future as do some in Hong Kong and of course Taiwan. Igniting rebellion in these places requires only a spark. More profoundly, if the Chinese economy stagnates, there is simply no way to keep 600 million military aged men busy, unified, and politically obedient without expansion and conquest. Economics may thus force China to decide between conflict at home and conflict abroad.

China’s Communist Party leadership is already preparing for this eventuality. Efforts to control information and stamp out dissent serve to inoculate the country against the centrifugal forces that threaten to spin it apart. The PLA appears to have three principal goals: develop a power projection capability, use that capability to solidify control of energy supply lines, and build positive relationships with the Chinese people through disaster response. China recognizes it will need all these things if it decides to embark on a policy of conflict overseas. Though at the moment Beijing pushes its territorial ambitions incrementally, it openly experiments with hard power solutions in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and elsewhere. Any disruption in the quality of life in Chinese cities like Chengdu may provide an early warning as to whether Beijing will militarize its foreign policy. In the lengthening list of things that Chengdu is becoming, perhaps “canary in the coal mine” is the most significant.

[1] Statistics from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

[2] Figures in constant 2015 US Dollars. Raw data analyzed from the SIPRI database. SIPRI’s data typically exceeds official Chinese government statistics that are believed to be underreported.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

 

Future Vision: Europe’s Image Problem

Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has put its security in the hands of supranational organizations. These institutions, whether economic, military, or political, have deterred the wars between states that plagued European security since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In that period, the march of uniformed armies decided conflicts and knowing where those armies were and how they were deployed was paramount to victory. For this there is no more powerful tool than an eye in the sky; satellite imagery in the hands of western governments. But today’s security challenges seem to invalidate collective intelligence systems.

Threats today are insidious. The massed armies of old have given way to environmental degradation, terrorism, and “hybrid” military threats designed to operate in the seams within Allied decision-making. Big states like France, Great Britain, and particularly the United States, hold a monopoly on imagery intelligence (IMINT) and distribute it through Allied intelligence structures at NATO and the European Union. With NATO’s Afghanistan mission winding down and a Euroskeptic administration in the White House, the old model of sharing IMINT is no longer flexible, responsive, or reliable enough to address the modern security needs of most European states.

A Transitioning Reality

The end of 2014 marked the transition from NATO’s United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to Operation Resolute Support. The new mission focuses on building the capability of Afghan structures through training and financial instruments. These efforts are funded via the Afghan National Army (ANA) Trust Fund, the United States Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF), and the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA). The reduction of western troop levels and the primacy of Afghan institutions that cannot meet strict and expensive requirements for access to Allied intelligence, has reduced the urgency that previously drove the sharing of IMINT within NATO.

Satellite Imagery
When current and in high-resolution, photos like this one can provide salient intelligence; like the fact that the second Russian bomber (from the bottom) has recently run its engines. Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe – https://twitter.com/DigitalGlobe/status/829404552092905473

The election of Donald Trump may further restrict cooperation within NATO. During his first one hundred days as President of the United States, the Trump Administration made it clear it expects its NATO allies to increase their contributions to the organization. Though this is poorly defined and President Trump appears to be softening his position, intelligence sharing is not likely to increase during his administration leaving European allies to consider available options. Fortunately, advances in technology and the genius of the free market have generated alternatives in what was previously locked in the rarified world of classified military technology.

20/20 Hindsight

Commercial satellite solutions have come a long way since 1962 when the first privately sponsored mission sent the Telstar communication satellite into orbit. Today, high-resolution commercial earth observation and advanced geospatial solutions are useful across the many sectors of defense and intelligence, public safety, map making and analysis, environmental monitoring, oil and gas exploration, infrastructure management, and navigation. These options are inexpensive and rival legacy military capabilities in terms of resolution and coverage. When coupled with geographic information systems and internet technologies such as cloud computing and database management, commercial satellite imagery is a powerful tool in the hands of a growing community of potential clients.

Satellite Imagery
Satellites like this one, DigitalGlobe´s WorldView 4, are among several of the options that may provide European nations with the imagery that they need for the future. Photo Credit: DigitalGlobe – http://worldview4.digitalglobe.com/#/main

Outlook for the Future

The Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom as well as the strong showing of nationalist parties in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Turkey, and the United States are making it harder to implement complex supranational intelligence sharing arrangements. Terrorist attacks and the continuing influx of economic migrants and refugees continues to fuel growing discomfort with the risks inherent in “open door” policies. In this time of crisis, intelligence services, militaries, and police forces are under increased pressure to provide security and have already begun exploring unilateral solutions to the problem. Their task will be impossible however without the right tools for the job.

For now, European imagery comes from the combined abilities of the European Space Agency (ESA), the EU Satellite Centre (EU SATCEN), and the contributions of individual states. European leaders depend upon the abilities of the Copernicus Earth Observation program and the Sentinels to provide them with many of their imagery needs but these are legacy systems. The Copernicus constellation lacks the technological capability of newer commercial satellites like Worldview 4, and the nations are acutely aware of Copernicus’ shortcomings. For those countries lacking a space program or a military IMINT capability of their own, private sector solutions will be an increasingly important component in the defense and security of their nations.


 

Johnathon RickerJohnathon Ricker is an account manager with Navisio Global LLC, CEO of Prospective International, and a student of international security, intelligence, and strategic studies.

Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom

Dictatorship and socio-economic bias have left Latin America home to some of the most corrupt nations in the world. Despite the continent’s recent relative success in economic development and securing regional trade agreements, 20th century political scourges still haunt many Latin American nations and Paraguay is no exception. For 35 years the nation endured a period in which popular peaceful dissent was met with the strong-arm of the military. Extralegal arrests and humans rights abuses were commonplace, and the housing of Nazi war criminals was an accepted practice. Paraguayan President Horatio Cartes’ renewed bid last week for re-election risks forfeiting the strides made towards real democracy over the past decade and may force the government back into political crisis.

While Paraguay’s political future remains in doubt, the facts surrounding the events of the 31 March are not in dispute. A majority group from the Senate and a hand-full of opposition senators met secretly to cast a majority vote to put into motion the first steps necessary to amend the Paraguayan constitution. The amendment would enable President Cartes to seek a second term in contravention of the single-term limit originally imposed to bolster Paraguay’s democratic processes. The proposition could further entrench Cartes’ Colorado Party that has enjoyed a majority in the legislature for 66 of the last 70 years.  After 35 years of despotic rule by dictator Alfredo Stroessner, the people of Paraguay were outraged by this legislative “coup d’etat” which sparked a protest at the Congressional building in Asunción.

In the melee that followed, a large portion of the building was gutted by fire and Rodrigo Quintana, the leader of the Liberal Party’s youth branch, had been shot dead. The details surrounding the incident are dubious, if not damning. Quintana was shot and killed in a violent police raid on the Liberal Party’s Youth Branch political headquarters. Security footage shows Quintana running away from the police.  After absorbing the deadly shot, an officer now identified as agent Gustavo Florentin approached and stepped on his body. Florentin has since been fired, along with the interior minister and Paraguay’s police commander, Crispulo Sotelo. While these dismissals direct blame towards the police for an inability to protect Congress and the public, the truth is this action by President Cartes was more preventative than altruistic. The calculated move precludes the possible violent reaction from an already agitated opposition but the risk of repeated violence endures until negotiations surrounding the amendment begin and until transparent government investigation of the police raid lifts the perception of impunity.

paraguay protest
Protestors peaceful after a previous night’s clashes left Congress in flames. Photo credit: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/paraguay-delays-election-vote-fresh-protests-170404053715500.html

A Vote Against Confidence

The Colorado party will likely argue that the vote was an inadvertent procedural violation of legislative etiquette. The opposition, along with the neighbors and trade partners, will view the covert legislative action as a power grab and a sure indicator that a corrupt polity is leading the small land-locked country backward in already uncertain economic times. A procedural violation can be dealt with within the democratic process, but a substantive and willful disregard for democratic governance spells a disastrous outcome.

To understand the level of risk being taken and the importance of the upcoming events, one needs only to look at who responds and what is said. Immediately after the violence, President Cartes downplayed the events in a letter to the people of Paraguay. In the third paragraph he writes: “Democracy is not conquered or defended with violence and you can be sure this government will continue to put its best effort into maintaining order in the republic…we must not allow a few barbarians to destroy the peace, tranquility and general well-being of the Paraguayan people.” His cavalier statement was met with disdain by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which quickly issued a pointed cautionary statement calling on political leaders “to avoid inciting violence and seek dialogue.” Although innocuous at first glance, the OHCHR statement avoids addressing the protestors or their actions and instead directly engages political leaders for “inciting violence”.

Paraguay protest
President Horacio Cartes tweeted this photo of a letter drafted in response to the protests of 31 March.

The Paraguayan Congress remains shut down while fire inspectors assess the damage. With a populace fighting widespread corruption of government officials, broken promises for rebuilt infrastructure, and frustration over lack of progress, even Asuncion’s own mayoral race was lost to the opposition party. Pope Francis of neighboring Argentina has called for immediate dialogue between opposing parties and President Cartes has heeded the advice, recommending to the lower house (presumably pro-amendment) to delay until the factions could discuss a way forward for the initiative. Opposition leader Efrain Alegre objected, pending a comprehensive investigation into the events surrounding Quintana’s death. The bipartisan call to delay the vote, originally scheduled for April 4th, further obscures the path forward and and tensions continue to rise. Further delay could unravel an uneasy peace maintained since Cartes assumed the Presidency in 2013.

Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of withdrawing the proposal and annulling the clandestine senate vote, there is still a chance that diplomacy and influence from neighboring countries could prevail. Since President Cartes’ election, Paraguay has experienced a surge in economic growth, making it one of South America’s fastest growing economies. This glimmer of hope would lead one to believe that the Colorado party should abandon the measure and seek a strong replacement for Cartes in 2018, restoring peace and trust in a nation still racked with fear of a return to despotism. The unfortunate truth is that the prospect of political gain and notoriety is alluring, and the risk to the political certainty of the country is high. The most promising course of action towards maintaining peace would be for Cartes to go against the majority, adhere to the current constitution, and eliminate himself as a candidate in the next election. This also appears the most unlikely scenario, as it would put an end to the right-wing preeminence that the Coloradan majority has enjoyed for decades.

Point of Inflection

In the absence of immediate and powerful diplomatic intervention or reversal by Congress, Paraguay faces a crossroads in which violence and freedom could become interdependent. The lower house will, if allowed to vote, pass the measure and send the constitutional amendment to the President for approval. If the recent violence following the initial vote is any clue to how the opposition will react, the ensuing fear and anger will undoubtedly thrust this tiny nation into a state of complete chaos. The ingredients exist for a violent implosion: a new police commander, a new interior minister, complete right-wing control without term limits, and a populace that has tasted freedom and democracy even if only for a brief period of time.

The upcoming weeks are crucial for determining the future prospect of peace and economic growth, both for Paraguay and for greater Latin America. Absent any legislative reversal on the initiative, the nation is on a collision course. The tragic and too-familiar possibility of a counter-revolutionary dictator rising from the ashes is greater now than at any point since Stroessner’s final days in 1989.


Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a U.S. Air Force F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently a master’s student in Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Olmsted Foundation.

LOL: The Art of Assassination

On the morning of 14 February 2017, a grainy closed circuit television video shows a middle-aged Korean man striding casually into the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He is approached from behind by a young woman in a white t-shirt and blue skirt and in a flash she throws a cloth over his face to administer a lethal dose of a colorless, odorless liquid. The victim, Kim Jong Nam, is the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He did not yet realize he was already doomed; assassinated by unknown assailants wielding an unidentified chemical weapon. The ongoing international manhunt that followed revealed the greatest strengths of the storied Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch and the brutality and skill of the North Korean intelligence service. The incident also strained relations between Pyongyang and one of the few countries in the world with which it enjoys normal relations.

The brazen murder also captivated millions and brought a shadowy underworld briefly to the surface. What is not apparent to most is that last week’s dramatic events were not a lucky strike by clever opportunists, they were the end result of a sophisticated intelligence operation – actually several separate operations – spanning multiple countries and likely involving dozens of intelligence officers and their agents. (In the professional jargon of the intelligence community, an agent is someone recruited by an intelligence officer.) Coordinating their activities to achieve the final spectacular, and previously impossible result is the real art behind the assassination.

The Cat and the Mouse

Once considered a likely successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Nam was passed-over following a careless indiscretion and went quickly into exile while his younger sibling thrashed about in the tense early days of his rule. Despite great doubt about his ability to muster the ruthlessness required to retain power over the isolated country, Kim Jong Un quickly consolidated his hold using imprisonment and death to control anyone presenting the slightest political threat. In an environment where even kinship was less important than loyalty, Kim Jong Nam was bound to be targeted even if he had not made statements questioning the stability of his brother’s regime.

Nam Assassination
Before his fortunes faded, Kim Jong Nam (left) was the presumptive heir to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Now his half-brother, Kim Jong Un (right), leads the country. Photo credit: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/15/exclusive-two-female-secret-agents-behind-murder-kim-jong-unsbrother/

The elder Kim withdrew deeper into a dark exile after his father’s death in 2012. In China and Macau he was assumed to be under state protection and travelled under numerous aliases. He had already survived at least two attempts on his life and reportedly begged his half-brother to spare his life and that of his family. His final minutes in Kuala Lumpur were a bizarre drama. After being assaulted by the woman in white, he was initially treated at an airport clinic before being evacuated by ambulance to a local hospital. He died en route, just as police were beginning their hunt for his alleged attackers, an Indonesian girl – Siti Aisyah – and a Vietnamese national, Doan Thi Huong, the now infamous woman wearing the coldly ironic “LOL” t-shirt.

After her attack on Kim Jong Nam, CCTV footage shows Doan calmly leaving the scene and catching a taxi outside. Despite having just administered a lethal dose of an unknown chemical, she displayed no concern for her own safety and wore no obvious protective equipment. She had clearly practiced the sequence. Both Doan and Siti Aisyah later told police separately they believed they were taking part in a made for television prank. But Doan’s actions in the 48 hours prior to the attack suggest she had received some training in tradecraft. During that time she stayed in three hotels in the immediate vicinity of the airport and paid cash for her lodging. At one point she borrowed a pair of scissors and cut her hair, leaving the remnants in the trash can in her room. Her activities during the day are just coming to light but are now known to have included numerous rehearsals and examinations of the target area; possibly in conjunction with Siti Aisyah. These are classic, if clumsy techniques to avoid detection and rehearse the operation. They certainly signal a nefarious intent.

The Art of Assassination

To the casual observer, Kim Jong Nam’s death may seem like the handiwork of a couple clever and highly trained operatives. The reality is that intelligence operations of this kind are highly choreographed, involve dozens of actors, and are compartmented for security. Assassinating Kim Jong Nam required at least five, and as many as seven separate operations managed by seven or more intelligence officers with perhaps dozens of agents in Macau, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. The overall operation likely consisted of the following supporting operations:

  • Recruit the assassins. Siti Aisyah was recruited in Indonesia. Doan may have been recruited in Vietnam.
  • Determine Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans. Doan was aware of Kim Jong Nam’s travel plans at least 48 hours prior to the attack. She used this time to rehearse and to complete her reconnaissance. Information gleaned from his social media feed is not reliable enough for this purpose and had to be corroborated with direct knowledge from intercepted communications or recruited agents in a position to provide assured access to his itinerary.
  • Report Kim Jong Nam’s movements. The attack required very precise information about his flight, his mode of transportation, his likely arrival time at the terminal, the gate/check-in counter for his flight, what he was wearing, etc.; all of which had to be communicated to the assassins in a timely manner. A botched operation would have been far too damaging to leave this to chance. This could have been as simple as a phone warning from his hotel but doing this reliably requires layers of mobile and static surveillance at the hotel, the airport, and his many residences.
  • Deliver the chemical. The chemical used to kill Kim Jong Nam was smuggled into Malaysia or manufactured locally. It likely required special skill to make and specific equipment to store and administer. For Security, Doan would have received the chemical secretly and been trained in its use at the last possible moment raising the risk it could have killed bystanders or the assassins themselves.
  • Kill Kim Jong Nam. There is a possibility Doan and Siti Aisyah may have been employed separately to ensure redundancy. They may even have been unaware of each other’s activities. The leaked CCTV footage of the attack supports this conclusion, though there is new information that they rehearsed the attack together.
  • Observe and report the outcome. Though this could have been conducted overtly through North Korean diplomats and/or monitoring of the press, it is a critical piece. At a minimum, Doan needed to report her task complete or a separate observer had to be in place at the scene to do so. Emerging information suggests this was the task of the four North Korean nationals still sought by Malaysian police.
  • Exfiltrate the assets. The four remaining fugitives all left Malaysia within a few hours of the operation. They took circuitous routes back to North Korea via Indonesia, Dubai, Russia, and elsewhere. Their roles are not certain but probably also included passing intelligence and issuing final orders. One, Ri Jong Chol, remained in Kuala Lumpur and was apprehended Monday. Doan and Siti Aisyah seemed to lack viable escape plans. It is possible they were left as a diversion to throw investigators off the trail of fleeing North Korean intelligence officers.
assassination malaysia
Deputy National Police Chief of Malaysia Noor Rashid Ibrahim, left, speaks as Selangor Police Chief Abdul Samah Mat listens during a press conference at the Bukit Aman national police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. Photo credit: AP Photo/Vincent Thian, http://time.com/4676018/kim-jong-nam-death-north-korea-suspects/

Though it was possible to conduct some of the supporting operations above clandestinely, meaning the operations themselves remain hidden, the politically explosive death of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother could never be kept secret and therefore had to be done covertly, meaning the sponsor’s hand remains hidden. A covert operation is much more difficult to execute than a clandestine one and requires layers of separation between intelligence officers and their agents that are typically not highly trained operatives. Agents are deniable and sometimes coerced. Occasionally they do not know whom they are working for or even that they are working for someone at all.

As an additional security measure, the supporting operations would be kept completely separate. The risk of detection is highest when these operations come together through communications or physical contact, meaning the moment of greatest vulnerability was during the attack itself when all the pieces were brought together in time and space. At that point, all the complicated designs of the North Korean regime rested on the element of surprise and the skill and demeanor of half-trained agents.

Ultimately, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam was a well-planned and skillfully executed intelligence operation, but the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch is untangling the knot with great efficiency. With its roots in the long, difficult fight against Communist insurgency, Special Branch is a tough adversary in the ongoing spy game. Known locally as SB, Special Branch serves as both the internal and external intelligence service of the Malaysian state. They enjoy good relationships with counterparts in the region and are receiving excellent mutual support from Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry which is aggressively setting the conditions for international cooperation in the investigation. Though culpability for Kim Jong Nam’s death may never be fully proven, SB has managed to minimize political damage to Malaysia and imposed a high cost on North Korea. With the dust still settling, only Kim Jong Un himself can say if his brother’s murder was worth the resultant damage to relations with Malaysia and the increased suspicion that the operation has inspired around the world.


Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016. Read about one of his encounters with the North Koreans in Kuala Lumpur.

The Spark to Redefine “Europe”

The results of today’s referendum in the United Kingdom present an unprecedented situation for a strained European Union. For the first time in its history, a member state voted to leave the Union. In an organization that grew exponentially, the exit of a powerful contributor will force remaining nations to make some tough choices. The UK will also need to make some hard decisions about how to move forward outside of “Europe”. Needless to say, the Brexit will not be an easy process for anyone.

The UK has historically played balancing role on the continent, but this referendum represents a decisive departure from Britain’s neighbors and a vote of no-confidence in the European Union. Eurosceptic voters of the UK have many reasons to want to sever ties with Brussels: the aftermath of the economic dysfunction made manifest by the near-miss of the Grexit, the inconsistent and frantic response to the refugee crisis, and the resurgence of a bold and unpredictable Russia. British voters, however narrowly, ultimately lost faith with the European Project.

In choosing to leave the union, the UK has lost its privileged position as one of the leaders of a modern, unified Europe. Great Britain had a unique position in the Union as one of the only states with a balance of political, economic, and military might – a position it built over the decades through active diplomatic and economic engagement in continental affairs. It was arguably the most independent of EU members, enjoying many of the benefits of Union membership without the risks of the Euro, or the borderless society of the Schengen Agreement. Britain’s options for influencing the continent are now weakened, and the benefits of Union membership lost –a unilateral disarmament of what was once a formidable diplomatic and economic arsenal.

Centrifugal Force

Europe had a lot to lose from a British exit. Strong and independent Britain played a stabilizing role: ensuring no single country –namely France or Germany– could push a unilateral direction upon the EU. It was a role only the UK could play. Italy and Spain are prone to economic and political instability; the Low Countries and Scandinavia, though economically formidable, do not have the clout or muscle needed to balance their larger neighbors; and the Višegrad economies of Eastern Europe are too new, many with elected governments more interested in moving away from Europe than towards it. Germany is the de facto leader of the EU, which is a source of great discord among the smaller, more economically-vulnerable nations that do not appreciate Chancellor Merkel’s heavy-handed style or the historical aftertaste of German leadership.

Though division within the EU is not new, the departure of its great offshore stabilizer starts the political centrifuge spinning. Right-wing leaders in France, and the Netherlands are already demanding independence referendums of their own. Spain’s call for dual-sovereignty of Gibraltar is a sign that some disputes between the UK and other EU member states may reemerge after being held dormant by a spirit of intra-Union cooperation. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, prominent leaders in many of the EU’s major nations called for their nations to follow Britain’s lead.

Not surprisingly, independent-minded regions within European nation-states will also ride the winds of change to clamor more loudly for their independence. In a bizarre twist, Scotland may have voted to remain in the EU, but may not want to stay in a non-EU Britain. No doubt Basques and Catalans in Spain will watch closely if a second independence referendum takes place in Scotland, and aspiring EU members in the Balkans are unlikely to tolerate a long and painful application process while the more developed countries are voting to leave.

The Brexit may well be the spark that brings about the dissolution of the European Union. Its erosion and potential breakup would deprive its member states of a useful venue for cooperation to solve common problems; an international political situation closer to 1914 than 2016. At a time when transnational issues are more relevant than national ones, it is not at all clear why European leaders are divesting themselves of international tools to deal with them. Europe should take a moment to reflect on its fractured past.

Opportunity in Discord

As noted European diplomat, Victor Angelo recently predicted: Europe will survive Brexit. What is not clear is whether the EU or the UK will survive their divorce intact. Perhaps the Union grew too quickly, haphazardly attempting to unify the continent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, pushing “Europe’s” borders ever outward. In this manner, Brussels hardwired weaknesses into the future unity of the European Union.

But, as I’ve said before, there is opportunity in crisis. Challenges can break a weak union or strengthen a strong one. Perhaps this is the kind of shock Europe needs to wake up and implement further democratization and a unified fiscal policy towards a federal union. Any other course could doom the entire project to failure, and erase all the good Europeans have built, together.

Nick Avila Associate Blogmaster, Navisio Global. Brexit.LT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

Power Project: China’s New Strategy

Taking a page from the Pentagon’s playbook, China last month publicly revealed a new military strategy; a first ever move that advertises how Beijing intends to implement its growing foreign policy in the coming years. Released on May 26th just days ahead of the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues, the strategy supports China’s three national priorities (safeguarding national unification, maintaining territorial integrity, and developing its economy), and describes a shift away from land power in favor of the air and maritime domains. But the new strategy is about much more than a simple change in emphasis, it embraces joint operations and offensive warfare, particularly in the maritime domain, and introduces security cooperation as a key element of national policy. These are sophisticated concepts associated with power projection and though this may cause concern in some western military circles, they are a recognition of a strategic reality that has been evident for some time already: specifically that China simply must project power if it wants to sustain its increasing importance in the global economy.

Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues
Admiral Sun of the PLA Navy at the 2015 Shangri-La Dialogues

The emergence of the air and maritime domains (and by extension the space domain) in Chinese strategic thinking is a natural outgrowth of the country’s new economy. In the 1950s when China set the foundations on its previous strategic concept, the country was an inward-facing rural agrarian society that largely provided all the resource needs of its own economy. Territorial integrity and population resource control within mainland China were the overarching preoccupations of Beijing. An independent, centralized economy and a closed society were basic tools to maintain this control and support the limited foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese Dream

Needless to say, that has been changing at an ever-quickening pace since Deng Xiaoping suggested that to be rich is glorious. Since then, China has become an integral player in the modern globalized economy. It joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and now provides labor and infrastructure for an enormous percentage of the world’s simple manufacturing; in effect, China has subordinated its foreign policy to its economy much as western nations have been doing for hundreds of years. In this regard, the new Chinese strategy is a sensible adjustment to globalization.

Thus, power projection has become the unifying principle of Chinese military development affecting all branches of its armed forces. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), traditionally a defensive force, is transitioning “from theater defense to trans-theater mobility”.  It is adapting itself to tasks in different regions of the world and for different purposes. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) will take on offensive missions including air strike, airborne operations, and strategic projection. This last bit was clearly on the minds of generals and politicians in Beijing during the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 which featured PLAAF air and logistical units operating deep in the Indian Ocean from forward bases for extended periods. Though the operation revealed weaknesses in air-sea integration, intelligence fusion, and planning, it was a necessary first step and undoubtedly provided many important lessons. The PLA Navy (PLAN), which in the past more closely resembled a coast guard than a true navy, is making the most visible transition, developing carrier aviation, ballistic missile submarines, and possibly even anti-ship ballistic missiles. Like the PLA Air Force, the PLAN is already experimenting with power projection, operating a national counter-piracy operation in the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden since 2008 and influencing construction of dual-use port facilities in the Maldives, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Notably, PLAN also pioneered integration with Chinese paramilitary units of the Coast Guard and Fisheries Service that are on the forefront of defending territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

A PLAN J-15 Fighter Takes Off from the Deck of China's First Carrier, the Liaoning
A PLAN J-15 fighter takes off from the deck of China’s first carrier, the Liaoning

Non-Traditional Security

While China’s military evolution is observable and measurable, other aspects of its drive to project power are less so. Chinese cyber units have been attacking American military and commercial activities for years with the latest incident, according to two US Senators, taking place last week when hackers stole security background information of up to 4 million US Government officials. In the realm of security cooperation, Chinese Special Operations Forces (SOF) are also becoming more active and more aggressive. There were credible reports in June 2014 that Chinese SOF helped evacuate their nationals from Iraq as that country came under threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Similar operations took place more recently in Yemen. Chinese naval commandos are known to operate with PLAN task groups in the Gulf of Aden, and other Chinese SOF are busy engaging counterparts around the world.  By early 2012, this activity had accelerated so much that US Intelligence grew concerned this was a systematic attempt to directly counter American influence in Southeast Asia. They had determined that Chinese SOF were engaging Southeast Asian units hot on the heels of similar visits by US SOF teams. While the timing and the targets of these exchanges is impossible to dispute, these patterns probably had more to do with host nation priorities for which units would benefit from the training. Whatever the real motivation, the point is that Chinese SOF are engaging regional neighbors in the exact same manner as US SOF and reportedly with much more flexible rules for investing in their hosts. And while SOF is the most versatile and reliable of China’s tools for security cooperation, it is hardly the biggest or most important. China maintains robust relations through training exchanges in Africa and Latin America and routinely conducts combined exercises with Russia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The new strategy reinforces these interactions but also specifically recommends increasing military ties with Europe in unspecified ways.

For observers and practitioners familiar with the strategic culture of China in the last ten years, there is a noticeable if hesitant emergence of the Chinese military from the shadows of secrecy and a defensive mindset. While western nations may be very happy to accept China into the global economy, they are less comfortable with the corresponding increase in Chinese military engagement. Western discussions on the management of China’s rise are overwhelmingly presented in economic terms, leaving us to ponder whether the purpose of the newly released strategy is to remind us that we must also consider the rise of China’s military if we hope to keep peace in Asia.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

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