All posts by Lino Miani

Green Beret, Author, Entrepreneur...Worldwide. CEO, Navisio Global

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 Gate: Standoff Against Daesh

A quick look at the military situation in Syria reveals – even to the most casual observer – that al-Bab is an important place. The northeastern-most outpost of the crumbling Islamic State, al-Bab – Arabic for “the Gate” – is the literal and figurative gateway to the Daesh capital, Raqqa, and the lynchpin in the ongoing strategic struggle in Syria. Located just 25 km from besieged eastern Aleppo, the small town is surrounded on three sides by enemies of Daesh. The Russian-supported Syrian regime, the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Front (SDF), and the Turkish Army are all within artillery range of al-Bab and all have conflicting reasons to covet its control.

Though this seems a dire tactical situation for the defenders, mutual strategic hostility between Daesh’s enemies keeps them from acting decisively in al-Bab. The Assad Regime is at the limit of its capabilities, even with Russian support. Turkey, despite the massive superiority its Army enjoys in the region, is wary of pushing too far into Syria lest it trigger a defensive response from Assad. Lastly, the SDF, which has advanced west in a thin strip along the Turkish border from Hassakeh to beyond Manbij, believes al-Bab is perhaps a bridge too far. Seizing it could trigger a Turkish assault, possibly bringing its military into direct conflict with Russian forces for a second time since the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter in November 2015. No one, not even the Kurds, thinks this tiny town of 2.5 square kilometers is worth a world war.

the-gate
The strategic centrality of al-Bab: “The Gate”.   Source: www.syriancivilwar.com

America in the Middle

The United States finds itself between a rock and a hard place. In northern Syria, this means Washington has to negotiate its way through the opposing objectives of its Turkish and Kurdish allies. The ultimate Kurdish aim is to unite its northern cantons into a contiguous state they call “Rojava.” An SDF seizure of al-Bab is a big step in that direction and could favorably influence the decision in Aleppo in a way that makes Rojava more likely. For this reason, some believe Ankara is withholding support for breaking the siege of Aleppo until the SDF withdraws east of the Euphrates River.

Believing Raqqa to be the Daesh center-of-gravity, the United States pushes its Kurdish allies to seize that city instead of al-Bab. Though the SDF is the only force capable of doing so, it is not clear how they would benefit from control of the Daesh capital. The city is overwhelmingly Sunni and would not welcome Kurdish rule. More importantly, Raqqa is out of the way and an assault on it would require SDF formations to turn their backs on their archenemy, Turkey. Though cultivating American support is normally a powerful multiplier, the Kurds have overestimated Washington’s loyalty before and it is increasingly clear the United States lacks influence in northern Syria. The Pentagon has no military options that do not involve the SDF and diplomacy with both Russia and Turkey is ineffective at the moment for reasons that have nothing to do with Syria. Some suggest the Kurds want to use Raqqa as a bargaining chip for other concessions, though none of the other stakeholders are currently in a position to maintain control of the city even if they were to acquire it this way.

Wrath of the Euphrates
SDF Spokeswoman, Jihan Sheik Ahmed, announces commencement of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, the Kurdish-led operation to isolate Raqqa. It is not clear what benefit the SDF will derive from seizing Raqqa.

For its part, Turkey is vehemently opposed to the Rojava that would put Kurdish factions in control of Turkey’s entire southern border from Iran to Idlib. The only way for Turkey to stop further Kurdish advances however is with direct military intervention into neighboring states. Turkey did exactly this on August 24th 2016, when its Army seized Jarabulus on the pretext of ousting Daesh from its border. With this accomplished, the veil is now wearing thin. Turkish units and their proxies are in increasingly frequent and intensifying conflict with the SDF, placing Turkey in the uncomfortable position of fighting an American ally that happens to be the only force actually conducting offensive operations against Daesh in the upper Euphrates valley.

Worse for Turkey, there is mounting evidence its Army is seriously underperforming in the field. The highly centralized decision-making and leadership culture of the Turkish military, a serious weakness under normal circumstances, has been compounded by the ongoing purge of its officer corps. Following the abortive 15 July coup attempt, 38% of Turkey’s generals and admirals, and 8% of other ranks have been jailed or relieved. Those remaining are averse to making any recommendation that may be perceived as disloyal, even at the expense of sound military advice. Though it is unknown how much of their hesitation is self-censorship, officers down to the rank of Major continue to have their careers and livelihoods terminated without warning, even while serving in front line combat roles. This erosion of leadership results in poorly coordinated operations, slow and predictable movements, and an inability to respond effectively to frequent instances of troops in contact. The otherwise well-trained and equipped Turkish Army is losing its tactical engagements and suffering unexpectedly high casualties.

Russia and the Regime

By contrast, the Assad Regime has shown remarkable resilience throughout the terrible Syrian civil war. Though some of its longevity is due to Iranian, and later Russian support, its diplomatic efforts have yielded fruit. Despite systematic violations of human rights and the law of armed conflict, the Regime remains the internationally-recognized government of Syria. Its complex relations with a number of western powers divide the US-led Coalition on the questions of military purpose and Syria’s political future.

Russia’s intervention has also improved Assad’s military situation, though not decisively. The Syrian Army’s stranglehold on Aleppo is tenuous at best and its supply lines from Damascus to Alawite strongholds in the north remain threatened by a kaleidoscopic patchwork of hostile territory around Homs and Hama. The siege of Aleppo is completely dependent upon brutal Russian air power and Turkish restraint of its proxies in the surrounding Governorates, particularly Idlib. Meanwhile in the south and in rural Damascus, the best the Regime can hope to achieve is an economy-of-force operation that might allow it to co-opt one rebellious village at a time.

Still, Damascus – and probably Moscow – will respond vigorously to any Turkish or Kurdish moves on al-Bab. Failing to do so would dangerously weaken the already fragile encirclement of Aleppo and threaten the supply lines of Syrian forces there – the besiegers could become the besieged. Even if the Syrian Army – and the presence of Russian “advisors” – fails to deter a Turkish seizure of al-Bab, Assad still has one more card to play: he is the only one that can deliver success to the Kurds. A Syrian deal with General Masloum’s SDF, granting a contiguous and autonomous Rojava in exchange for flank security for the siege of Aleppo, is a significant deterrent threat to Turkey.

Daesh Standoff

So the game continues to swirl around al-Bab as Daesh waits patiently in the relative comfort of stalemate. With each side holding a trump card over the other, there is no sign the situation will be decided soon, though recent Kurdish moves suggest dialogue is ongoing. On 6 November, SDF spokesmen announced the commencement of the isolation of Raqqa, an operation they call “Wrath of the Euphrates”. Ten days later, in what is widely seen as a US-brokered deal to enable an SDF seizure of Raqqa without Turkish interference, the SDF announced it would withdraw east of the Euphrates, vacating the hard won districts of Qebasin (eastern al-Bab) and Manbij. There is some risk the Kurdish departure will leave a power vacuum to be filled by either the Turkish Army or by a number of competing “military councils” with varying degrees of legitimacy. However, as recently as 22 November, perhaps in recognition of these risks, the SDF was still in control of Manbij and continued to exchange fire with Turkish forces to its west.

The coming months will reveal how all these maneuvers play out. The SDF and its Coalition Special Operations advisors are not yet ready for the final assault on Raqqa. To be successful, Operation Wrath of the Euphrates will require large numbers of Arab fighters currently wary of following a Kurdish general. In this respect, recruiting for the SDF’s Arab component is dependent upon events in Mosul 530 km to the east. A quick decision there will encourage Arabs to turn on Daesh and join General Masloum. By extension, this will affect al-Bab and the siege of Aleppo. For the time being however, the question of al-Bab will remain unanswered as the Kurds march on Raqqa, leaving the Turks to either make good on promises to fight Daesh in earnest or just stay out of the way. In any case, until at least one of the players acts decisively, there will continue to be a strategic standoff at “The Gate”.


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 just completed an advisory tour with Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. 

Making Mosul Great Again

The writing is on the wall. In a matter of days, the rejuvenated Iraqi Army will begin its long-awaited assault on Mosul and the political struggle for the soul of northern Iraq will commence. What’s not apparent to many observers is that the military seizure of this ancient city of 1 million people is assured; Mosul will fall. If the capture of Mosul goes “well”, the Government of Iraq will be in a strong position to broker a stable political balance in the north. But if the assault bogs down, all interested parties will begin hedging their bets about the future. Either way, Mosul will fall, and when it does, the divergent interests of Turkey, Iran, the United States, and Russia will come into play making this historic city the lynchpin in a global struggle over the future of the Middle East.

Strategic Mosul

The 2014 fall of Mosul to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forced both Washington and Tehran to make strategic decisions. The Iraqi Army’s defeat in the north left only a thin line of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters between ISIL and the Kurdish capital in Irbil. If ISIL had managed to take Irbil they would have shattered the Kurdish diaspora into four distinct parts, forced its people into exile in Iran and Turkey, and obliterated the federated nature of the modern state of Iraq. With no consensus and no army, Iraq would have been helpless to prevent victorious ISIL formations from moving swiftly down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in a final, decisive assault on Baghdad. There is little doubt that Iran would have intervened to prevent this, a circumstance that would quickly provoke a massive Saudi response leading to state-on-state Shia vs. Sunni warfare.

Strategic Mosul
This map shows what the situation could have been after ISIL seized Mosul in 2014. If ISIL had taken Irbil, the Kurds would have been exiled and Baghdad threatened.

Faced with this abysmal possibility, both the United States and Iran acted quickly. America rushed to rebuild the Iraqi Army and initiated an air war against ISIL that continues to this day. Iran moved to bolster President Assad’s forces in Syria and to mobilize the Shia population in Iraq. Disagreeing with Tehran on the acceptability of the Assad regime but seeking ways to cooperate against ISIL, the Obama Administration made a series of compromises on Iran’s nuclear program. Sensing an opportunity, Russia started its own war in Syria and made good on long delayed deliveries of advanced anti-aircraft systems to Tehran. Freed from American sanctions and safe under the umbrella of Russian top cover, the Iranian mullahs had a green light to continue their nuclear program and intervene openly in both Iraq and Syria.

Ottoman Style

Outmaneuvered and seeking to relieve pressure on Iraq, the United States pushed Kurdish allies in Syria to attack west from their stronghold near the Iraqi border. When the US-backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) — which Turkey considers the military wing of its mortal enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) — crossed the Euphrates river and seized Manbij in August 2016, Turkey responded by invading the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, destroying its ISIL garrison, and threatening the SDF flank. Though militarily insignificant, the seizure of Jarabulus sent a defiant message to the United States that Turkey would not accept a unified Kurdish homeland on its border. The lack of a US policy on the future of the Kurds has continued to paralyze American decision making for months and shapes the scheme of maneuver for the upcoming assault on Mosul.

Having embarked on a policy of direct intervention, Turkey is now exerting itself militarily across the region. President Erdogan, seemingly without consulting his advisors, announced in September that the Turkish Army would take part in any effort to seize ISIL’s capital Raqqah, particularly if that effort involves the SDF. Turkish military involvement would complicate coordination of the operation and vastly increase the risk of fighting between Kurds and Turks during and after the battle. Implementing this would be so difficult that the move seems designed to prevent the battle from ever taking place. Erdogan is now doing much the same with regard to Mosul, threatening to invade Iraq if Shia militias are employed to isolate the city or if the Peshmerga enters its outskirts. Ominously, he makes sectarian arguments to justify his threats.

Power Play

The Russians continue to take advantage of the situation, playing to Erdogan’s narrative of fear and working to patch up a relationship strained by the November 2015 shoot down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force. American paralysis and Turkish concerns about the SDF gave Russia and Syria space to abrogate a shaky cessation of hostilities in September, achieving tactical surprise in eastern Aleppo and making a Kurdish move against Raqqah even less likely. At this point, a Kurdish deal with ISIL to protect the SDF southern flank is not hard to imagine; a development that would enrage Turkey and stiffen ISIL’s defense of Mosul. If the Iraqi assault on Mosul bogs down and Russia and Syria manage to achieve a breakthrough in Aleppo at the same time, we could see a general Turkish offensive all along its border from Mosul to Manbij supported in the west by a Syrian seizure of Raqqah. This could isolate the SDF and leave Russia, Turkey, and Iran masters of most of Kurdistan.

The United States is left with few good options. Its hopes for Mosul rely upon the effectiveness of a reconstituted Iraqi Army which is performing miraculously well but will have to operate without help from the Peshmerga that must remain outside the city. The Iraqi Army however, a largely Shia force, is not ideal an ideal tool to control what has long been a Sunni outpost. This lends a great deal of urgency to creation of a more suitable constabulary that can stabilize the great city; what US planners call the “Wide Area Security Force”. Given that some front line Iraqi units are operating below 50% strength due to combat losses, recruitment will be only the first challenge.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s relationship with its western allies is now in tatters. The failed coup in Turkey allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his power and resulted in the ongoing purge of the Turkish military. That purge, and the Obama Administration’s refusal to extradite the coup’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, has hamstrung the relationship between the US and Turkish militaries at a time when cooperation against ISIL is at a premium. The crowded airspace over northern Syria and Iraq illustrates how dangerous this disconnect can be: the Turkish Air Force remains off the Coalition’s order of battle and is therefore dangerously uncoordinated. American diplomats, eager to keep Turkey out of the Mosul fight, are limited to leveraging NATO to shape Turkish actions in Iraq; an unlikely and inefficient political approach that in better times would have been easily managed at the military to miliary level.

In the coming days, there will be a convergence of interests in Mosul, the scope of which has not been seen since 750 AD when the Abbasids defeated Marwan II near there, effectively ending the Umayyad dynasty and casting the Muslim world into a cycle of vengeance. To an extent, the fortunes of an army of Iraqi replacements will determine the future stability of Iraq, Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the United States, and the scope of Russian and Iranian influence in the Middle East. Though none could have foreseen the dramatic political events that have brought us to this point, we can all agree that they have made Mosul great again.


Lino Miani

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