Tag Archives: Featured

Maduro Drones On

Wearing full regalia to mark the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard on August 4th, President Nicolas Maduro became the world’s most prominent target of a drone strike. The scene was typical of the farcical government theater Venezuelans have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years since Maduro’s charismatic mentor, Hugo Chavez was elected President. The small explosion occurred while Maduro was addressing a massive assembly of soldiers, firefighters, and police; seven of whom were wounded when two drones approached and dropped their ordnance near the procession.

In a speech the following day, Maduro blamed the attack on the former President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a claim Santos bluntly repudiated. Though Maduro is accustomed to droning on against foreign interference, those claiming credit for the attack, a previously unknown group called “Soldiers of Flannel”, identify themselves as patriotic Venezuelans. They blame Maduro’s incompetence for the exploding economic crisis that is pushing millions of Venezuelans into desperation. Though some would like to write off the incident as a parochial Latin American squabble, the drone-delivery of explosives is a growing global security threat that simply cannot be ignored.

The "Soldiers of Flannel" claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.
The “Soldiers of Flannel” claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivarian Devolution

Though Saturday’s drama may seem remote to those outside Latin America, Venezuela is in the midst of an exploding humanitarian disaster. This is not hyperbole. Some 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the hyperinflation and scarcity that has plagued their economy since 2014. Conditions are at the point that international humanitarian actors supporting affected Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere claim newborns in Syria have lower mortality rates than those in Venezuela. Once the richest nationality in Latin America, Venezuelans both at home and abroad suffer from malnutrition, crime, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking as the crisis — and their desperation — intensifies. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime increasingly relies on repression and violence to maintain control. A patronage system guarantees military and police loyalty but is coming under escalating stress from an inflation rate that may exceed 1 million percent by the end of the year.

At these rates, it is difficult to imagine Maduro will be able to sustain this system, particularly in the face of the rapid collapse of oil exports. For years, the state oil company, PDVSA, funded the socialist economy set up by Hugo Chavez; but as PDVSA demands for control of production grew to pay the rising costs of Chavismo, international oil companies began to cut their losses. Beginning with the American firms, the oil majors shut down their Venezuelan operations, taking their expertise and equipment with them and leaving a lasting impact on the economy, currency, and security of the country. Something will have to give in order for conditions to improve and Saturday’s drone strike suggests the security situation will further deteriorate long before the economy stabilizes.

Drones On Target

Saturday’s attack on Maduro, though of little significance in real terms, marks the first notable proliferation of non-state, drone-delivered explosives outside the Middle East. Though the attacked wounded seven members of the Bolivarian National Guard, Maduro was unhurt and he and the generals surrounding him responded stoically enough to preserve their machismo. What alarms security officials around the world about the incident however, is there is no real way to defend against this rapidly proliferating technology.

Drone technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Improvements in battery capability enabled this leap, driving down costs and giving smaller drones more range and power. Though state militaries were the early drivers of drone technology, they focused their research and development efforts on larger platforms that somewhat replicated capabilities of manned aircraft. Private hobbyists and commercial interests such as Amazon pushed demand for smaller devices and drove innovation faster than militaries were capable of doing. Not surprisingly, the commercial utility of drones as a delivery device has military implications as Mr. Maduro discovered on Saturday.

Maduro's security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.
Maduro’s security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.

Keeping up with technological advancement is not the only policy challenge drones represent. In most parts of the world, airspace is only regulated above 3000 feet above ground level (AGL). Below that level, there are very few regulations and almost no laws governing air traffic. Even in those instances where governments made steps to address this gap, enforcement remains an administrative and technical headache. There are very few requirements for registration or licensing, and that’s just the start. On the extreme end of the spectrum, traditional defenses against air attack, specifically fighter aircraft and surface to air missiles, are almost completely ineffective below 3000 feet AGL. This is especially true in urban environments. Though one of the drones that attacked Maduro was reportedly shot down by an alert sniper, it crashed with its deadly payload into a nearby apartment building, setting fire to the structure and forcing an evacuation. The incident highlights that even effective defenses may cause unintended harm.

Technological solutions are no more promising. Countermeasures range from systems that jam guidance inputs, to others that launch netting to capture drones, to trained birds of prey. Clearly the defense sector is struggling to establish a workable industry standard. Detection is a different problem that has more obvious solutions but integrating them with countermeasures and backing that up with effective legislation and enforcement is the biggest challenge of all. If there is a silver lining associated with the dramatic attack on Nicolas Maduro, it is that his misfortune may actually raise enough alarm at a high enough level to make a difference. When it comes to drone defense, the Soldiers of Flannel said it best: “…it’s only a question of time.”


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

Thanks to Kirby Sanford for consulting on flight rules and airspace control measures. Kirby is the author of Bolivarian Devolution and Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom on The Affiliate Network.

Master of Puppets: Pulling the Strings in Turkey

On the night of July 15th 2016, Turkish Military Forces moved swiftly in the streets of both Ankara and Istanbul. What appeared to be a security operation slowly took the shape of a coup d’état as military units occupied key locations in the country’s two largest cities. Despite a history of successful coups by the Turkish military, this coup started to fail as soon as it began. Revolutionary units suffered from a lack of leadership and their seizure of critical infrastructure in and around the capital was haphazard at best. Most importantly, the coup failed to make any credible attempt to kill or capture President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman leader of the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the lynchpin between success and failure. Despite dramatic scenes from around the country, loyalist forces were firmly back in control before sunrise and were pointing the finger of blame at a shadowy organization known by its Turkish acronym, FETÖ, the Fethullah Gülen Organization.

Erdogan’s apparent success emboldened him the following day. His security services had performed brilliantly. They were one step ahead of the coup at every turn and were already rounding up FETÖ members within the state. Despite 300 dead and more than 2100 wounded, Erdogan and AKP appeared to be in a strengthening political position and were consolidating authoritarian power across all the institutions of the Turkish government. Still, the situation remained complicated. The remaining military leadership did not have an amiable relationship with the AKP, a party whose Islamic leanings conflict with the military’s secular legacy. Erdogan the authoritarian will have to reconcile that relationship with the AKP’s devout Islamic voting base; a base that once looked to Fethullah Gülen for direction.

Stroke & Counterstroke

In 2002, Erdogan’s AKP swept the Turkish general election with an overwhelming majority. The victory was a shocking turn of events in a nation that traditionally embraced a secular order underpinned by vast military power. The secret of AKP’s success at the time was social mobilization in support of a more politically Islamic Turkey. In this endeavor, Erdogan received direct support from FETÖ media outlets and schools that enjoyed great popularity amongst Islamic voters. Though for years Erdogan benefitted politically from the relationship with FETÖ, it pitted him against the secular nationalist leadership of the military. Inspired by the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “Kemalists” in the military were growing alarmed at the Islamization of Turkish politics led by the AKP and guided by Fethullah Gülen. Pressure mounted until 2012 when judges associated with Gülen convicted 322 military officers of plotting to overthrow the government. The failure of the plot, known locally as “Sledgehammer”, defanged the military and set its Kemalist leadership against Gülen for what the military believed was a political move against the legacy of Ataturk.

Turkey Power
The relationship between Erdogan and the military is increasingly complicated, but the coup allowed him to clean out the ranks of dissenters. Photo credit: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-05-30/turkeys-next-military-coup.

The relationship between the AKP and FETÖ dissolved shortly thereafter when Gülen criticized Erdogan over the handling of the 2013 Gezi Park protests; upheavals that supported freedom of the press while maligning the government for encroaching on Turkish secularism. Accusing Gülenists of running a parallel state, Erdogan expelled them from law enforcement and the judiciary. In turn, Gülen’s religiously-minded supporters viewed Erodgan’s actions as an attack on their organization and the Islamic path they sought for Turkey. Over time, as Gülen’s opposition to Erdogan’s growing power intensified, the Kemalists began to sense an opportunity to take their revenge.

Turkey Unveiled

After years of souring relations between AKP and the Gülenists, the National Security Council declared FETÖ a threat to national security in 2014; a partial victory for the Kemalists but one that did not regain them control of the military or the government. That would not happen until 2016 when Gülenists within the military sought the help of the remaining Kemalists to overthrow Erdogan and AKP. The move was not without merit. The Kemalists had already suffered at the hands of AKP and were increasingly uncomfortable with the ongoing erosion of secularism and consolidation of power by Erdogan but they calculated revenge was ultimately more beneficial than collaboration. Initially pledging their support for the coup, the Kemalists stepped aside at a critical moment, betrayed FETÖ, and declared themselves in full support of Erdogan’s government. The subsequent failure we all witnessed on television was therefore less of a success for Erdogan than it was a victory for the Kemalists. In one night, they regained control of the military and drove the wedge between AKP and its Islamic base a little deeper.

Recognizing the new reality, Erdogan changed his stripes from a one-time supporter of political Islam to an authoritarian nationalist; a position supported (for now) by the military but rejected by AKP’s traditional base. How long he can maintain this tenuous political charade will depend on his success in wielding the tools of authoritarianism; specifically, his relationship with the military and suppression of freedom of the press. The simultaneous and often conflicting vilification of FETÖ, the Kurds, and Daesh, continue to fuel police and military operations like Operation Olive Branch in Syria that serve to expand Erdogan’s power and keep his Kemalist allies busy.

Despite the outward appearance, Erdogan and AKP are without a political anchor and dangerously dependent upon the Kemalists they once betrayed. While western governments and media continue to operate on the assumption of Erdogan’s strength since the failed coup, it is likely the real master of puppets is wearing a military uniform, and he has yet to pull all his available strings.


Nuno FelixNuno Felix is a former non-commissioned officer with Portuguese Army Special Operations Forces. He is a sniper and special reconnaissance expert and is currently working as a consultant to top executives in the financial sector.

Pardon Me: Peru’s Fujimori Problem

On Christmas morning 2017, protesters filled the streets of Lima, Peru in opposition to a controversial decision made by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (known locally as PPK). His pardon of former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori—a deeply divisive figure in Peruvian political history—inspired the manifestations that disturbed a holiday hiatus in the characteristic buzz of the capital city. Kuczynski responded to the protests with a television address, advocating for reconciliation towards the polemic former ruler and his violent past. Kuczynski’s decision leaves the citizens of Peru struggling to reconcile the surprising influence the Fujimori family still commands in Peruvian politics and a recently elected President who campaigned, then and now, on national unity.

The 79 year-old Fujimori, who left office in 2000, was nine years into a 25-year prison sentence for corruption and human rights abuses. Citing the aging former president’s terminal heart condition and tongue cancer, Kuczynski’s Presidential Pardon Commission recommended Fujimori, along with seven other inmates, be pardoned “for humanitarian reasons.” However, such benevolence from President Kuczynski does not sit well with many Peruvians who still bear the scars of Fujimori’s violent repression. Speaking on their behalf, members of the UN Human Rights Council condemned the pardon saying, “We are appalled by this decision. It is a slap in the face for the victims and witnesses whose tireless commitment brought him (Fujimori) to justice.”

pardon
The ailing Fujimori remains a controversial figure, provoking anger, contempt, and sympathy from the Peruvian people. Photo credit: http://www.dw.com/en/alberto-fujimori-perus-ex-president-leaves-clinic-free-man-after-pardon/a-42034904

In a region with a rich history of such transgressions, the pardon of a human rights abuser is certainly controversial and President Kuczynski is in no position to take political risks. Just three days prior to granting Fujimori’s pardon, Kuczynski himself narrowly escaped impeachment on corruption charges associated with an $800 million bribery scandal involving the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. As a result, his approval rating is at a historic low (19% as of February 11, 2018). The pardon also forced him to reshuffle nine of his cabinet ministers into an aptly named “cabinet of reconciliation,” which he hopes will repair his party’s relationship with the Peruvian people in the coming months—an outcome easier said than done. Swelling street protests suggest Peruvians believe Kuczynski’s humanitarian impulses are a cover for what is actually a political survival deal to co-opt the powerful opposition. Obtaining a Presidential mandate in this manner has become an even greater point of civil contention than the actual pardon of Fujimori.

Sins of the Father

At the time of Fujimori’s election in 1990, Peru was in a state of national crisis. Guerilla terrorist groups were waging a violent insurgency and the economy was suffering from debilitating hyperinflation. Acting quickly and boldly, he instituted drastic measures to stabilize the economy and combat the insurgency. Under pressure and seeking to maintain his political freedom to maneuver, he staged a coup of his own government in 1992 with support from key military leaders in order to rewrite the constitution and purge his political opponents. The memory of the infamous purge elicits one of two responses from Peruvians: some demand justice for friends and loved ones that disappeared during that time, but many others welcomed the coup, viewing the government’s tactics as necessary to stabilize the country’s economy and bring an end to the terrorism.

Despite the lives Fujimori took, his children—son Kenji, a Congressman, and daughter Keiko, head of the main opposition party, Fuerza Popular—are the former president’s political legacy. But they are now a family divided. During Kuczynski’s impeachment proceedings, Kenji led a group of opposition lawmakers in abstaining from the impeachment vote, allowing Kuczynski to keep his seat long enough to enable the pardon of the elder Fujimori. This came as a blow to Kenji’s sister Keiko, that had just lost the 2016 presidential election to Kuczynski by a razor-thin 0.12% margin. In response, Fuerza Popular officially expelled Kenji and his allies, enforcing party discipline but destroying its simple-majority in Congress. Though Kenji and Kuczynski publicly deny accusations of quid pro quoReuters reported on January 26 that a back channel deal had been negotiated between them months earlier.

Pardon Me Too

Though the corruption allegations against President Kuczynski have not yet been proven, and his impeachment proceedings were politically driven, the charges against him are still troubling. Having run for President on an anti-corruption platform, he was quick to deny allegations that his private company, Westfield Capital, received any payments from Odebrecht. However, he now acknowledges Westfield was paid $780,000 between 2004 and 2006 while he served as Minister of Economy and Finance and later, Prime Minister. The shifting stories coincide with his reversal on the issue of Alberto Fujimori’s pardon and erode the credibility of his claims of innocence. Still worse, his rhetoric in response to calls for his resignation make him appear both desperate and despotic; he insists his removal from office would “disrupt political and economic stability” in Peru.

Pardon
President Kuczynski’s pardon of Fujimori puts him in a political bind, and may not save him from the next impeachment. Photo credit: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/world/2017/12/28/perus-culture-minister-resigns-after-fujimori-pardoned/

Moreover, Kuczynski boldly declared during his 2016 campaign there would be no pardon for the elder Fujimori. His righteous “unity” campaign platform narrowly won him the presidency, but nevertheless left his agenda vulnerable due to a lack of congressional support. Even in the wake of Keiko Fujimori’s presidential defeat – and before the fallout with her brother weakened her position – her Fuerza Popular opposition still held a commanding 71 of 130 congressional seats. Kuczynski’s questionable pardoning of Alberto Fujimori, be it a desperate act of self-preservation or a stroke of ambitious genius (or both), has secured Kuczynski’s presidency and weakened the opposition’s hold on Congress. Whether this was truly the result of a secret deal or just sibling rivalry, it set the stage for the next move against him. A new opposition – sans Kenji but now with some disgruntled former Kuczynski allies upset over the Fujimori pardon – has pledged a new impeachment proceeding when Congress resumes in March. Whether they have enough votes to be successful this time remains to be seen.

Last year, public polling indicated that up to 60% of the population favored pardon of Fujimori. Even after the pardon was granted, public polling indicated 50% of Peruvians still support Fujimori’s release. Presidential pardons are often controversial, but in this case the high-profile act of clemency faces international human rights scrutiny. The President that was supposed to represent stability instead wielded the pardon as a blatant tool of political manipulation—to the detriment of democracy. President Kuczynski will struggle to regain his reputation as a stabilizing political figure, and a shifting opposition will continue to maneuver against him, keeping the political focus on scandals and political controversy rather than on the much-needed and noble goal of national reconciliation. For the time being, whatever initiatives Kuczynski attempts, he will do so with the legal mandate of President of Peru, but without the pardon of the people.


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.

Major John “JB” Boswell is a U.S. Air Force Intelligence Officer with deployments and operational experience in Afghanistan, South Korea, Hawaii, and Germany. He is currently a graduate student in History at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima as part of the George and Carol Olmsted Scholar Program.