In Other News – Terrorist Attack in Kabul, Africa’s Sahel and terrorist attacks, & More – 8/27/2021

August 27, 2021

Terrorist attacks in Kabul kill numerous US service members, civilians and Afghans, harbinger of challenges to come. Thursday’s tragic attacks near Kabul airport were coordinated, complex, and effective at challenging the Taliban’s authority in a high-profile act of destruction. The attacks have been claimed by regional ISIS-affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan “ISIS-K”, which was officially established in early 2015 and is primarily comprised of Taliban defectors, former Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban members, and former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. For several years ISIS-K has been fighting against the Taliban, particularly in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan where both groups want to rule the drug trade. ISIS-K has also remarked that the Taliban was in partnership with the US military and has abandoned the jihadist battlefield for a national, not universal, cause. A UN Security Council report from February 2021 indicates that ISIS-K was responsible for the deaths of about 600 civilians and 2,500 Afghan security forces from early 2020-2021, and even though the group had lost territory it maintained sleeper cells in Kabul. Thursday’s ISIS-K attacks are likely indicative of violent unrest to come as the Taliban navigates how to govern a country that is impoverished, economically dependent on illegal narcotics sales and foreign aid, rife with dissenting violent jihadists groups, and devoid of many competent civil society and service members who recently fled the nation.

In Africa’s Sahel, steady stream of terrorist attacks demonstrates continued breadth and brutality of al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked militants. Last week, two armed militant attacks on villagers in southwestern Niger resulted in more than 50 deaths, and on Wednesday over 16 Nigerien soldiers were killed in a southeast attack by terrorist group Boko Haram. Niger, which borders seven countries and is among the world’s poorest, has seen an uptick in terrorist attacks over the past year. According to Niger’s newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum, his country is struggling to contain the insurgency and can’t afford to purchase the airplanes necessary to secure multiple vulnerable areas. Despite more than eight years of military intervention led by the French, armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region persist, and French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced plans to withdraw about half of the French troops, explaining that France doesn’t have the vocation or the will to stay eternally in the Sahel. France will, however, continue to be instrumental in leading specialized counterterrorism efforts in the region in collaboration with other local and international partners. In addition to ongoing attacks in the Sahel, some jihadists are moving south into deeper parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and continue to exploit porous borders, ethnic tensions, criminal networks, political instability, and weak or corrupt security forces.

Big Oil investing heavily in offshore oil projects in Brazil, Latin America, diversification important for long term economic health. During 2020, while demand for oil plummeted in many parts of the world, Brazil was increasing its output and production shows little sign of stopping. According to Brazil’s energy minister, the nation will be pumping 5.3 million barrels daily by 2030 and could be among the top five oil producers in the world. Brazil has been offering high quality, low-priced oil at a time of strife and competition among OPEC+ countries, making its projected 75% increase over the next 10 years a more realistic target. Further, Brazil’s offshore pre-salt fields are appealing because they offer crude oil with low carbon intensity, making them a slightly greener option during the transition to decarbonize the global economy. In addition to Big Oil’s investments in Brazil, leading companies are also putting significant funds into offshore projects and exploration in Guyana and Surinam. Venezuela, too, is hoping for easing of sanctions in the upcoming months that might help the nation reclaim its spot as a dominant producer. While Latin America is poised to take a leading role in oil production over the next five to ten years, simultaneous economic diversification will be critical given the increasing global efforts to reduce carbon dependance.

In Other News – Taliban at the helm & More – 8/20/2021

August 20, 2021

Taliban at the helm, regional actors engage new Afghan leadership for geostrategic gains. While the international community grapples with how, if, and to what extent it should engage with the Taliban, regional powers Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan – who all laid the groundwork for relations with the Taliban and continue to safely operate their embassies in Kabul − are working with the new leadership to secure their geostrategic positions. Russia, who initially welcomed the Taliban’s downfall back in 2001, has steadily changed course over time, seemingly concluding that it could better negotiate with the Taliban than a US-supported Afghan government. But Russia, who is eager to be the dominant military power in Central Asia, will need the Taliban to effectively keep narcotics trafficking and militant activity in the neighborhood at bay. China, like Russia, wants to prevent transnational militant groups from encroaching, namely those with ties to China’s Muslim population in the Xinjiang region that borders Afghanistan. China will also pressure the Taliban to limit its influence on extremist groups within Pakistan where Beijing has invested substantial funds in the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure projects. China’s own investment in Afghanistan is a possibility, but Beijing will likely be cautious due to both the Taliban’s yet-undetermined governing direction and past experiences losing money in similar Afghan initiatives. Iran cares most about getting rid of the US, protecting its Afghan border, and making sure that the Afghan Shi’a population isn’t persecuted. The Iranian Supreme Leader is willing to set aside substantial differences between himself and the Taliban leadership to achieve these goals and is reportedly in discussion with the Taliban to develop a more inclusive government representative of all Afghan ethnicities. Pakistan, who already has a well-established relationship with the Taliban, will now be looking to contain its own extremist and separatist groups from inspiration or influence. And despite the complicated nature of working with a nation who has arguably kept the Taliban alive for the past two decades, the US will need to collaborate with Islamabad if it wants to have any substantial impact on the Taliban’s actions. In addition to each nation’s engagement with the Taliban, shifting dynamics are at play between the nations themselves: China and Pakistan are close allies, Russia might be somewhat warming to Pakistan after decades of siding with India, and China and Russia have been conducting joint military exercises.

Venezuelan negotiations underway with limited expectations, investors watching closely. Last week in Mexico City representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro came together with representatives of the US-backed democratic opposition to initiate negotiations aimed at ending the five-year political stalemate. In a seemingly goodwill gesture, during the week Maduro released Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader who was imprisoned for over a month due to alleged involvement in a violent attack against security forces, so that he can participate when the talks begin in earnest in early September. In a new twist, both Maduro and the opposition will be represented by a primary negotiator of their choice: Maduro’s camp will be represented by Russia, and the opposition will be supported by the Netherlands- their second choice to the United States who will instead be part of a broader team of 10 international negotiators. The talks will be facilitated by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and seven critical issues ranging from human rights to economic policies will be on the table. Maduro, whose primary goal is to get the US to ease sanctions, is entering the negotiations in a strong position and has succeeded in the past even when coming from a weaker one; but opposition leaders appear cautiously optimistic that they might be able to reach partial agreements on issues like Covid-19 vaccine imports and ensuring fair conditions for the upcoming regional elections in November. Some international investors too, seem to think that partial sanctions relief could be a possibility, and several private equity funds and companies have demonstrated a renewed interest in Venezuela‒ angling to profit from the first phase of a potential economic recovery.

“A Look At Events Unfolding In Afghanistan,” Jack Devine on Bloomberg Radio, August 16, 2021

Jack Devine, former Chief of the CIA’s worldwide operations and Founding Partner, President of The Arkin Group, discusses the events unfolding in Afghanistan. Hosted by Paul Sweeney and Matt Miller.

A Look At Events Unfolding In Afghanistan

In Other News – Taliban offensive complicates Pakistan’s position, Multiple nations explore weather-modification technology, & More – 8/13/2021

August 13, 2021

As the Taliban offensive continues, Pakistan’s position grows increasingly complicated. Of the many nations who met this week in Qatar to discuss Afghanistan’s future, including the United States who will remain a major player even after the troop withdrawal, Pakistan is best positioned to impact what happens next. Pakistan officially denies supporting the Taliban, but for years it has provided the group with operating space, ideological recruits, medical treatment, money, and weapons– transfers further enabled by cross-border ethnic and tribal ties. On Monday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Pakistani Army chief General Bajwa about the need to eliminate safe havens for the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border, but the outcome of such talks is unclear and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has stated that Islamabad is not taking sides. The international community is overwhelming against a complete Taliban takeover: China, Russia, and the United States have all put pressure on Pakistan to convince the Taliban not to take Kabul, and other key regional players like Iran have long opposed Taliban rule. But if the Taliban is rapidly capturing territory without substantial opposition, most strikingly in the northern region historically resistant to the group, it’s also uncertain whether Pakistan could even convince the Taliban to stop if it tried. Pakistan’s stance on the Taliban is increasingly complicated by its alliance with China who wants to keep Taliban influence far from its Muslim Xinjiang region. Further, a Taliban-led state might give Pakistan a stronger position against India, but a devastating civil conflict in Afghanistan also means an excessive inflow of refugees and the threat that Pakistani extremist groups are invigorated by the establishment of an Islamic Emirate next door. For our take on the important role of covert actions in the region, please see Jack Devine’s 2010 WSJ op-ed that remains relevant today: Jack Devine: The CIA Solution for Afghanistan – WSJ

Multiple nations seriously exploring weather-modification technology as climate change worsens. A new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that the world is heating up much more quickly than previously assessed, and water-related disasters like drought and flooding are becoming more prevalent as a result. Water security and access, long a cause of territorial disputes, is increasingly important, and according to the World Meteorological Organization more than 50 countries have been pursuing weather modification programs. The UAE, in collaboration with researchers from the UK, is actively testing a new system of cloud seeding that creates artificial rain by flying drones into clouds and delivering an electric shock. The new system is reportedly safer for the environment than previous methods involving salt flares, and “rain enhancement science” is gaining traction worldwide. In January, China conducted its first successful unmanned weather-modification drone “sweet rain” flight- part of Beijing’s larger plan to extend its artificial rain program to over 60% of the country’s landmass by 2025. Some countries like Thailand and Indonesia are pooling resources on weather modification initiatives, and similar alliances are anticipated. Although the technology itself is still under debate, both for its effectivity and potential impact on the greater surrounding environment, the conversation will only increase and calls for international regulations are likely on the horizon.

Private digital asset platform is selected by US government to manage seized cryptocurrency. Criminals have been increasingly demanding cryptocurrency payments for a myriad of illicit activities, including notably lucrative ransomware attacks, but the government has simultaneously become much more adept at tracking and seizing the digital assets and now holds millions in recovered crypto. The US Marshals Service, a division of US DOJ who oversees asset recovery, used to deal with the seized crypto the same way it did with items like real estate or art- auctioning it off to the highest public bidder. But with larger amounts of crypto being recovered in an extremely volatile environment, the government wants a better solution. Since at least 2018 the Marshals have been looking to partner with a private sector company to help manage the crypto assets, and public records indicate that by June 2020, 15 companies were vying for the contract. Anchorage Digital, the first federally chartered bank for crypto as of January 2021, has won the five-year contract after closely edging out a competitor deemed too large to win a small business deal. The contract comes at a time of heated crypto debate; national and international governmental bodies are grappling with related issues on how to regulate the currencies and how and if to implement national digital currencies.

In Other News – Philippines & U.S. recommit to defense agreement, Belarusians have had recent extraterritorial attacks, & More – 8/6/21

August 6, 2021

Philippines recommits to defense agreement with the United States after China comes up short. Last week Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte retracted his threat to end the longstanding Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S., a critical component of the larger Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations that’s been in place for over 70 years. The decision was announced at a joint news conference between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Manila counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, and signals frustration with China and a renewed warming towards Washington. For five years of his presidency, Duterte has advocated for an “independent foreign policy” while simultaneously courting China. But China hasn’t come through on many of Duterte’s aspirations – investments on infrastructure projects have been minimal and produced disappointing results, and China continues to challenge the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea (SCS). Further, in 2021 polling conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, ~87% of Filipinos expressed that China’s encroachment into exclusive zones and continental shelves was their top concern in the SCS, with the same percentage demonstrating they would prefer to align with the United States. In July, the U.S. publicly stated that it would aid the Philippines should China attack its aircrafts or ships, and with the recent renewal of the VFA Duterte is indicating that he’s newly appreciative of the collaboration.

Recent extraterritorial attacks on Belarusians aligns with dangerous trend of transnational repression. Over the past decade, transnational repression, roughly defined as the coercion perpetrated overseas by authoritarian governments against citizens of their own countries, has been on the rise – recently demonstrated most egregiously by Belarus. This type of coercion isn’t new, but technology has propelled it forward and authoritarian regimes are increasingly threatened by the ongoing social media activity around exiled dissidents. Technology has also made it easier than ever to locate and surveil expats. This week, an active Belarusian dissident living in the Ukraine was found dead, hanging in a public park near his home. Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus of an “act of transnational repression” when it tried to force a dissenting Olympic athlete back to Belarus after threatening her with punishment upon return. In May, in an extreme event that defied international protocol, a Ryanair flight was hijacked to capture a Belarusian journalist who was on the plane. Indeed, traveling poses unique risks to dissidents and the mobility controls and mechanisms designed to prevent criminals from crossing borders continue to be abused by authoritarian states for repressive purposes.

Easing of Covid restrictions primes law enforcement for potential criminal exploits at international borders. Furloughed port and airport workers could be targeted by organized criminals upon returning to their positions according to recent messaging by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Individuals stationed at the borders, delivery centers and other hubs have historically been exploited by organized criminal groups who want to traffic in weapons, drugs, or people without detection. But trafficking is a constant, under-the-radar threat and during the pandemic the attention of national governments has been diverted to the more immediate concerns of its citizens. The NCA acknowledged that many employees have suffered during the pandemic but cautioned against the temptation to sell border-related information because it could have outsized ramifications for the safety of all citizens. Exasperating the situation, the pandemic has pushed millions of people worldwide into extreme poverty and criminals are recruiting the most vulnerable for illicit trafficking schemes, often involving children. The recent NCA alert indicates that individuals working the border are being recruited both in-person and online, sometimes under seemingly legitimate pretenses. The issue isn’t unique to the U.K., and with law enforcement focused on domestic issues heightened during the pandemic, it is likely that transnational, organized criminals will continue to exploit unstable situations to recruit both victims and accomplices.

In Other News – European Union and a new anti-money laundering authority, Russia and it’s ambiguous game in Syria, & More – 7/30/2021

July 30, 2021

European Union proposes new anti-money laundering authority with strong focus on reducing anonymity. Last week the European Commission proposed a new legislative package to curb the threat of money laundering and terrorist finance throughout the European Union (EU). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that between 2 and 5% of global GDP – between $800 billion to $2 trillion, is laundered annually. To ameliorate this risk, the EU now wants to establish a 250-member Anti Money Laundering (AML)-Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) authority to increase coordination among regional financial intelligence units and better identify seemingly unconnected illicit actors. The authority will be responsible for both formulating clear AML-CFT regulations as well as enforcing violations with financial penalties. The new EU proposal comes after the U.S. adopted a tougher AML law at the start of 2021 and will likewise require financial institutions to pay greater attention to transparency- both of its customers base and their transactions. Over the past several years, customers have increasingly maintained anonymity via unchecked beneficial ownership filings and cryptocurrency transactions. The EU proposal requires more stringent due diligence and Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements of its member states and prohibits financial institutions to transact with anonymous cryptocurrency wallets. There will also be an EU-wide limit of €10,000 on cash payments.

With new leadership in Israel and Iran, Russia is playing a deliberately ambiguous game in Syria. According to a top Russian military official, Israeli missiles launched against Iranian-backed targets in Syria have recently been downed on several occasions by Syrians using Russian-supplied air defense systems. These developments have not been corroborated by U.S. or Israeli officials, but the allegations are nonetheless telling. Putin and Netanyahu had an agreement that the Israelis could conduct strikes in Syria against Iranian-backed targets provided they first deconflicted. But with Netanyahu no longer in power, and a leadership change in Iran, a shift in Russian policy is possible or at least more believable. Several weeks ago, U.S. media reports also indicated that Russia was vying to sell an advanced spy satellite to the Iranians, which Putin vehemently denied. Earlier this week, two Iranian ships that have been under watch since late May due to suspected travel to Venezuela, instead wound-up participating in the Russian Navy’s 325th anniversary celebration. Whether the Russians are looking to limit Israeli actions in Syria, or if they are simply hedging bets with Iran, reporting on intercepted Israeli missiles also serves as a convenient advertisement for Russian-made military equipment.

Chinese operations in Pakistan could be increasingly targeted as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. This week in Karachi two masked assailants reportedly shot at a car transporting two Chinese nationals employed at a nearby factory. Earlier this month, nine Chinese and four Pakistani workers were killed in a bus bomb attack while traveling to the $4.2 billion Dasu hydropower dam, part of the broader U.S. $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The Pakistanis initially denied that the bus was targeted by terrorists, but eventually conceded and an investigation is underway. In April, several people were killed in a hotel attack in Quetta that is believed to have targeted the Chinese ambassador; this attack was claimed by Pakistani Taliban. Beijing and Islamabad are close allies collaborating on regional infrastructure projects opposed by both separatist insurgents and Islamist terrorist organizations. Grievances range from lack of economic opportunity for the local population to the Chinese treatment of its Muslim, Uighur population. Baloch separatists at war with the Pakistani state have also attempted to undermine the Chinese – targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi and hotels housing Chinese workers. Further, with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan China is the new face of the large, external power acting in the region. The Chinese recently met with the Taliban and expressed interest in maintaining regional peace, but with increasing economic inequity in the region, further exasperated by Covid-19 and political unrest, the Chinese are likely to remain a ready local target.