Saturday, October 24, 2015

New Russian Military Might On Full Display In Syria

Russian army Lt.-Col. Alexander Yevdokimov stands near a water treatment facility at Hemeimeem airbase, Syria. Nearly a quarter of a century after the Soviet collapse, the air campaign in Syria has proven that the resurgent Russian military machine could again operate far away from the nation's borders.

HEMEIMEEM AIRBASE, SYRIA (AP) — Sleek combat jets loaded with precision bunker-buster bombs roar into the skies as soldiers in desert-style uniforms march past rows of neat housing at this Russian military base at one of Syria's largest airports.

The air campaign in Syria, Russia's first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the war in Afghanistan, shows a revamped Russian military, which sharply differs in both capability and mindset from the old, Soviet-style force.

It is capable of quickly projecting power far from Russian borders, widely uses drones and precision weapons, and cares about soldiers' comfort. The thunder of Syria's civil war couldn't be heard at Hemeimeem, located in the coastal province of Latakia, which has largely been spared the chaos and destruction of more than 4 1/2 years of fighting in Syria.

A small group of journalists visiting the base this week could see a dozen Su-24 bombers taking off into the night with a deafening roar, piercing the darkness with scarlet flames from their engines. Such missions were impossible just a few years ago, when the Russian air force had few planes capable of hitting targets at night.

As part of President Vladimir Putin's sweeping military modernization program, the air force received hundreds of new and modernized aircraft, all equipped with state-of-the art electronics on a par with U.S. and NATO jets.

"All aircraft here at the base are equipped with targeting systems that allow hitting targets with pinpoint precision," said Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov. He dismissed Syrian opposition claims that the Russian airstrikes killed civilians as "sheer nonsense," saying the aircraft have hit ammunition depots, bunkers and other targets away from populated areas. The ministry has released cockpit video to support its claims, just as the Pentagon did during the two Gulf wars.

The precision strikes differ sharply from Russian operations to quash two separatist insurrections in Chechnya, where the Russian military indiscriminately used obsolete, inaccurate weapons, reducing the Chechen capital of Grozny to rubble.

Latakia, the heartland of Syrian President Bashar Assad's Alawite minority, offers the Russian military a safe environment — and a warm welcome from people blaring car horns and chanting "Thanks!" in Russian.

At a refugee camp in Latakia, which houses several thousand mostly Alawite refugees from other provinces in Syria, smiling kids shouted: "Thank you, Putin!" Warmly greeted by the locals and at a safe distance from the front lines, Russian soldiers at the base look calm and relaxed.

Still, Russian military police manning checkpoints with Syrian security forces thoroughly check incoming vehicles, special forces guard key facilities and Mi-24 helicopter gunships sweep around the base on regular patrols looking for any suspicious activity. Pantsyr air defense systems are deployed at the edge of the airfield, completing the security bubble.

Soldiers at the base are visibly proud of their crisp new uniforms and comfortable sand-colored high boots, a stark contrast with the drab Soviet-style military attire worn until recently. Air force support crew attaching heavy bombs and missiles under the warplanes' wings wear shorts and white sports shoes for comfort in very un-Russian temperatures of nearly 30 Celsius (mid-80s Fahrenheit).

On a typical day, each jet flies several sorties during the day and at night. Konashenkov shrugged off U.S. criticism that Russia was targeting moderate rebel groups fighting Assad instead of focusing on Islamic State militants, the main goal declared by the Kremlin. He argued it doesn't matter which of the myriad militant groups owns facilities making suicide belts and rigging trucks with explosives for suicide missions, which the Russian warplanes target.

In another break with the old Russian military tradition, the planners of the Hemeimeem base took care of the troops, a marked departure from Soviet-style neglect of soldiers' comfort. The neat rows of housing units, each holding from two to eight men depending on rank, are equipped with air conditioning, a must in the scorching heat, and there are plenty of wash cabins available.

A field kitchen and a canteen look immaculately clean, a sight to shock anyone familiar with crude ways of the old-style Russian military. At the base's water treatment unit, Lt.-Col. Alexander Yevdokimov spoke enthusiastically about a multilayer filter system that purifies Syrian tap water to the highest drinking standard and prevents any threat of chemical or bacteriological contamination.
"Please try it, it tastes really good!" he told reporters. The base bakes its own bread and cooks prepare no-frills but filling Russian dishes. An army store offers souvenirs, cosmetics and clothing, and smiling attendants at a nearby coffee shop sell candies, cookies and ice cream delivered from Russia.
Konashenkov, a veteran of the war in Chechnya and other post-Soviet conflicts, is keen to highlight the progress the military has made. "Remember Chechnya, where everything was covered in dirt?" he asks, pointing at the base's freshly paved grounds that help keep uniforms and housing units clean.
Officers at the base say its comfortable layout and logistics reflect the personal touch of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is widely popular in the ranks, unlike his predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov.

Serdyukov, who was ordered by Putin to streamline the bloated and under-funded military after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, conducted painful cuts of the officer corps and made other radical changes, but was eventually sacked amid growling in the ranks.

The military welcomed the appointment of Shoigu, who had served as Russia's emergencies minister for two decades and won a reputation as one of the few Russian officials who could actually get things done.

A latecomer to Putin's inner circle, Shoigu has developed strong personal ties with the president. They have gone fishing together and the defense minister now seems to be one of the few officials whom Putin particularly trusts.

Spending on the military increased under Shoigu's leadership, financing hundreds of new aircraft and missiles and the commissioning of numerous other new weapons. The armed forces have held a series of massive exercises, engaging hundreds of thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft across vast areas from the Baltics to the Pacific and from the Caspian Sea to the Arctic.

The drills paid off when Putin moved to annex Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. Within hours, waves of Russian transport planes airlifted special forces that quickly blocked Ukrainian troops at their bases without firing a shot. The swift operation took the West by surprise.

Unlike the past, when the military's post-Soviet meltdown forced the Kremlin to rely increasingly on nuclear weapons, it has grown more confident about its conventional forces. The rapid deployment of a sizable expeditionary force by sea and air, an air campaign in which dozens of jets relentlessly pounded targets round the clock for weeks and the launching of long-range cruise missiles from the Caspian were intended to send a clear message: Russia's military could rival U.S. operational capability.

Putin has pointed at the launch of 26 cruise missiles from Russian navy ships in the Caspian at targets in Syria 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away as a signal to the U.S. that Russia can pack a similar punch.

Konashenkov, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, shrugged off the Pentagon's claim that four of the missiles crashed in Iran. "All those targets (in Syria) must have exploded all by themselves then!" he said with a sardonic smile, insisting that every Russian missile hit its target.

Egypt To Launch Special Court For Illegal Immigration


By Ahmed Abbass, Daily News Egypt

Terrorism is the key reason of illegal immigration, says the justice minister

Egyptian Minister of Justice Ahmed Al-Zind said Friday that Egypt will launch a special court for illegal immigration and human trafficking crimes.

During his meeting with William Lacy Swing, the director general of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Al-Zind told the Egyptian official News Agency that the spread of “terror groups like “ISIS and Boko Haram” in Nigeria is key cause to illegal immigration from those countries.

Swing said he appreciates Egypt’s efforts towards illegal immigration and stressed on the importance of brining all those who commit such crimes to trials. He added IOM cooperated with the Ministry of Justice since 2007, especially in training judges.

IOM estimates the number of illegal immigrants to be 1.5 million worldwide.

Approximately, 232 illegal immigrants were reportedly captured by Egyptian coastguards in the Mediterranean Sea near the city of Damietta on their way to Europe. Earlier this month, police forces in the coastal city of Rashid arrested 42 Egyptians who were about to travel to Italy.

The National Committee on Fighting and Preventing Illegal Immigration will release a study on the phenomena based on in-field researching in November.

Committee director Naela Gabr told the official news agency that ten governorates are the top sources of illegal Egyptian immigrants. Those governorates, according to Gabr, are Sharqeya Qaliubiya, Menufiya, Gharbeya, Beheira, and Kafr El-Sheikh, Fayoum, Luxor, and Assiut.

Gabr said this study will improve the national strategy of fighting illegal immigration.
She said after the parliamentary elections, the committee will start to organize visits of Ministry of youth officials, lawyers, and religious men to those ten governorates to promote awareness about illegal immigration and illegal work abroad.

In addition to Egyptians, some Syrian refugees are trying to leave Egypt to Europe illegally as well.

Monday, October 19, 2015

AP EXCLUSIVE: Under Clinton, State's Cybersecurity Suffered

The sign used as the backdrop for press briefings at the U.S. Department of State is seen before a news conference at the State Department in Washington. The State Department was among the worst agencies in the federal government at protecting its computer networks while Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary from 2009 to 2013, a situation that continued to deteriorate as John Kerry took office and Russian hackers breached the department’s email system, according to independent audits and interviews.


WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department was among the worst agencies in the federal government at protecting its computer networks while Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary from 2009 to 2013, a situation that continued to deteriorate as John Kerry took office and Russian hackers breached the department's email system, according to independent audits and interviews.

The State Department's compliance with federal cybersecurity standards was below average when Clinton took over but grew worse in each year of her tenure, according to an annual report card compiled by the White House based on audits by agency watchdogs. Network security continued to slip after Kerry replaced Clinton in February 2013, and remains substandard, according to the State Department inspector general.

In each year from 2011 to 2014, the State Department's poor cybersecurity was identified by the inspector general as a "significant deficiency" that put the department's information at risk. The latest assessment is due to be published in a few weeks.

Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been criticized for her use of a private email server for official business while she was secretary of state. Her private email address also was the recipient of malware linked to Russia, and her server was hit with malware from China, South Korea and Germany. The FBI is investigating whether her home server was breached.

State Department officials don't dispute the compliance shortcomings identified in years of internal audits, but argue that the audits paint a distorted picture of their cybersecurity, which they depict as solid and improving. They strongly disagree with the White House ranking that puts them behind most other government agencies. Senior department officials in charge of cybersecurity would speak only on condition of anonymity.

"We have a strong cybersecurity program, successfully defeating almost 100 percent of the 4 billion attempted intrusions we experience each year," spokesman Mark Toner said. Two successive inspectors general haven't seen it that way. In December 2013, IG Steve Linick issued a "management alert" warning top State Department officials that their repeated failure to correct cybersecurity holes was putting the department's data at risk.

Based on audits by Linick and his predecessor, Harold Geisel, State scored a 42 out of 100 on the federal government's latest cybersecurity report card, earning far lower marks than the Office of Personnel Management, which suffered a devastating breach last year. State's scores bested only the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. State Department officials complain the grades are subjective.

In late 2014, cyber intruders linked to Russia were able to break into the State Department's email system, infecting it so thoroughly that it had to be cut off from the Internet in March while experts worked to eliminate the infestation.

Clinton approved significant increases in the State Department' information technology budgets while she was secretary, but senior State Department officials say she did not spend much time on the department's cyber vulnerabilities. She was aware of State's technological shortcomings but was focused more on diplomacy, her emails show.

Clinton's campaign staff did not respond to repeated and detailed requests for comment. Emails released by the State Department from her private server show Clinton and her top aides viewed the department's information technology systems as substandard and worked to avoid them.

"State's technology is so antiquated that NO ONE uses a State-issued laptop and even high officials routinely end up using their home email accounts to be able to get their work done quickly and effectively," top Clinton aide Ann-Marie Slaughter wrote in an email to Clinton on June 3, 2011.

Slaughter suggested that someone write an article to point out the deficiencies, but Clinton aide Cheryl Mills argued that doing so might alert hackers to their use of private email. Under Clinton and Kerry, the State Department's networks were a ripe target for foreign intelligence services, current and former government officials say, echoing the situation at OPM, which last year saw sensitive personnel data on 21 million people stolen by hackers linked to China.

The Russian hackers who broke into State's email system also infiltrated networks at the Defense Department and the White House, officials say, and no clear line can be drawn between their success and State's dismal security record.

But as with OPM, State's inspector general identified many of the same basic cybersecurity shortcomings year after year, and the department failed to correct them, records show. Officials in the inspector general's office believe the department's cybersecurity shortcomings played a role in the email breach, said two officials familiar with their thinking.

Senior State Department officials disagree. They say the Russian hack was the result of a "well-crafted intelligence operation" designed to look normal to the employee who clicked on the attachment, and it was unrelated to other cybersecurity deficiencies.

No technology can completely thwart the most sophisticated of such hacks, but one official familiar with State's cyber deficiencies argues that the department's sloppy security means officials can't be sure other breaches haven't gone undetected.

State Department officials say that only email was taken in the hack, and that no sensitive databases were breached. The National Security Agency conducted a classified assessment and deemed the breach significant and severe, two officials say. A State Department official said the assessment concluded there was no way to be sure what the hackers accessed.

Those officials, and many others interviewed for this story, declined to be quoted because they were not authorized to address the matter publicly. Although the hacked email system was unclassified, State Department personnel regularly use it to communicate very sensitive information, some of which is routinely withheld on national security grounds when the emails are made public. It would be valuable intelligence for a foreign adversary, officials say.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee that funds the State Department, is concerned about cybersecurity problems "that have existed for several years," a senior Leahy aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

While many of the details have been blacked out of the audits, the inspector general has criticized State for not implementing an effective risk management program. Without one, "the department cannot prioritize, assess, respond to, and monitor information security risk, which leaves the department vulnerable to attacks and threats," the IG wrote in the latest report, issued last October.

There are also examples of sloppy management. For example, in 2012, the IG reported that of 116,821 unclassified email accounts, 5,717 had not been used, 529 had passwords set not to expire, 19,335 had been set not to require passwords, and 6,269 users had not logged into their accounts between 2005 and 2011. Such a large volume of unattached accounts makes it easier for hackers to co-opt one of them without anyone noticing.

In 2013, an inspection by the IG into State's cybersecurity office — the Bureau of Information Resource Management's Office of Information Assurance — found waste, mismanagement and dysfunction. The office required State Department agencies to fill out paper spreadsheets to track system updates, and was "unable to locate information in a timely manner," the report found.

State Department officials responsible for cybersecurity acknowledged that the department had gotten behind in its compliance with standards in the Federal Information Security Management Act, known as FISMA, which requires, for example, that agency systems be certified as secure. Many of the State Department systems had not been certified for many years. Officials say they have made great strides in the last year.

"FISMA is very important, but it is process-oriented, and compliance is judged on meeting the process," not whether data is actually protected, Toner said. State Department officials argue that their system for continually monitoring its networks for threats, known as iPost, exceeds FISMA's security standards.

The inspector general and the Government Accountability Office concluded, however, that iPost did not provide a true picture of the risk to State's networks.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Rights Groups Says US-Backed Kurds Displacing Arabs In Syria

Fighters from Kurdish popular defense units YPJ (women) and YPG (men) gather during a short break before heading out to fight for new positions in Kobani, Syria. U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have forcefully displaced thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly Arabs, and demolished villages in northern Syria, often in retaliation for the residents' perceived sympathies for the Islamic State group and other militants, Amnesty International said Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015.


BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have forcefully displaced thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly Arabs, and demolished villages in northern Syria, often in retaliation for the residents' perceived sympathies for the Islamic State group and other militants, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

Amnesty said its findings were based on visits to 14 towns and villages in the provinces of Hassakeh and Raqqa this summer, areas that are under Kurdish control. It said the abuses amount to war crimes.

The rights group said at least two villages were entirely demolished. In at least eight other villages, the residents were forced to leave, sometimes threatened with being shot or targeted in U.S. airstrikes. It said the victims were mainly Arab, but also included Turkmens and other Kurds.
Amnesty quoted Kurdish fighters as saying the displacement was carried out for security purposes. A Kurdish official in northern Syria told The Associated Press that forces may have committed minor violations against people suspected of ties to the IS group, but that such actions were not based on ethnicity. The official was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Kurds, Syria's largest ethnic minority, have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in the north since the start of the civil war in 2011. Kurdish fighters have been among the most successful ground forces battling the IS group. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, they defeated the IS group in the Syrian border town of Kobani earlier this year and have since expanded their territory along the border with Turkey.
But Amnesty adviser Lama Fakih said the Kurds' treatment of civilians amounted to collective punishment. "In its fight against IS, the (Kurdish administration) appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle."
The London-based group called on Kurdish officials to end such abuses, compensate the families for their losses and hold those responsible accountable.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.