Addressing the Foreign-Fighter Risk: a Role for Financial Intelligence?

Free Syrian Army fighters in Idlib, courtesy of Freedom House/flickr

The participation of foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict is a growing concern, particularly among Western governments that are not only struggling to track the movement of their citizens, but are also fearful that those travelling to the conflict may become radicalised and return home with their extremist ideology. Recently, a UK Parliament Home Affairs Committee enquiry into counterterrorism heard from a range of experts how returning fighters pose a statistically significant risk to the security of their home countries. Research published by Thomas Hegghammer also suggests that perhaps one-in-nine foreign fighters from the West might perpetrate attacks on their home countries once they return.

In addition, several studies have been undertaken that seek to estimate the number and nationality of these foreign fighters. Consensus suggests that there are over 10,000 such fighters in Syria, with as many as 2000 (and rising) coming from Western Europe. A number of these have already died in battle or, as in the case of Briton Abdul Waheed Majeed, acted as suicide bombers. Yet, while there is certainly no suggestion that all those returning from the conflict will be radicalised, the West’s limited knowledge as to who travels and returns from Syria is alarming. » More

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Oversight and Intelligence Services: the Case of Switzerland

Antennas in Loèche, part of Switzerland's Onyx data gathering system

Antennas in Loèche, part of Switzerland’s Onyx data gathering system. Photo: Rama/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1989, a Swiss parliamentary committee revealed that the country’s Federal Police and Federal Prosecutor’s Office had spent decades recording the activities of 10% of the Swiss population. It seems that during the Cold War, being a member of a left-wing organization, or even contacting it, raised the eyebrows of these agencies. But they weren’t alone. In time, the Swiss postal service and even private individuals began to perform this type of surveillance.

When they were finally informed about these activities, the Swiss public was predictably shocked by the scope and scale of the “Secret Files Scandal”.  What concerned them then is what concerns everyone now – i.e., the often absent legal justifications for such activities and the inadequate democratic oversight exercised over those who perform them.

The “Insurmountable Tension”

The Swiss case, along with the recent revelations about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) activities, points to what many analysts and practitioners have long argued is an indissoluble problem. Yes, secrecy is necessary to prevent ‘legitimate’ surveillance targets from knowing they are under scrutiny, and thereby changing their modus operandi.  At the same time, this necessary feature of intelligence work inevitably breeds a lack of transparency and needed oversight. » More

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Surveillance and American Liberty

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty at dusk. Photo: gimmeahug/flickr.

CAMBRIDGE – Ever since Edward J. Snowden disclosed the National Security Agency’s ongoing collection of massive amounts of electronic-communications data generated by United States citizens and non-citizens alike, attention has been lavished on his personal status. But the more important issue, even before Russia granted him temporary asylum, is the status of American civil liberties. Is the US guilty of hypocrisy, as Russia, China, and others have charged?

To answer that question, it is important to distinguish between two issues that have become conflated in public debate: electronic espionage against foreign entities and domestic surveillance of a government’s own citizens. » More

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A Futile Gagging Order for the ‘Prisoner X’ Scandal

Graffiti of Israeli newspaper reader. Photo: Helga Tawil Souri/flickr

After Australia’s ABC aired an exposé on ‘Prisoner X’ on February 12, Israeli media was quick to follow up on the shocking claims that Ben Zygier, an Australian-born Israeli citizen who worked for Mossad, was secretly detained in a maximum-security prison for months before allegedly committing suicide in 2010. However, reports on the scandal were pulled soon after they emerged. The Prime Minister’s Office called an urgent meeting of the editors of all major Israeli news outlets to ask for their cooperation in silencing the story. For a whole day, Israeli media were forbidden from reporting on the story, even as it was making headlines worldwide and Israelis disseminated  the news in social media and blogs. Only after three leftist members of the Knesset used their parliamentary immunity to speak on the issue did opaque headlines appear, and an Israeli court lifted the gag order.

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The Drone in the Desert

Military drone

Military drone. Image by CliffStreetPhotography/flickr.

TEL AVIV – A drone recently penetrated Israel’s airspace from the Mediterranean. It was allowed to fly for about half an hour over southern Israel before being shot down by the Israeli air force over a sparsely populated area. It is still not known who dispatched the drone and from where, but it is now assumed that it was launched from Lebanon, either by Hezbollah, acting in Iran’s service, or by forces of the Iranian regime itself.

If that is indeed the case, the episode should not be regarded as yet another incident in a region fraught by conflict and violence. On the contrary, it is a significant window into the arena in which the conflict over the future of Iran’s nuclear program is being waged.

Several developments and forces are now shaping this arena. One is Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision, announced in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month, to suspend his threat to launch unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear installations. He has said that Israel will give the US and the rest of the international community an opportunity to stop Iran’s progress through other means by the spring or early summer of 2013. » More

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