Friday, March 28, 2008

DU Dud: The Silver Lining to FARC’s Uranium

Colombian police have found 30 kilos (65 lbs.) of depleted uranium (DU). DU is what is left over after natural uranium is enriched. It is less radioactive than natural uranium and consequently useless for building dirty bombs (let alone nuclear weapons.) Tons of the stuff is around and there is virtually no market for DU (certainly not to the tune of $2.5 million a kilo).

While the Hollywood scenarios of terrorists dealing in WMD appear to be false, this incident raises interesting questions about the motivations and quality of the FARC’s leadership.

Here is a video from the site of Colombia’s El Tiempo of investigators examining the uranium. A close-up of the Geiger counter shows that it barely registers the radiation and the investigators clean off the bars and the words “depleted uranium” are clearly visible.

It seems likely that the FARC was involved in a scam. The question is were they the scammer or the scammed (or a bit of both)? Whatever the answer, the FARC is exposed as both vicious and incompetent.

If the FARC was the victim of a scam, it shows how they have fallen. First that the FARC would fall for a scam shows a decline in their intelligence and analytical capabilities. Also, the FARC is a heavily armed and vicious. If some hustler was willing to scam them it indicates that the FARC are less feared than in the past. A terrorist group that does not generate fear is a terrorist group in decline.

If the FARC was knowingly committing a scam, they have sacrificed their credibility for a short-term profit. Between this possible scam and the fact that several international arms dealers (including the notorious Victor Bout) have been snagged with FARC bait, other major players in international illicit networks will be much more cautious about dealing with the FARC. If the FARC, in turn, becomes more desperate to purchase weapons and other needed equipment then it will be more vulnerable to law enforcement efforts to infiltrate it – expanding an existing vulnerability.

More than likely, the FARC was aware that this was a scam – but was possibly scammed in being misled about how lucrative and easy this sort of scam would be.

In addition, this incident raises deeper questions about the FARC. While some terrorists (such as al-Qaeda) would readily resort to WMD – there is no political advantage to selling it, besides as a source of income. Whatever the radioactivity of the materials, how could the FARC high command not know that being associated with selling uranium would be politically radioactive? Or did they not care when the chance of a multi-million dollar windfall came their way? But the FARC already has a solid cash flow from the drug trade and other illicit activities. Did they need this extra income, or did they just want it? Either answer shows that the FARC leadership is at an advanced state of decay.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Update: No FARC Leader in Venezuela

Looks like a false alarm. The man hospitalized in Rubia is not FARC leader Joaquín Gómez. The other story, that Colombia was closing in on another secret FARC leader Alfonso Cano is also unknown, although there are also reports that he was wounded in a helicopter attack on February 21.

Venezuela and Colombia collaborated carefully to bring the matter to a close. This is a positive sign. Also, something (perhaps the heavy guard around the patient) sparked these rumors. Something odd is up and is probably worth keeping an eye on.

Tipping Point? More FARC Leaders Under Pressure

There are unconfirmed reports that Raul Reyes replacement on the FARC Secretariat, Joaquin Gomez, aka Milton de Jesús Toncel Redondo, is being hospitalized in Venezuela having been shot in the face in fighting in Colombia. Reportedly he is under heavy guard. Another report states that the Colombian military shelled the base of another FARC Secretariat member, Alfonso Cano, aka Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas.

If these reports are true - and it should be emphasized that at this point the Colombians are denying any knowledge of Gomez being injured - it only further highlights the extent to which the FARC has been penetrated by Colombian security. The description of Gomez's wounds certainly raise the possibility that, like Rios, he was attacked by his own men. Supposedly Gomez is hospitalized near the Colombian border, which will again raise questions about whether or not Chavez is providing a safe haven for the FARC. The only way to prove he is not would be to extradite - to Colombia - not the U.S. (which would only give Chavez the chance to start an unpleasant row over Luis Posada.*) Chavez may fight this issue, but then the U.S. would have very strong grounds to declare Venezuela a state sponsor of terrorism.

This could be a tipping point. Simply removing one leader does not always break a terrorist organization. But systematically removing the entire high command is a tougher blow for even the robust terrorist group. FARC was once very robust, but no longer.

If these reports are true then this weeks earlier counter-terror successes were not simply good luck, but the product of nearly a decade of effectively conceived and implemented strategy.

My ongoing warning still stands - the FARC may remain capable of retaliation.

*For an in-depth story on Luis Posada Carriles, who the Cuban and Venezuelan government accuse of master-minding a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner with 73 people on board see this story from the Atlantic Monthly. Posada had been a CIA informant, he was part of a cadre of Cuban exiles that worked with the CIA against Castro - many of whom went on to a range of unseemly activities throughout Latin America. Nothing new about blowback.

The article concludes that Posada and the CIA didn't have anything to do with the airline bombing - but that the Cuban and Venezuelan governments love the obvious propaganda value.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Venezuela & The Terror Supporters List: Pros & Cons

An anonymous State Department source told the Miami Herald that they are exploring the possibility of placing Venezuela on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for their relationship with the FARC - as revealed in the laptops captured from FARC leaders.

Being declared a state sponsor of terrorism brings a host of sanctions down on a regime, however the administration has flexibility about how they are enforced (I'll leave it to some of my co-bloggers, who are among the leading experts on U.S. law and state sponsorship of terrorism, to flesh this out.)

More than likely, this leak is just a shot across the bow. Declaring Venezuela a state sponsor of terror is a complicated issue in which many factors have to be carefully weighed including the quality of the evidence, the effect on the U.S. economy, the declaration's regional impact, and whether it furthers U.S. goals.

The laptops seized from Raul Reyes' camp in Ecuador appear to confirm a high-level relationship between FARC and Chavez that is over 15 years old. But, there is the argument, made credibly at the Center for International Policy's Colombia Program that this is only seeing the FARC's perception of the events - not necessarily what actually transpired. The sudden escalation of a single unclear paragraph into a FARC conspiracy to build dirty bombs is but one example of taking the text too far. I for one don't doubt that when the evidence is weighed, Chavez and the FARC will be revealed as political bedfellows in a deep embrace. But the evidence has to be carefully examined first.

It is impossible to discuss sanctions on Venezuela without considering its role as the supplier of about 15% of U.S. oil. Doing business with state sponsors of terror is complicated and U.S.-Venezuela trade is over $40 billion annually. Closing down this relationship would be complicated and expensive. In some ways Venezuela needs the U.S. more than the U.S. need them. Venezuelan oil is heavy and requires special refineries - which exist in the U.S. but not elsewhere. Simply selling their oil to another customer is possible, but between increased transport and the need for new infrastructure Chavez would make a smaller profit. At the same time, the oil market is tight and it is difficult to imagine a U.S. administration causing a disruption that would quickly be felt at the pump - particularly during an election season.

The sanctions component of being declared a state sponsor of terror could be structured to let the oil continue to flow, but that risks making a mockery of the U.S. sanctions regime. Alternately, it could provide the next administration with some useful tools for curbing Chavez' behavior.

There is also the question of how it would play regionally and if it truly advances U.S. goals. Chavez taps a deep vein of anti-Americanism in Latin America (and around the world.) The U.S. has refused to take the bait, toning down its anti-Chavez rhetoric in order to avoid playing into his hands. Declaring Venezuela a state sponsor of terror would grant Chavez an endless issue to exploit. His message would resonate throughout the region and other leaders would have to at least pay him lip service. But it is worth remembering that during the Falklands War the United States (much to British consternation) started off trying to play honest broker in order not to side against Argentina and inflame Latin American public opinion. It turned out the Argentina's war made everyone else in the region extremely nervous and few were upset to see the Argentine junta lose its war. Chavez is also making others in the region nervous, and in his Washington Post column Jackson Diehl argued that many Latin American leaders would like to see the U.S. take a harder line against Chavez.

Finally, would the declaration help the U.S. achieve its long-term goals. Ultimately, the U.S. wants to see Chavez leave power and be replaced by a democratically elected leader. On the one hand the declaration might give him a cause to rally the cadres. On the other, it might embarrass the Venezuelan people (who are probably less anti-American than most in the region) and give them an increased impetus to boot out Chavez.

In sum, declaring Venezuela as a state terrorism supporter is a potentially useful tool in the context of a larger strategy. But first, let all the evidence be unearthed and evaluated. Declaring a state to be a sponsor of terror is a powerful tool - best not to dull it unnecessarily.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Rios Killed by his own Men & Other Updates

The story behind the killing of FARC leader Ivan Rios has become more interesting - and even more indicative that the FARC is on the verge of collapes. Colombia's Defense Minister now states that Rios was killed by his unit's security chief. Closely pursued by Colombian Security Forces, the security chief, "Rojas" killed Rios and gave his hand, his ID papers, and his computer to the Colombian military.

Wow! The FARC is beginning to turn on itself. The FARC may in fact be on the verge of dissolution.

It is difficult to believe that the assassination of Reyes did not influence these events (they may also get to collect a $5 million reward from the U.S. Department of Justice.) Now the Colombian government has the computer of another top commander. More dominoes will fall.

Other Updates

Initial rumors are apparently false. Ecuador's Correa denies that Betancourt is about to be released.

Also, the OAS hearings on the Colombia-Venezuela spat has ended amicably. Uribe was subject to harsh criticism but gave as good as he got. It ended with a handshake between Correa, Chavez, and Uribe. This might be a good moment for the United States to make an offer to Ecuador (cutting back on aerial spraying of drug fields near the Ecuador-Colombia border might be a good opening gambit) - the disclosures about Correa's links to the FARC are certainly embarrassing.

Meanwhile, a Venezuelan National Guard vehicle crossed into Colombian territory and shots were fired. It was probably just a dumb accident - but these are the sorts of things that happen when leaders looking for a distraction from other troubles take diplomatic spats and turn them into full-scale donnybrooks.

Another FARC Leader Killed

News from Colombia keeps coming. This afternoon Colombian security killed Ivan Rios, another member of the FARC Estado Mayor Central (Central High Command.) This is the body that governs the organization. Raul Reyes, one of its members was killed last week, touching off a diplomatic spat. This latest strike took place within Colombian territory.

It is also rumored that the founder and top commander, Manual Marulanda is ill. This is an organization that could be entering a severe leadership crisis.

Overall this is good news - but there are potential dangers.

It is impossible for an outsider to know if intelligence collected from the laptops captured with Reyes contributed to this strike. It is worth noting that Colombia has, with U.S. aid, developed some impressive cyber-forensic capabilities. In the Colombian paper El Pais the operation was joint between the military and el Cuerpo Técnico de Investigación de la Fiscalía. Although there was also a humint component, demobilized FARC members provided intelligence as well.

Quick note about cyber-forensics - it may go beyond reading correspondence. I've heard intelligence analysts say that amateurs study content, professionals study traffic. It is possible that operational patterns were detected by studying the origin and destination of electronic traffic on these computers as well and then combining them with the human intelligence. An effective and professional operation all around.

Decapitation strategies (that is targeting the leaders of terrorist organizations) have a mixed record. More robust organizations (such as the FARC or Hezbollah) can readily replace their leaders - and worse carry out revenge strikes. Israel learned this lesson in 1992 after assassinated Hezbollah Secretary-General Abbas Musawi. Only a month later Hezbollah responded by blowing up Israel's Embassy in Buenos Aires. For its credibility the FARC will almost certainly have to carry out a counter-strike and its still formidable resources mean that it could be deadly.

Nonetheless, the FARC is showing signs of being systematically neutralized. Colombia security has clearly penetrated FARC security. The ability of Fronts to coordinate is certain to be devastated since the FARC will need to be wary of using any communications system. In addition the organization has a high desertion rate and has lost any shred of credibility with the Colombian people. Finally, Ecuador arrested a FARC unit. It is possible that Correa was both embarrassed at the exposure of links between himself and the FARC (including Colombia's allegation that the FARC financed his election) and has looked long and hard at the consequences of being Hugo's puppy.

While this is overall good news, as the organization fractures a small component that is still ideologically devoted could turn to deadly high profile terror (or even decide to take its revenge on the United States.)

To paraphrase Churchill, this is not the end - but it might be the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, the FARC could go down fighting.

Assessing the Jerusalem Attack

The attack on a religious school in Jerusalem yesterday was the first major terror attack in that city since April 2006. There are several aspects of the attack that are worth noting.

First it is a reminder that Palestinian terrorists remain capable, perhaps at a much lower level than at the height of the al-Aqsa Intifada, but deadly capable nonetheless.

Second, the attacks came at a crucial time and place. The location was the Mercaz Harav, a leading religious school associated with Israel’s religious Zionist movement. The attack came both just as peace talks were re-starting also just after an extensive Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip had ended. The attack was celebrated in Gaza as revenge for the Gaza operations.

Third, the attack was reminder of how terrorists adapt when a particular mode of operation is denied them. With increasing difficulty in mounting a suicide bombing, the perpetrators of this attack turned to firearms. This is an old story. After the Entebbe rescue, the PLO dropped airline hijackings from their repertoire and tried to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon. About two decades later, when Hezbollah was having difficulty infiltrating Israel, they sought to infiltrate European members into Israel as tourists to carry out bombings. The rockets from Gaza are due to the difficulties of infiltrating Israel from Gaza and the lack of Israeli targets within Gaza since Israel dismantled its Gaza settlements.

This is not to argue that counter-terror measures are inherently pyrrhic. In many cases denying a terrorist group a tactic is a worthy achievement. But it is a reminder that effective terrorist groups are formidable organizations that are capable of analysis and adaptation.

Finally, there was the claim by the previously unknown “Galilee Freedom Battalions - the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh and Martyrs of Gaza” broadcast on Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite TV channel as a tag line running across the bottom of the screen with no further comment or elaboration.

If this attack was Hezbollah’s response to the assassination of Mughniyah it is only the beginning – more can be expected. Hezbollah has been building capabilities in the West Bank and Gaza as well as links with Hamas and Islamic Jihad for over a decade, so the capability to organize such an attack may exist. If the claim originated with Palestinians it shows the extent to which the Palestinians are identifying with Hezbollah. This is also a worrisome sign.

The inclusion of the Galilee, northern Israel, might imply a Lebanese interest - in which case the claim might have been Lebanese kids sending al-Manar an email and cheering that they got on TV.

FARC Bait for Bout

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s press release, international arms-trafficker extraordinaire Victor Bout was arrested for plotting to sell weapons to the FARC – not knowing that the reputed FARC representatives were in fact working for the DEA. Only nine months ago another notorious international arms dealer, Monzer al-Kasser was arrested for conspiring to sell weapons (and trainers) to the FARC, when in fact the FARC buyers were in fact DEA operatives. For al-Kasser, who has been linked to the Palestine Liberation Front (the group responsible for the Achille Lauro hijacking) as well as leading Baathist figures from Syria and Iraq, it was more than just business. He offered to raise an army to assist the FARC. Al-Kasser seems to have had a passion for his work.

Illicit items with large supply and large demand, such as drugs, are Sisyphean challenges for law enforcement. But goods with more limited supply and demand that require more care in their transport – such as heavy weapons – may be an important counter-terror opportunity. Reversing the play that nabbed Bout and al-Kasser, by having law enforcement agents offer to sell weapons to terrorists can also be effective. The Tamil Tiger’s arms purchasing network has been caught in a few of these operations.

It is also interesting that in the potential FARC uranium deal, the FARC was entering this world of complicated illicit goods – as opposed to their usual easy-to-move product line. Although exactly what the uranium scheme was is unclear. They were hoping to sell a kilo of uranium for $2.5 million. The going rate for unprocessed uranium is about $100 per kilo. While the FARC has some formidable capabilities, uranium enrichment – the problem stymieing Iran - is probably not among them.

Rich on the drug trade and always hungry for arms, the FARC was a perfect ploy for ensnaring arms traffickers. But, having landed two big fish, the FARC gambit may have been played out. Hopefully law enforcement can identify other clients for future schemes against terrorists and arms traffickers. It is a just policy, and perhaps it will also prove to be an effective one as well.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fighting FARC: On Strategy and Satellite Phones

A “senior Colombian intelligence source” claimed that Colombia was able to pinpoint FARC chief Raul Reyes’ location because of a phone call made to his satellite phone by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

If true, this would have a certain irony (and perhaps also explain why Chavez is so angry – also the source claims Chavez mobilized to protect the ailing FARC founder Manuel Marulanda who is convalescing on a ranch in Venezuela near the Colombian border.)

Bogota is no different from Washington, “senior intelligence sources” say lots of things – and sometimes they are even correct. But there is no question that infiltrating the FARC’s communications systems has been a crucial element in Colombian strategy. It is also an illustration of a successful counter-insurgency turning an enemy’s strengths into weaknesses.

The two of the FARC’s strengths were the vast territory of Colombia (more than two and a half times the size of Iraq), which gave them many places to hide and their ideological flexibility, which enabled them to enter the drug trade and link with international criminal networks. But Colombia’s size made it difficult for the cadres to meet in person. FARC operatives are vulnerable to interception by security forces when moving long distances. Turning to electronic communications only played into the strengths of the US, which has shared intelligence with the Colombians. With both personal and electronic communications under pressure the FARC’s command and control structure has deteriorated. In the 1990s the Colombian government granted the FARC a demilitarized zone. The re-establishment of a de-militarized zone is the FARC’s primary demand in negotiations over the approximately 700 hostages they hold. The need this zone to bring the leaders together – not necessarily for physical or weapons training – but for strategic communications.

The FARC’s engagement in massive criminal activity has been a strength because it kept the organization flush financially and created links for the organization to acquire new technology and skills. But this too has become a weakness. The massive involvement in narcotics trafficking has decimated any credibility the FARC might have once had with the Colombian people – now they are viewed as little more than another cartel. At the same time, the easy money has led to corruption and “lack of ideological rigor” among many FARC commanders. Also, the international criminal networks are subject to infiltration. Only days before the Raul Reyes assassination, the Department of Justice indicted 11 FARC commanders and collaborators based on information obtained from satellite phones purchased in Miami that were being monitored by the DEA. In 2001 the DEA managed to sell four tapped satellite phones to the FARC.

The tactical successes, such as infiltrating satellite phones are impressive. But the real victory, in turning FARC’s strengths to weaknesses, is at the strategic level.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

FARC Fallout: Assessing Dirty Bomb Claims

Among the more explosive revelations from the laptops of the late FARC leader Raul Reyes is the allegation that the FARC was trafficking in radioactive materials and according to Colombia’s Vice President was planning to build a “dirty bomb.” A dirty bomb (or a radiological dispersal device) is an explosive packed with radioactive materials that are dispersed with the explosion (for more details see below.)

No one should question the fundamental viciousness of the FARC. But the dirty bomb accusation should be investigated carefully, particularly considering the FARC’s access to international smuggling networks (they help smuggle tons of illegal drugs to the United States around the world).

From the documents released by the Colombian government (36 page pdf in Spanish), the sole reference to uranium is point number six in a memo dated February 16, 2008 to Reyes from Edgar Tovar. The other contents of the memo deal with FARC finances, operations, and possible informants. It has to be emphasized that the writing is not terribly clear (although when it is examined by experienced analysts and put into context it will undoubtedly prove to be a wealth of information about FARC operations.) Here is a translation of the paragraph about uranium:
Another topic is about uranium. There is a gentleman who supplies me with material for the explosive that we prepare and his name is Belisario and he lives in Bogota. He is a friend of Jon 40 [possibly Jon 40 a commander of the 27th Front, which is based in the Meta Department, and is part of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc], eastern Efren [possibly the other commander of the 27th Front], Caliche of Jacobo [possibly a commander of the 9th Front, based In the Antioquia Department and part of the Northwest Bloc or someone associated with the Jacobo Arenas Urban Front, based in the Medellin region], he sent me samples and specifications and they propose to sell each kilo for 2.5 million dollars and they handle delivery and we handle who we sell to and that it be a business with a government to sell to. Arto [possibly plural] have 50 kilos ready and they can sell much more, he has direct contact with those who have the product.
Much of this is unclear.* There is minimal punctuation. The verb after Arto is plural indicating it may be a group. The original Spanish is here:
Otros de los temas es lo de el Uranio hay un señor que me surte de material para el explosivo que preparamos y se llama Belisario y vive en Bogotá es amigo de Jon 40, Efrén oriental, Caliche de la Jacobo, el me mando el muestrario y las especificaciones y proponen vender cada kilo a 2 millones y medios de dólares y que ellos entregan y nosotros miramos a quien le vendemos y que sea el negocio con un gobierno para venderle arto tienen 50 kilos listos y pueden vender mucho más, tiene el contacto directo con los que tienen el producto.
So it appears that the FARC is entering the uranium smuggling business - a logical move for them (uranium is mined in Colombia and Venezuela). But, unlike cocaine, there are far fewer buyers and the consequences of getting caught – which the FARC seems to be aware of, hence the emphasis on selecting buyers – are very high.

The Dirt on Dirty Bombs

But this doesn’t get us to the dirty bomb accusation. Uranium, apparently, is a terrible material for building a dirty bomb - in and of itself it is not radioactive. An excellent primer on dirty bombs is this CRS report from April 1, 2004 (a 6 page pdf).

In a nutshell, in all but the least developed societies there are substantial amounts of radioactive material used for innumerable medical, industrial, and mundane capacities. Acquiring the material for a dirty bomb is not that hard, but all radioactive material is not equal. Most of the material that can be readily acquired is not that radioactive and unless truly enormous quantities were obtained, would probably just raise background radiation level by a small amount. There are specific materials that could do much worse than that, however there is another problem. The radioactive material has to be converted into a form that is easily dispersed (say a fine powder.) Milling down a highly radioactive metal bar would be difficult (probably killing the workers in the process.)

The FARC could easily build a low level dirty bomb. But it is a problematic tactic, in that all it would do is raise the background radiation level and possibly causing slight long-term increases in health risks. (There is a debate among experts about the efficacy of dirty bombs – an ongoing issue for consequence management in the U.S. is that strict EPA standards might force the closure of areas hit by a dirty bomb when the practical impact on health is minimal.) In general, an unsophisticated dirty bomb would amount to a big, expensive hassle. Some experts argue that a dirty bomb, regardless of the real effects, would cause a massive panic – hopefully this proposition will never be tested, but in many stressful disaster situations social networks prove to be surprisingly resilient. For the FARC a dirty bomb might not be an attractive weapon since it would do minimal damage, while making the FARC politically radioactive.

Nonetheless, news that the FARC is entering the uranium trade is interesting and worrisome. More than any other terrorist group the FARC sits on the nexus of international crime and terrorism. This was epitomized by the deal with the IRA – drugs for weapons training – that was disrupted in August 2001. The extent of these links should be one of the many valuable things gleaned from the laptops of Raul Reyes.

*Full disclosure, my own Spanish is terrible but I work closely with a very diligent Spanish-speaking researcher.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Aaron Mannes in NRO on FARC, Chavez, & Colombia

National Review Online ran my article Finding FARC on the fallout from Colombia's killing of FARC #2 Raul Reyes and Hugo Chavez's reaction.

March 4, 2008

Finding FARC
An important victory for Columbia sparks a major diplomatic spat.

By Aaron Mannes

The Colombian government’s successful killing of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) number-two Raul Reyes is an important victory in Colombia’s 44-year war with the narco-terrorists. Perhaps more significantly, the Colombian government’s ability to target the FARC will be substantially augmented by the computers captured from Reyes’s base. Advantages aside, however, the killing of Reyes and the contents of his hard drives have sparked a major diplomatic spat that has important regional implications.

The attack took place on March 1 about a mile and a half inside of Ecuadorian territory. Ecuador’s government was perturbed by this violation of their sovereignty, but the Colombian government apologized and the official Ecuadorian government reaction was subdued.

It was Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez who loudly and undiplomatically condemned Colombia’s President Uribe calling him a mafia chief, a criminal, and — the most offensive insult Chavez can level — an oligarch. He also called Colombia the Israel of Latin America (such sentiments are de rigueur for Chavistas). Chavez stated that similar attacks in Venezuela would be an act of war, and ordered ten battalions to the Colombian border. After its initially mild reaction, Ecuador followed suit, mobilizing troops and, in like fashion, expelling Colombian diplomats. But if it was Ecuadorian sovereignty that was violated, why is Chavez taking the lead in bashing Colombia?

There are several possibilities:

First, the hard drives captured from the FARC camp are absolute dynamite. So far the documents reveal that the FARC was negotiating with the Ecuadorian government at a very high level, that the FARC had given Chavez $150,000 while he was imprisoned after his 1992 coup attempt, and received $300 million from Chavez in return. And the revelations have only begun; it is likely that over time more will become lucid. Having declared that the FARC is a legitimate army, Chavez may not be concerned about the elucidation of his connections to the FARC. But his ally, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, having claimed that he was not dealing with the FARC, is now embarrassed. By fomenting a diplomatic crisis, Chavez shifts the heated attention away from his ally.

Second, Chavez is deterring possible Colombian attacks on FARC leaders in Venezuela. It has long been an open secret that the Venezuelan frontier regions were open territory to the FARC. But the level of FARC activity in Venezuela has been increasing and at the same time Chavez has endorsed the FARC more vocally, insisting (contrary to most other countries in the world) that they are not terrorists. In deploying his forces he is sending a message to the Colombians that they must not target FARC in Venezuela.

Third, Chavez is looking for an international crisis to distract the Venezuelans from their domestic crisis. This is the oldest play in the book for dictators the world over. An article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by the former chief economist for the Venezuelan National Assembly explains that for all of Chavez’s rhetoric about aiding Venezuela’s poor, actual improvements have been minimal. Venezuela’s economy has been booming due to high oil prices, but there has been little trickle down. At the same time many of Chavez’s polices — particularly price controls on staples — have led to the predictable shortages and to popular discontent. From Nasser to Fidel to Sukarno, third world dictators thrive on diplomatic spats and saber rattling.

Fourth: Hugo es loco. There have been many rumors about Hugo’s mental health and some of his recent acts (such as calling for the exhumation of his hero Simon Bolivar’s remains for tests to see if he was assassinated by the oligarchs) are increasingly loopy. It is possible, though not too likely, that Chavez actually wants this fight. Nonetheless, the history books are full of wars that should not have happened. Once an escalation begins, it can be difficult to bring it to an end.

If it comes to shooting, the odds would be on Colombia. The Venezuelan military will probably not show much enthusiasm for this adventure — and might rebel. Hugo’s high-priced weapons platforms take time to integrate, and the more sophisticated the equipment the more training is required. The United States would share satellite and electronic intelligence — just as it has in battling the FARC. In modern warfare the electronic advantage is crucial and for Venezuela will probably be insurmountable. A war would probably result in a catastrophic defeat for Chavez and his fall from power. It would also be an expensive bloody disaster for both Colombia and Venezuela.

Fortunately, it will probably not come to war. The other nations of Latin America are rushing to negotiate a settlement. The United States is wisely staying in the background (open confrontations with Chavez only play to his advantage). But as more intelligence about the FARC emerges from the late Raul Reyes’s hard drive, the nations of Latin America may be forced to make some tough decisions. Ecuador’s President Correa will have to decide if he wants to play Syria to Chavez’s Iran. But more broadly, the nations of Latin America, many of which have suffered from violence linked to the FARC, will have to decide if they can tolerate a state sponsor of terrorism in their midst or if that state should suffer the consequences of supporting terror.

— Aaron Mannes, editor of TheTerrorWonk, researches international security affairs at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics, and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Death of Raul Reyes: FARC's Zawahiri

The killing of FARC chief ideologue Raul Reyes will have important implications for the FARC and also for the region.

Reyes, who’s birth name was Luis Edgar Devia Silva, was the FARC’s chief ideologue and voice to the outside world. He was the first member of the FARC secretariat to be killed. The internal affairs of the FARC are opaque, but Reyes was frequently described as the number two in the FARC hierarchy after Manuel Marulanda, who is in his late 70s and is rumored to be ill. In the FARC’s hierarchy he is roughly equivalent to al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The loss of Reyes to the FARC is important in and of itself, but it is one in a series of reverses that indicate the organization may be in serious decline. According to the State Department’s 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report the FARC has lost a number of important leaders in the past year.
The GOC achieved significant success against the FARC leadership in 2007. Over a dozen mid-to-high level FARC commanders were killed or apprehended, including FARC 37th Front leader Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias ‘Martin Caballero,’ 42nd Front leader Ernesto Orjuela Tovar, alias ‘Giovanni Rodriguez,’ and 16th Front leader, Tomas Molina Caracas, alias ‘Negro Acacio.’ Molina Caracas was considered a Consolidated Priority Organization Target (CPOT) by the USG and was one of 50 FARC commanders indicted in the U.S. in March 2006 for allegedly running the country’s largest cocaine smuggling organization.
In addition, the rank and file is also suffering from attrition – reportedly 2800 FARC cadres deserted the FARC in 2007. While that number may have been exaggerated, there have been many desertions and it is clear that the rank and file are losing their ideological fervor. (Last year the diaries of a disgruntled FARCette were discovered and shed some light on the sordid daily reality of life in the FARC.)

FARC’s Future

Despite its decline, knockout blows against the FARC are not likely. The organization still has thousands of fighters under arms, a steady revenue stream (from narcotics, kidnapping, and other criminal activity), international links to other terrorist groups and criminals, and – in Hugo Chavez – a supporter willing to provide a safe haven across the border as well as rhetorical support. A major FARC revenge attack is well within the realm of possibility.

It is possible that Reyes killing could lead to internal power struggles, but it should be emphasized that there do not appear to be any moderates in the FARC’s upper echelons. The divide might be between the ideologues and the drug dealers. One very real concern would be that as it fractures FARC factions may turn from its rural insurgency to major terror attacks – both within Colombia and without. If any terrorist group had the capacity to go international it would be the FARC, with its extensive international links.

It is also difficult to predict what Reyes’ killing will mean for the long-suffering hostages held by the FARC. Reyes was the key negotiator and without him future transfers may be difficult to arrange. On the other hand, the hostage issue is central to the FARC. They appear to be releasing them in tiny drabs in the hope of negotiating for a de-militarized zone in Colombia. Such a zone would be crucial for the organization to train and re-energize the organization.

International Implications

Colombia helicopters killed Reyes just inside of Ecuador. It is worth noting the Simon Trinidad, the highest-ranking member of the FARC captured, was arrested in Ecuador in 2004. Colombia’s President insists that he informed the President of Ecuador. But Ecuador is calling for a “clarification,” calling the attack an “aggression on our territory.”

Naturally, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez bristled, stating that any Colombian actions that crossed the border with Venezuela would be an act of war. He also called Colombia the Israel of South America. Chavez’s bluster is also a de-facto admission that he is permitting the FARC to operate in Venezuelan territory. States that support terrorism are subject to severe sanctions from the United States and the international community.

Finally, this is a victory for the people of Colombia, but there was a U.S. hand in it. American intelligence support has been crucial in penetrating the FARC’s communications networks. A recent US indictment claims that the Drug Enforcement Agency infiltrated compromised satellite phones into the FARC.

The killing of Reyes is an important step forward, but unfortunately for the long-suffering people of Colombia, the FARC cannot be counted out – yet.