Iran has been extremely divided since the Shah left Iran for exile in 1979. The last Persian Monarch of the time, he left his duties to a regency council and the opposition prime minister, and in the decades that followed the country never fully stabilized. Rampant corruption and civil rights abuses have been frequently cited as a roadblock to economic equality. However, in recent years the already politically tumultuous climate may have reached a new low, thanks in large part to burgeoning economic and social discontent.
The causes of anger are all too similar to the other oil-rich countries in the region: corruption and financial inequality. Sanctions from the U.S. and other Western powers were lifted in 2016, until being reinstated by under Donald Trump’s orders. That two-year span of relief did little to improve factors such as youth unemployment, which is at an all-time high. The price of fuel, dairy and meat have skyrocketed and show no sign of letting up.
Mark Dubowitz from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) spoke with the Wall Street Journal about the present state of Iran, and how the current administration could learn something from Ronald Reagan. Dubowitz’ opinion on this: “The Islamic Republic of Iran is imperialist, repressive, and—unless we adopt a new strategy—[is] on its way toward possessing nuclear weapons.” The series of public Iranian protests, which lasted from December 2017 to January 2018, could suggest a threat to the stability of the government.
Details regarding the size of the demonstrations and specifics behind the groups present and their motivations are unclear due to the Iranian government’s strict control over news outlets. The Iranian Minister of the Interior went as far as to blame the stoked fears on social media and as a response, the government swore to clamp down on the technologies.
During the protests, many cities experienced widespread power outages. While the government takes no responsibility for the blackouts, many believe the timing is evidence at how far the Iranian administration will go to keep information from leaving the country’s borders. At its peak, the entire country experienced a drop as high as 50% in internet traffic. Since then, likely as a result of paranoia about web-activity monitoring, the country has seen a significant rise in the use of online masking software, such as the anonymous browser TOR.
We know for certain that the national unrest was kicked off by a protest in Mashhad because of surging prices. It’s clear the feelings were shared across the country. Many experts say that protests against the Iranian regime were caused by the corruption of the government that ruined Iran's economy. Click here to read more about Mark Dubowitz.
In response to the events, President Rouhani gave an official statement condoning the citizens’ right to protest in a peaceful manner. His words, however, are in stark contrast to the actions his administration has taken since; going so far as to ban English language lessons because they were to blame for a “cultural invasion of Western Values.”
The government’s actions didn’t end there. Many watch-dog organizations have cited the country’s record-high arrests and use of torture as evidence that basic freedoms are not respected. Nearly thirty suspicious deaths were reported during the protests and US intelligence agencies received reports of inmates being treated inhumanely. In one instance a 15-year-old was given a five-year prison sentence because he removed a government flag from a city square.
If these kinds of human rights violations persist and the government continues to censor free press and individuals alike then Western alliances might be forced to heighten the sanctions already in place. However, China’s recent oil purchases have proved that not all countries are willing to honor US sanctions. What’s more, any ability for the current administration to negotiate a new Nuclear deal will be hampered by the corrupt government’s actions. As Iran’s financial inequality worsens, it’s likely more civil unrest will follow.
Understanding how terrorist organizations receive funding is an essential step in targeting them more effectively. While there are standard trends, it’s vital to look at the specifics of each organization to understand how they finance their activities and work with governments in the region to curb terrorists’ efforts whenever possible. To achieve this end and educate lawmakers the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (FDD), created the Terror Finance Briefing Book which explains how individual terrorist groups fund their operations. Read more about the FDD CEO here.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is one of the best funded terrorist organizations in the world and they aren’t reliant on any outside income. Instead, they derive the majority of their finances from exploiting resources in the region they control, such as petroleum, taxes levied against the local population, extortion, illegal drug production, and money stolen directly from banks. In 2016 ISIL had revenue north of $500 million. The year before that, they likely earned between $1 and $2 billion. The majority of the organization’s expenses cover supplying and paying its large force, as well as maintaining a defense against the local governments and Western coalition forces. Due to the raging war and a severe loss of land-holdings ISIL members experienced a severe cut to wages. In the coming years, it is likely ISIL will become more dependent on external donors to finance its operations.
Mark Dubowitz of FDD has stated that Hezbollah spends a great deal of revenue on its fighting forces in Lebanon and Syria, and on dispensing social services in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah stays afloat thanks to ongoing support from Iran, which has contributed billions since the group’s formation. The group has a vast network of illegal businesses around the world. For this reason, it's often referred to as a cartel as much as a terrorist group. Hezbollah has laundered money and run front companies on six continents.
Al-Qaeda's Branch in Syria - HTS
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), is the Al-Qaeda contingent in Syria and generates tens of millions of dollars per year. The group is reliant on maintaining its image as an alternative to ISIL. To meet this goal they pay for sharia courts, provide healthcare, electricity, water, and subsidized food. HTS also runs several charitable operations to appease to the locals and solicit donations. The biggest cost to the group, however, is soldiers’ salaries and military equipment, which is primarily financed through ransom, foreign donations, and the exploitation of resources from the land it controls. Recently HST lost a great deal of oil-rich land to ISIL and has been more dependent on kidnapping to make up for the lost revenue.
The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA)
The Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA), is not as well financed as many other organizations but has a significant advantage in its mobility and low-cost operations and largely operates in a poorly governed territory. By exploiting vulnerable populations for resources, the group generated at least $10 million a year until 2015. They have historically taken advantage of the region’s unpoliced borders to carry out raids against villages for food and livestock, but their funding has recently declined and as a result, they have struggled to pay their fighters’ salaries. A key strength of ISWA’s resilience is their lack of reliance on the banking sector. The group has managed to rely on the hawala system to move money and accept donations without being tracked.
Each organization is different and will require different solutions to stay ahead of. Whether it’s through sanctions of financial institutions or cracking down on the illicit operations that provide financing to terrorist organizations it’s important that policymakers have the tools necessary to tackle the job. To stay up to date, hear interviews, see news clips, and view other resources check out Mark Dubowitz of FDD on YouTube.
This past January, Iran moved to scale back its death sentences for those incarcerated for drug-related crimes seemingly as an attempt to shift the international community’s focus away from Iran’s deplorable human rights record. While the move was greeted with optimism at the time, many were skeptical about whether this signaled the beginning of changes to a country long-viewed as one of the worst on human rights or whether it was a cheap political stunt meant to gain positive public attention. This begs another question: since the new year, has Iran managed to continue making positive changes to its criminal justice system or have things remained the same as usual?
The Human Rights Watch recently stated that since May the Iranian courts have sentenced over 200 Dervishes, (members of an an Islamic minority group) to prison terms and other punishments in trials that violate their basic rights. The courts issued sentences that included prison terms up to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups. International human rights laws classify flogging as a form of torture.
The country’s use of Sharia law has garnered significant criticism from the international community. Under these rules, some behaviors that could result in execution include insulting the Prophet, atheism, homosexuality, adultery, and drug-related crimes. While executions have declined, nearly three decades ago, Iran had the highest rate in the world. Currently, Iran is second only to China in the number of executions per year.
What likely prompted Iran’s need to appease international pressure was the descent of public opinion surrounding its political and economic systems. In May 2017, President Rouhani was elected to a second term in office, however many questioned the legitimacy of his victory due to the undeniable discrimination against hundreds of candidates on the basis of gender, religious belief, and political opinion. Beyond the presidency, there was civil unrest over the appointments of other high-level officials who have been implicated in severe human rights violations.
While many Iranian human rights defenders served prison sentences for communicating with the EU and the UN, those agencies worked with Iran to renew an existing human rights agreement that Iran was in violation of. In addition, many individual governments including Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland began bilateral human rights talks with Iran.
By the end of 2017, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest poverty, corruption, and political repression in the largest civil rights demonstration in Iran since 2009. The authorities suppressed freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and went so far as to jail peaceful protestors on the grounds of “national security” charges. Many of those targeted were political opponents of the party in power, journalists, social media influences, students, filmmakers, documentarians, musicians, writers and human rights activists ranging from women’s rights defenders to environmentalists. There is also evidence that there was a deliberate targeting of trade union leaders, anti-death penalty campaigners, civil rights lawyers and individuals demanding information on missing loved ones and suspicious disappearances from as far back as the 1980s. Many prisoners undertook hunger strikes to protest their unjust detainment.
Reports emerged that police and military personnel killed and injured unarmed protesters by using firearms and other excessive force. On December 31, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology blocked access to social media sites used by activists to coordinate demonstrations such as Instagram and the popular messaging application Telegram. Shortly after these events, the sentencing reforms to criminals of drug offenses was announced. The timing of the announcement was suspected to be intentional by many.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan think tank, has highlighted Iran’s deplorable human rights record and has called for greater accountability by the U.S. and the international community. Despite the protests and jailing, most media attention related to Iran focuses on the regime’s nuclear ambitions. Dubowitz and FDD have long been championing the need to hold Iran accountable for its regional aggression and domestic repression.
According to the Iranian state news agency IRNA, a senior Defense Ministry official recently said that Iran plans to boost its ballistic and cruise missile capabilities as part of a surge in the countries’ defensive programs. The United States and Europe are currently seeking to craft a new deal with the Middle Eastern power regarding nuclear weapons development, but senior government officials vow to keep the ballistic missile program saying “it’s not negotiable and not linked to its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.”
In addition to the missiles, the country aims to acquire updated fighters and massive, long-range vessels and submarines with various weapons capabilities. Experts from The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, FDD, have stated international sanctions failed to hamper the development of Iran’s arms industry. The country already has the necessary infrastructure to accomplish its goals but needs to devote more resources to research and development. A job well suited for the tens of thousands of technical and engineering graduates that the country employs.
The implications of Iran’s ballistic missile program extend beyond the countries’ border. Recently reports came out that Tehran had moved ballistic missiles to some of its proxies in Iraq as part of a plan to shore up their defenses and maintain control in the region. Iran denied the report, but seven intelligence officials from three different countries corroborated the story. There is also evidence that Iran is helping some of those proxy groups construct their own weapons.
The report is consistent with Iran’s recent track record. In Yemen, the country equipped Houthi allies with short and medium-range ballistic missiles and provided extensive training on how to use them. The Houthis are responsible for nearly 200 missile strikes in Saudi cities and towns as well as attacks in Yemeni population centers.
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has built a formidable military presence in Iraq. It has used its influence to further drive a wedge between different religious sects and exploited anti-American sentiments among Iraqis. Iran’s act is another piece of evidence of its confrontation with the US and poses a threat to US troops in Iraq and Syria, who are within range of any ballistic missile in the hands of Iran’s proxies.
The presence of Iranian-controlled ballistic missiles severely undermines European cooperation with Iran and embarrasses France, Germany, and Britain who have tried to preserve the nuclear agreement despite strong opposition from the US. Mark Dubowitz of FDD is an expert on the situation and has explained in depth why the US administration opposes the existing deal.
As a result, France is trying to broaden the scope of the agreement to include ballistic missiles; French President Emmanuel Macron called for a revisiting of the deal after 2025 to cover the ballistic program and the country's influence in the wider Middle East region.
The missiles’ presence threatens Iraq’s neighbors: Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, who will undoubtedly respond by deploying missile defenses of their own. Major population hubs in these countries are within reach of even short-range missiles. Iran’s new ballistic missile deployment, to militias in Iraq, is a drastic step of aggression in securing power over the country. Regionally, it causes new dangers to Iraq’s neighbors and threatens international peace and security.
Mark Dubowitz states the US and Europe should take notice, as the new weapons also threaten their own troops in the region. Furthermore, Iran’s actions are a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolutions and should compel the EU to reassess its position.
On August 7th, 1998, three years before the September 11th attacks in and against the United States, al Qaeda carried out its most destructive terrorist act to that point in the form of twin truck bombings on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. 224 people died that day, with thousands more seriously injured. However, the al Qaeda operatives didn’t orchestrate the attack alone. Iran showed them how to do it.
For years, officials honed in on this allegation against one of the most powerful countries in the region. As the trial of those responsible for the embassy bombings went on, two key witnesses explained the relationship between al Qaeda and Hezbollah (Iran’s terrorist proxy). One of the witnesses, Jamal al-Fadl, told the courts that his comrades traveled to Lebanon to receive training directly from Hezbollah operatives in explosives handling.
Another terrorist, Ali Mohamed, admitted that he conducted several missions on behalf of Osama bin Laden. He said of the relationship, “I arranged security for a meeting in Sudan between Mughniyah, (Hezbollah’s chief at the time) and Bin Laden.” One expert, Mark Dubowitz, concluded Iran used Hezbollah as an intermediary to supply explosives to the terrorist groups.
Mughniyah was responsible for a 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, of the U.S. Marines barracks, and of the headquarters of French service members. The al Qaeda founder was attempting to reenact these events with the 1998 bombings to force the United States to retreat from the broader Middle East.
The 9/11 Commission report explained that the meeting between al Qaeda and Iranian operatives in the early 1990s led to an agreement to cooperate and provide training to facilitate al Qaeda’s objectives. A U.S. district court issued a judgment against Iran for their role in these attacks.
A declassified passage from the 1997 report states: “The primary goal of this collaboration was to confront Israel and the United States, while the secondary goal was to undermine Arab regimes which supported them. [The idea was that] Experience from Hezbollah and Iran should be transferred to new extremist groups who lack this expertise.”
Evidence suggests the relationship between the two entities hasn’t ended, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies CEO. Between 2011 and 2016, the Obama administration’s Treasury and State Departments indicated that there is a standing agreement between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda to allow al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline” on Iranian soil.
However, there is also a fair amount of animosity between the two groups. Al Qaeda’s branches have fought Iranian proxies, including Hezbollah fighters in Syria and Yemen, for years. After the 9/11 hijackings, a senior al Qaeda leader named al-Adel fled to Iran where he continued to operate in his command position.
Mark Dubowitz on Facebook states that the exact information of al-Adel’s time in Iran has always been unclear. Testimony from a New York court in early 2001 named al-Adel as one of the al Qaeda operatives who attended both Iran and Hezbollah terrorist training camps in the early 1990s. For that very reason, he has long been wanted by the FBI for his role in the 1998 embassy bombings. Now, twenty years after the attacks, he still hasn’t been brought to justice despite Iran’s knowledge of his whereabouts.
One of the most important areas of national security may be going largely unnoticed. The Russian indictments filed by Robert Mueller indicate that Russian intelligence officers subverted financial detection by using Bitcoin to rent servers, and buy domain names, and virtual private networks (VPNs) to carry out the cyber-attacks that influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
While the intelligence community digs deeper one thing has become very clear. If the United States plans to stop Russia from meddling in future elections the government’s law enforcement agencies are going to need to be much better educated on how cryptocurrencies work and how to track their illicit use.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies aren’t innately wrong, but in recent years blockchain technology has soared in popularity for its decentralized and anonymous design. Those same features make the services appealing to criminals. While there are means to track some use of cryptocurrencies the U.S. government is trailing behind the rest of the world.
The hackers laundered $95,000 through their operation in the form of bitcoins to hide connections to the Russian government. They used this money to rent computer servers which allowed them to build an online apparatus to steal and publish documents from DNC hardware.
Cryptocurrency investigators researched the hackers’ activity on the Bitcoin blockchain. An email was discovered as the primary point of contact for the hackers’ transaction requests. Whoever controlled that email account served as the crypto fund treasurer.
The indictment states that hackers mined bitcoin, a process by which new bitcoins are created by adding transaction records to Bitcoin’s public ledger. They also used various cryptocurrency exchanges to buy the digital currency. This is how Russia’s military intelligence found a way to leverage cryptocurrency as a new tool in a traditional war of deception.
As we move forward trying to prevent a repeat of the Russian DNC hack using Crypto, it’s vital that law enforcement agencies not overlook opportunities for changing tactics. Future hackers may skip Bitcoin for a cryptocurrency like Monero, which is considered to be untraceable. Some blockchain developers are working hard to build decentralized trading platforms that allow users to buy tokens without providing identification. It’s not enough for the government to learn from the past hacks, they need to stay ahead of developments and commit to being at the forefront of this new technology. The subject matter expert can be found at MarkDubowitz.org.
U.S. Regulatory agencies should make a concerted effort to manage cryptocurrency exchanges, including smaller transfers that offer decentralized trading. Startups in the crypto space need to be held accountable to anti-money laundering guidelines. The U.S. could also stay one-step ahead by developing a national digital currency and blockchain technology that conforms to transparency requirements necessary for traditional financial institutions.
All government law enforcement or financial agencies should create leadership positions to employ experts in blockchain technology. Very few government agencies have staff dedicated to this specialty, and it’s in our long-term interest to recruit and train employees who can analyze and monitor cryptocurrency transactions. This will take time as the first generation of American crypto experts may currently still be in high school. Learn more here.
It’s undeniable that Cryptocurrencies can enhance counterintelligence work. Once an adversary is linked to a transaction on the block-chain, it offers the potential to track and measure their operation. This can be to America’s benefit, but only if the U.S. gets better at handling cryptocurrencies than the enemy. You can follow experts on this topic here.
This past February a grand-jury indictment was filed in Washington, D.C. by special counsel Robert Mueller regarding the investigation of Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 American Presidential election. This high profile case has been surrounded by controversy from the beginning, with skepticism and misinformation coming from many sources. On the surface, the attack appears to be a whole new kind of warfare. The type of information war that involves large-scale cyber breaches, fake social media accounts, fabricated news stories and automated bots meant to generate buzz. Click here to learn more.
However, below the surface, all the evidence suggests these cyber attacks are just the latest tool in the Russian government’s chest of propaganda tricks.
Historically, these interventions have had the long-term aim of weakening Western democracies by undermining trust in institutions and dividing their citizens against each other. During the height of the soviet union, the KGB referred to such disinformation campaigns as “active measures.”
In the 1960s the KGB financed the publishing house, the Liberty Book Club, to circulate a rumor that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was orchestrated by the CIA. They even went so far as to forge a letter between Lee Harvey Oswald and his “handler.” In the 70s they circulated pamphlets in an attempt to start a war between the Black Panthers and the Jewish Defense League. Many of these attempts failed, but thanks to the efforts there are many today that still believe the CIA created HIV in a biological-weapons lab, (a story that the KGB allegedly invented).
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, (FDD) warns that with the advent of the information age, these old tricks might have finally found a platform to thrive.
Using fabricated social-media accounts Russian operatives tried to reduce voter turnout among blacks, Muslims, and Hispanics, (demographics that typically vote Democratic). Mr. Mueller’s indictment papers contend that many of the social-media groups created have upwards of 100,000 followers each. Much of their work was done online, but evidence shows that they recruited U.S. allies. Some knew who their boss was, and others did not. These included “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump campaign.”
While the effectiveness of any one piece of propaganda may be hard to measure it’s clear that Russia’s goals are focused on long-term success “working with the grain of time.” Social media can hijack a user’s attention in a way that few other platforms can. Strong emotions lead to higher click rates which organically increase viewability. As FDD explains, what starts as a piece of fabricated news becomes common party-conversation fodder. Soon enough the average voter isn’t sure which source to believe and becomes disenchanted and untrusting with the government as a whole. Click to learn more on Mark Dubowitz.
When evidence first surfaced in 2016, many high-ranking members of the GOP refused to acknowledge the attacks. For their part, social media giants have tried to clamp down on fake accounts, but found themselves overwhelmed by the task. Then President, Obama, gave modest warnings and implemented some sanctions against Russia at the time, but feared to do more without Congressional support because of how suspicious voters could perceive it. After the election, the director of national intelligence issued a report laying out much of the evidence he had seen and warned of its seriousness.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has not instructed his intelligence organizations on how to counter the threat. His comments have given off the impression that he doesn’t view the allegations as a national-security risk, but as a threat to his reputation and a refute of his legitimacy.
His administration’s refusal to take Russian disinformation seriously and dismissal of reports as “fake news” has made America even more susceptible to future campaigns. A poll published in January found that 49% of Republicans do not believe Russia tried to influence the election in 2016. As the president acknowledged in a February tweet, “If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption, and chaos, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.”