Intelligence: Russian Assassins in Iraq

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October 10, 2006: Last June, after five Russian diplomats were killed by Sunni Arab terrorists, many experienced counter-terrorism professionals expected the Russians to act. Russia, over some two centuries, has developed some very successful techniques for dealing with such terrorism. When confronted with terrorist attacks like this, the Russians go in and play by terrorist rules. They terrorize the terrorists. Back in the 1980s, for example, Islamic terrorists in Lebanon kidnapped a Russian diplomat. The Russians (then the Soviets, a distinction without much difference in these matters) quickly found out which faction had their guy, kidnapped a relative of one of the kidnappers, and had a body part delivered to the Islamic kidnappers. The message was, release the Russian diplomat unharmed, or the KGB (Soviet secret police) would keep sending body parts, and grabbing kinfolk of the kidnappers. The Russian diplomat was released. Apparently that lesson has been forgotten, at least in some parts of Iraq.

Or has it? Nothing has been heard of any Russian retribution over the last four months. Russian president Putin publicly announced that something would be done. The Russians certainly have the means. For thirty years, from 1973-2003, Russian agents (from the KGB, then the FSB) worked with the Iraqi government on security matters. Saddam Hussein originally brought the KGB in to help him deal with enemies in Iraq. The KGB gets some of the credit for Saddam surviving dozens of coup and assassination attempts. In return, Saddam shared information he had on terrorist groups. Saddam provided a safe-haven for Arab terrorists (including al Qaeda), partly to protect himself from them, partly to have access to their services. During those three decades of cooperation, some 70,000 Russian military advisors, many of them intelligence and security specialists, served in Iraq. All of this is known from documents captured in Iraq in 2003, and interrogations of Iraqi officials. The Russians denied most of it officially, confirmed some of it privately. Russia and the United States have, since September 11, 2001, been cooperating in the fight against Islamic terrorists. The U.S. knows that the Russians still have a lot of contacts in Iraq, especially among those who served in Saddam's intelligence and security services. Russia has not been sharing a lot of this information.

Intelligence organizations do not issue press releases detailing their progress in these kinds of operations. Often they do not even announce success. But in this case, the Russians would likely announce that they had killed those responsible for murdering their diplomats. To send a message, so to speak. Another potential problem is that the Iraqi government, or the United States, might not take kindly to Russian agents, with a license to kill, wandering about freely. Then again, the guys who killed the Russians live in very rough neighborhoods. Iraqi police and U.S. troops only enter those areas heavily armed and ready for a fight. But the Russians know this, and have agents and commandos trained for this sort of thing. Finding the killers, and getting to them, could take a while. The Russians tend to be patient, and persistent, in these matters. They also realize that they have a reputation to uphold. Many times, local thugs and radicals have avoided harming Russian diplomats because of the Russian tradition of retribution. Break that tradition, and you put a lot of Russian diplomats at risk in the future. So the Russians have a practical reason for settling scores with this particular bunch of Sunni Arab terrorists. The only thing that could stop the Russians is someone else having gotten to the killers first. The attrition among Sunni Arab terrorists is very high. If American or Iraqi counter-terror action has already killed the guys the Russians are hunting, it would still probably be announced, just to show that the Russians were on the case. So, four months of silence probably means that the Russians are still after the people who killed their diplomats.



 

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