A Major Attack on Saudi Aramco Leaves the U.S. in a Difficult Spot

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

As the United States intensifies its campaign of maximum economic pressure against Iran, Tehran is seeking ways to escape the straitjacket that oil sanctions have put it in. The U.S. blames Iran for a serious Sept. 14 attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, and the aftermath is likely to reveal Iran’s boldness, Saudi Arabia’s risk aversion and the difficult decision Washington must weigh as it chooses how to respond.

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Attacks on Sept. 14 apparently conducted with cruise missiles and drones targeted the Abqaiq and Khurais crude-processing and stabilization facilities belonging to Saudi Arabian Oil Co., knocking 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil production offline — 5 percent of the global daily total. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels quickly claimed responsibility, the United States asserted that the attacks did not originate from Yemen and were conducted with Iranian help. Details released in the aftermath of the attacks seem to corroborate at least the U.S. claim that they were launched from outside Yemen.

The Iranian Calculation

If this was indeed Iran directly attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, it marks a brazen escalation in its efforts to maintain and strengthen its political and military standing in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. It would also track with Iranian efforts to seek relief from increasing U.S. pressure. Iran has demonstrated with a number of recent attacks that it is willing to aggressively push back against the United States and its allies as it tries to break the current cycle of heavy oil sanctions and economic pressure.

With the United States blaming Iran, the odds that the United States or its allies would retaliate militarily against Iranian-linked targets, if not Iran itself, have risen significantly. In the hours after the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that the United States was “locked and loaded” and waiting for final verification of Iranian involvement before deciding how to respond. The Iranians undoubtedly understand that attacks such as these could provoke a U.S. military response, but they are clearly willing to accept that risk and may even calculate that Trump would not be willing to chance a serious and highly damaging military conflict in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Alongside these attacks, the Iranians are also seeking to drive a parallel negotiation, mostly through the Europeans, to offer an alternative path toward de-escalation that the Americans could take.

The Case Against a Houthi Attack

Given the facilities’ geographic location, the Saudi air defense focus on Yemen, the angles of impact, the overflight reports over Kuwait and debris recovered from a failed cruise missile, it is quite likely that the attacks came from Iraqi or Iranian territory — or both. It is also possible that some of the drones could have been sea-launched. Regardless, the attack vector these details indicate more directly implicates Iran and/or its direct proxies in Iraq, increasing the danger of escalation. U.S. officials concluded in May that an attack on Saudi pumping stations originated from Iraq. Although that incident left only a fraction of the damage as the destruction of Sept. 14, it drove home how Iraq could be used as a staging ground for attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

Saudi Abqaiq and Khurais Infrastructure Attacks

An attack of that magnitude, however, will decrease the likelihood that the United States would be able to hold meaningful talks with Iran in the short term. The White House has already taken a generally hard-line stance on Iran, and the United States will be loath to back off in the aftermath of this major assault. It will not want to project weakness by allowing Iran to dictate events and will be concerned that too soft a response would send a message that could encourage other states it has disputes with, such as North Korea, to act provocatively. In addition, as the global hegemon, the United States has a vital stake in preserving the free flow of commerce and energy resources.

The Decisions Ahead

The United States now faces a difficult decision. Washington may calculate that an attack of this magnitude on critical Saudi oil infrastructure requires a military response to establish deterrence. But thus far, Trump has been unwilling to take actions that could escalate U.S. military commitments in the Middle East as Washington seeks to shift its focus and resources to the Western Pacific and Europe. Therefore, the United States will likely seek to commit to a response in conjunction with local allies, placing an added emphasis on the reactions by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Saudi hesitance to embroil itself in a major conflict is clear already. Saudi and U.S. intelligence so far agree that cruise missiles were used in the attack, but Saudi Arabia has stopped short of concurring with the U.S. assessment that Iran provided the staging ground for the attack. Riyadh’s cautious response reflects Saudi Arabia’s general course of risk avoidance and its desire to avoid the disruption of a major Gulf conflict. If the attack came from Yemen, Riyadh would face an easier, albeit still costly, choice of further pummeling the Houthis there. This course would not require a strategic readjustment since the Saudis are already heavily engaged there. But with the evidence pointing toward the attack originating from Iraq or from Iran, the Saudis now face the decision of supporting a U.S. military response at the risk of escalation in its struggle to contain Iran. And despite a clear hesitance to stoke a broader conflict, the attack confronts Saudi Arabia with the clear, glaring vulnerability of its oil and gas infrastructure in a way that could drive Riyadh to support a U.S. military response.


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Sandra Torres: Under the Electoral Weather

On Monday, 2 September 2019, Guatemalan police executed a warrant for the arrest of Ms. Sandra Torres on charges of illicit and unreported campaign financing. Her arrest came just a few days after losing the immunity granted to presidential candidates in Guatemala. The presence of the press on the daytime raid amplified the spectacle of the former first-lady’s arrest at her lavish home in Zone 15 of Guatemala City. The announcement that she would be put in pretrial confinement in the Mariscal Zavala detention center to prevent her from fleeing the country was, unlike her arrest, a surprise. Zavala Prison is located on a military base and has become the home of dozens of powerful former officials, judges and politicians convicted of corruption and abuse of power, including ex-President Otto Pérez Molina. Ms. Torres will certainly be in infamous company as she prepares for the trial she calls a political maneuver.

The Symptoms

Sandra Torres has had a unique political career to say the least. She was Guatemala’s first lady during the term of her then husband, President Álvaro Colom from 2008 to 2012. She attempted to succeed her husband by running for his office in 2011, but was disqualified by the courts in accordance a constitutional provision barring immediate family members of the President or Vice President from running for those positions. Later that year she divorced Colom in order to be eligible for the office and tried again in 2015; a race she lost to current President Jimmy Morales. It was during these earlier campaigns that she built a reputation as a champion for rural and indigenous Guatemalans, a base that served her well during the 2019 election. Again she came in second but only after she forced a runoff against the eventual winner, Alejandro Giammattei.

Official certification of Giammattei’s electoral victory marked the end of Torres’s immunity and just days later, a judge issued the warrant for her arrest. Some see Torres’s detention last Monday as a bold strike against a common flaw in Guatemalan politics: the secret financing of candidates by anonymous donors. In the case of Ms. Torres, she stands accused of accepting more than USD $3.6 million of illicit funding associated with her 2015 campaign. The history of those charges however, could be their undoing.

The investigation that resulted in charges against Sandra Torres and four of her colleagues was a joint effort of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), an anti-corruption agency intended to work with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG); a United Nations body given a mandate by the Guatemalan legislature in May 2007 to investigate and prosecute “illegal and clandestine security bodies that commit crimes against fundamental human rights.” During its twelve-year mandate, CICIG made great strides in prosecuting organized criminals and violations of rights. Its investigators prosecuted 96 cases involving everything from murder of journalists to environmental fraud and pollution. The vast majority of these cases, including the one against Ms. Torres, were referred through FECI for prosecution by the Public Ministry.

Seen as effective and good for Guatemala, CICIG’s mandate was renewed five times until the office made the fatal mistake of investigating President Morales himself. He subsequently blocked further renewals leaving CICIG’s mandate to expire last Tuesday, the day after Ms. Torres’s arrest. Perhaps recognizing its mandate was nearing an end, CICIG filed the case against Torres in April 2019 after she had already began her campaign. Extraordinarily, the complaint noted that as a candidate for President, she was already immune from prosecution. Now that CICIG’s mandate has indeed expired, FECI is left to prosecute an already sensitive case without a co-plaintiff.

Electoral Illness

The health of Guatemala’s electoral system hangs in the balance. Prior to the end of its mandate, CICIG seemed to have worn out its welcome with some of the country’s power brokers. Though President Morales and President-elect Giammattei have stayed relatively silent on the arrest of their former opponent, neither was supportive of CICIG’s mandate and are unlikely to view Torres’s arrest as good news for the status quo. Their willingness and ability to influence the outcome of her trial however will depend on their calculations of the political costs involved.

Morales will likely leave it to Giammattei who will have to balance the popularity of both CICIG and Ms. Torres among rural and indigenous Guatemalans, against the temptation to let her take the fall. Doing so could expose anonymous donors that are so influential they still remain anonymous despite all the legal attention the case has brought to their donations. Though the rural poor have some impact on security and electoral success, Giammattei managed to win the Presidency largely without their support in the first place. Campaign donors on the other hand, are likely to be in command of Guatemala’s rapidly developing economy. A defensive move by either constituency could cause a great deal of trouble for the new administration which will have to tread very carefully to find a workable cure for Guatemala’s electoral illness.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC which now has a presence in Guatemala City.

Around the Caribbean: Costa Rica Under Pressure (Part 1 of a series)

This is the first part of a two part series by Dino Mora on influence operations in Costa Rica. Read Part 2 “Measure Up Costa Rica: Old Techniques, New Tools” here. 


Featured Photo: Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans march against xenophobia and San Jose, Costa Rica, on August 25, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / EZEQUIEL BECERRA


On the night of 27 July 2019, three men crept carefully across the street to the headquarters of Teletica Media in the Sabana Oeste neighborhood of San José, Costa Rica. According to witnesses, they placed an object on the steps that exploded the moment they left the scene, causing minor damage to the front windows of the office. Though the incident caused no injuries, it was the kind of demonstration associated with the incipient phases of insurgency. How the Costa Rican government handles this case, and a growing number of similar acts of violence, is under increasing scrutiny by a citizenry with memories of insurgent violence.

Though violent crime rates in Costa Rica are among the lowest in the region, the increase is notable and varied and is causing a great deal of unease among ordinary Costa Ricans. The ability of the government to handle the situation is increasingly in question as mass media draws connections between what is happening on the streets and the growing population of refugees fleeing instability in neighboring Nicaragua. Distrust grows in Costa Rican society with every act of violence and while the majority of cases are attributed to common delinquency and young criminal gangs, there are indications the trend is the result of a directed effort by a state actor. Costa Rica is under attack. Understanding why requires us to look south of the border.

Instability

According to the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute, more than 5,000 Cubans arrived in Nicaragua during the first five months of 2019, an increase of almost 900 percent compared to 566 that arrived in all of 2018. Far from being attracted to tourist spots, many Cubans come for undercover activities to help the Ortega-Murillo regime remain in power. Aníbal Toruño, director of Nicaraguan Radio Darío, told the Panamanian newspaper Panam that Cuban service members enter Nicaragua covertly, hidden among migrants seeking to escape the island and head to the United States. These advisors began arriving in 2007, but that number increased exponentially after a deadly April 2018 uprising and crackdown that triggered instability in Nicaragua. Since then, the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported that 200 advisers from the Cuban Intelligence Directorate regularly operate with the Nicaraguan Armed Forces and provide training to the police and officials of the Directorate of Customs and the Prisons System. In relative terms, this is a very large effort by Havana to stabilize their ally in Managua.

Despite their numbers, the Cubans are eager to remain mostly in the shadows. According to Nicaraguan nationals interviewed by the author, Cuban officers are not part of operational units that “arrest people in the street.” Instead, the Cubans deal exclusively with “interrogations of arrested people in the most brutal way.” According to a statement by Nicaraguan exiles at the Cuban Justice Commission held in San José, Costa Rica in May, Cuban officers are known to “…torture and kill farmers” as part of a strategy of radical, violent, systematic, and selective repression in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, opposition press in Managua claim this strategy is so important to Cuban foreign policy that none other than Cuba’s leader Raúl Castro and his Interior Minister Julio César Gandarilla themselves direct and operate it in Nicaragua.

Costa Rica Expansion

The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana. The willingness of the Ortega Administration to allow his country to serve as a platform for Cuban influence is bad news for neighboring Costa Rica. Since the beginning of the crisis in Nicaragua, pro-Cuban media in Costa Rica employed a propaganda strategy of amplifying a genuine, preexisting uncertainty and fear over the entry of Nicaraguan refugees. This campaign includes the creation of nationalist and anti-immigrant social media platforms and closed/private chat groups designed to maximize its impact on public opinion.

The disinformation campaign targets people of all social statuses, employing specific themes related to their varied lifestyles, education levels, and social and political status in order to provoke a quick and widespread reaction. Calls for armed revolution against the current government have a pronounced effect among the less educated that are prone to believe the massive wave of widely disseminated fake news. This type of messaging incited massive strikes that paralyzed the economy, specifically the tourism sector, and provoked violent reactions in San José and the urban area around the capital.

The ongoing Cuban operation in Nicaragua is only a troubling first step in a wider effort to realign Central America in ways more favorable to Havana.

Cuban penetration however is not just covert. In April, Costa Rica surprised the world by signing an agreement with Cuba for cultural exchanges in the field of education. As part of the agreement, Cuba was to send “professors” to collaborate with the Costa Rican Ministry of Education. The inclusion of a Cuban voice in school curricula was certainly controversial. In the face of ongoing violence presented as popular discontent with the government, supporters can portray Cuban-style Communism as a viable solution and expect a receptive audience among school-aged youth. Recognizing this, a number of politicians expressed concern about the possibility of external interference in Costa Rican politics. Immediately thereafter, public concerns appeared about Cuban attempts to use education and culture to instill Communist ideology in the social and cultural development of Costa Rica. Though Nicaragua has made a decision to follow the Cubans down this path, Costa Rica is still resisting.

Hidden Hand

The Costa Rican response has not been entirely successful. San José underestimated the threat for too long, allowing it to grow with very little attention from law enforcement and security services. With relative freedom, elements recruited by Cuban intelligence planned and conducted the campaign of criminal acts now destabilizing the country. In other words, the Cuban effort is working and they know it. The formula being applied in Central America closely resembles the Cuban playbook elsewhere. Jorge Serrano, an academic at the Peruvian Center for Higher National Studies says the deployment of Cuban “political and military advisors to military bases and in key situations for political and economic power in Nicaragua…is the same maneuver used by Cuban political leaders to support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.” There is some evidence to back this up. Close political ties between Ortega and Maduro, and the timing of the crisis in Nicaragua, coincide with credible information that Cuban close protection assets guard both leaders and their families.

If this were simply a matter of preventing the Cubans from projecting influence from Nicaragua, the Costa Ricans are well equipped to protect themselves but there are indications of an even more powerful hand at work. If Serrano is right, and the Cubans are exporting their playbook from Venezuela, one cannot ignore the fact that Cuban efforts in Venezuela are supported by, and closely coordinated with Russia. The same could be true in Central America. This puts the Costa Rican struggle into a larger context with global implications, one in which the United States takes a direct interest. How Washington responds to the wave of criminal and propaganda activity in Costa Rica could indeed echo around the Caribbean and beyond.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

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