President Trump let us know what he thinks of the Russian bounty story last night:
This morning he added:
But tonight the NY Times is out with another story in which it claims to identify one of the middle-men responsible for delivering Russian money to Taliban fighters who killed American soldiers. His name is Rahmatullah Azizi and though he hasn’t been captured, some of his financial network was rounded up earlier this year.
U.S. intelligence reports named Mr. Azizi as a key middleman between the G.R.U. and militants linked to the Taliban who carried out the attacks. He was among those who collected the cash in Russia, which the intelligence files seen by lawmakers in Washington describe as multiple payments of “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Through a layered and complex Hawala system — an informal way to transfer money — he delivered it to Afghanistan for the missions, the files say. The transfers were often sliced into smaller amounts that routed through several regional countries before arriving in Afghanistan, associates of the arrested businessmen said…
About six months ago, Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, raided the offices of several Hawala businessmen both in Kabul, the capital, and in Kunduz, in the north, who were believed to be associated with the bounty scheme, making more than a dozen arrests.
“The target of the operation was Rahmat, who was going back and forth to Russia for a long time and said he worked there but no one knew what he did,” said Safiullah Amiry, the deputy head of Kunduz provincial council, referring to Mr. Azizi. But by the time the raid took place, “Rahmat had fled.”
“From what I heard from security officials, the money had come from Russia through Rahmat,” he added.
I wasn’t familiar with Hawala but it’s a privatized money transfer system in which people give money to an agent in their own country. The money is transferred to a similar agent in the destination country minus a transaction fee and the recipient can pick it up in cash if they have the proper password given to them by the sender. The use of these systems in the Muslim world attracted attention after 9/11 because it makes money hard to track since any banking transactions involve the agents and not the people sending and receiving the money. In short it’s a perfect system for hiding payments you don’t want tracked back to anyone. That’s especially true if large payments are broken up into multiple smaller streams to escape notice.
Apart from Safiullah Amiry, there aren’t any other named sources in the story which the Times says is based upon, “a dozen interviews that included U.S. and Afghan officials aware of the intelligence and the raids that led to it; his neighbors and friends; and business associates of the middle men arrested on suspicion of involvement.” So make of that what you will. Generally, the details in this story seem to match with an early story that suggested the intel on this came from Afghan detainees.
NBC News reported that confirmation of such a claim would generally come from the NSA: ” the U.S. would almost certainly have tried to get communications intercepts from the Russians that shed light. In the past, the National Security Agency has had success penetrating Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU.” However, yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA strongly dissented from other intel agencies on the credibility of those claims:
The National Security Agency strongly dissented from other intelligence agencies’ assessment that Russia paid bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, according to people familiar with the matter.
The disclosure of the dissent by the NSA, which specializes in electronic eavesdropping, comes as the White House has played down the revelations, saying that the information wasn’t verified and that intelligence officials didn’t agree on it.
Because of that, President Trump was never personally briefed on the threat, the White House said, although the information was included in written intelligence materials prepared for Mr. Trump and has been known for several months, some lawmakers said after briefings this week at the White House.
So it seems the agency that would be expected to back the bounty claims with signals intelligence is the one that thinks this may not be credible. We obviously don’t know why they think that but there must be some reason. We’ll have to see what leaks out next in response to these new, more detailed claims published by the NY Times.