U.S. intelligence agencies issued general warnings around the world that Islamic State terrorists were planning to use trucks in attacks on gatherings of people, according to U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports.
Specific warnings were issued to allied intelligence services in Europe and Asia based on information gleaned from the Islamic State, indicating the terrorist group’s sympathizers would conduct attacks using large trucks in Christmas-related killing sprees.
That scenario played out Monday in Berlin, where a truck barreled through a crowded market, killing 12 people and injuring 48.
The attack is being blamed on a fugitive Tunisian, Anis Amri, a radical with known links to an Islamic terrorism leader, according to German authorities.
A U.S. official said the Berlin attack has been linked indirectly to the Islamic State’s entreaties to sympathizers around the world to use trucks in attacks at this time of year. The warning said terrorists would commandeer large, multi-axle trucks and drive them into crowded areas.
The Berlin massacre was a copycat of a terrorist attack in Nice, France. The July 14 killings involved a cargo truck driven into a crowd on Bastille Day, killing 86 people and injuring 434 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack.
The Islamic State is seeking to repeat truck attacks to achieve its goal of seeking a caliphate, a global regime under Islamic rule.
The group on Monday declared that the perpetrator of the Berlin attack was a “soldier of the caliphate,” the Islamic State-affiliated Amaq website stated.
The truck attacks indicate that the Islamic State continues to move beyond its strongholds in Syria and Iraq and conduct deadly strikes in Europe and elsewhere.
Security in the United States is being increased following the Berlin attack. The State Department warned last month that Americans face a heightened risk of attack in Europe during the holiday season.
“Terrorist attacks against holiday gatherings (including public Christmas and New Year’s celebrations) have occurred in Europe in the past,” said a State security report. “Jewish interests have also been targeted by Islamist extremists; this year, Hanukkah coincides with Christmas.”
WARSHIP RECOVERED DRONE
In a clear message to Beijing, the Pentagon this week dispatched a guided missile destroyer to recover an underwater drone snatched by the Chinese navy four days earlier.
The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mustin, part of the Pacific Fleet, sailed from a port call at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, to rendezvous with the Chinese in a carefully choreographed handover of the underwater research glider, according to Pentagon officials.
During the exchange, sailors aboard the Chinese navy ship tied a rope to the tail of the drone and set it loose in the area of the South China Sea near the Philippines, where it was taken on Dec. 15.
A small inflatable boat dispatched from the Mustin sailed to a point midway between the drone and Chinese ship, where one of the sailors grabbed the rope and retrieved the 30-foot research vessel. The underwater glider originally was dispatched by the Navy’s USS Bowditch, an ocean survey ship.
No radio communications between the U.S. and Chinese navies took place in the drone recovery. The handover ended the latest incident that has strained U.S.-Chinese relations and highlighted China’s illegal maritime claims over the South China Sea.
A senior military officer said the dispatch of the destroyer was deliberate and intended to signal to China that its interference with survey operations was an unacceptable violation of freedom of navigation activities in international waters.
China privately has attempted to portray the drone incident as the result of an overzealous naval officer of the South China Sea fleet, a claim met with deep skepticism by the Pentagon and Pacific Command.
“We know that no Chinese naval officer would ever conduct something like that without [higher] approval,” a U.S. military officer told Inside the Ring.
The vessel that seized the floating drone was a Dalang III-class ship, used in submarine rescues.
The drone was identified as an “LBS glider,” or Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider, which is capable transmitting ocean data for up to six months. The glider is used in anti-submarine warfare activities as well as anti-mine warfare and special operations missions.
The Pentagon issued a relatively mild public rebuke, reflecting conciliatory Obama administration policies toward China.
“This incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
“The U.S. has addressed those facts with the Chinese through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels, and have called on Chinese authorities to comply with their obligations under international law and to refrain from further efforts to impede lawful U.S. activities.”
The Pentagon said it is investigating the incident and insisted that U.S. military forces will “continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows, in the same way that we operate everywhere else around the world.”
The area where the Navy ocean survey was carried out is a high-interest target for U.S. intelligence agencies that are closely monitoring a covert Chinese military buildup on the islands in the region.
Days earlier, newly publicized satellite photographs revealed new Chinese military installations on several reefs, specifically hexagon-shaped naval gun emplacements on several islands and reefs that pose threats to U.S. and allied ships.
The Navy has been aware of the short-range naval guns photographed on the Spratly Islands since earlier this year. The guns were spotted on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs last summer, and recently at smaller facilities on Gaven, Hughes, Johnson and Cuarteron reefs.
Each gun emplacement is made up of either large-caliber guns or, on some reefs, a small missile battery along with an adjacent fire control radar.
The Pentagon is worried about the gun deployments because of their plug-and-play capabilities. The weapons currently in place have ranges of a mile or two that pose little danger to Navy warships, which have been and will continue to conduct passages near the reefs.
However, military intelligence analysts have determined that the guns and missiles can be swapped out for longer-range and more lethal Chinese anti-ship missiles. Adding more deadly anti-ship missiles would provide China with military control over the strategic waterway that China is seeking to gradually take over.
The South China Sea military buildup is being carried out gradually by the Chinese to avoid triggering a larger crisis.
“It’s like a frog being boiled alive,” the military officer said of the creeping Chinese military buildup.
Military analysts say one option the Pentagon could use to prevent China from more provocative thefts of underwater drones is to outfit the gliders with explosive self-destruct charges.
The glider taken last week and returned Monday is under 24-hour remote communication. Adding an explosive charge to its components and announcing that capability would deter thefts. Anyone who improperly tried to steal the drone would be faced with death or injury.
The Islamic State terrorist group used a similar tactic in a recent attack in Syria.
According to Pentagon officials, Islamic State fighters last summer sent an aerial drone into Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria and made it appear that the drone had landed as a result of a malfunction or loss of remote control.
Kurdish militias retrieved the small aircraft and drove it to a nearby base, believing they were about to gain a windfall on Islamic State intelligence-gathering capabilities.
But three Kurdish fighters were killed and several others were wounded after taking the drone apart.
An investigation revealed that the Islamic State had booby-trapped the drone with a type of improvised explosive device designed to kill leaders or intelligence personnel. The bomb was disguised as a second small battery inside the drone.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.
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