Russian Hackers

I believe that in a 100 years people will believe that digital globalization was as an important a trend in the twenty-first century as financial, political and economic globalization. Cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, cyber-currencies, the sharing economy, drones and robotics are fundamentally reshaping our world. In this context, hackers have become not only a security threat but also part of pop culture. But how do hacker’s themselves think about their culture and their activities? You can learn more by watching the BBC program, “The Hackers of Siberia,” which focuses on the “SiBears” of Siberia.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Bioterrorism and Cocaine

“A beautiful landscape of Mendoza City’s park seen from the height of the Gómez building.” By Itsmemarttin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Mat Youkee has a fascinating article, “Who Killed the Nazi Scientist trying to Wipe out Cocaine,” on the online site Ozy. The piece tells the story of Heinz Brücher, who had served as a second lieutenant in the German military (S.S.) during World War Two. A biologist, Brücher had stolen a Ukrainian seed-bank on Heinrich Himmler’s orders. Later in the war, he disobeyed orders to destroy these seeds, and fled the Reich with them. As with other German military figures at the war’s end, he fled to Argentina, as part of an evacuation which has become a theme in popular culture from film to conspiracy theories. He did not stay in Argentina only, however, but also taught as a faculty member everywhere from Venezuela to Paraguay. Later in life, though, he wound up living in a farm house in Mendoza, Argentina, where he seems to have hatched an incredible plot: to destroy the coca plant that is the basis for the cocaine trade.

The coca plant has been used for thousands of years in the Andes. One can see ancient indigenous sculptures in which the cheek of one figure is extended, because the person is chewing coca. The leaf figures in ritual and religion, but is also a rich source of nutrition.Throughout Latin America coca tea is often used as an infusion because it is supposed to have medicinal properties. The leaf itself is vastly different from the processed drug known as cocaine. In 1898 a German chemist, Richard Martin Willstätter, created cocaine, which had become one of the most used drugs in the world. By the 1970s and 80s, cocaine was the basis for the cartels of Colombia. At the same time, there were allegations that the U.S. intelligence services were themselves involved in the cocaine trade in order to fund the guerrillas fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Literature and Espionage

Sometimes you just can’t make up a story as strange as reality. For anyone following the inquiry into possible Russian collusion with the Trump White House, the endless details are as fascinating as they are intriguing. Clive Irving has a wonderful piece, “What Would Le Carré’s Master Spy Think of Trump and Russia?,” in the Daily Beast, which imagines what George Smiley (the fictional master spy) would make of current events.

Espionage is also in the news because of the case of Sergei V. Skripal. A former spy in Russia, he and his daughter were both found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, England. This particular case has many parallels to the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, which was covered in a book titled “A Very Expensive Poison.” To date, both of the victims are alive; let’s hope that the terrible events associated with Litvinenko aren’t repeated.

In online forums a vigorous discussion has already begun regarding the likely poison. If I had been working for the FSB (AKA Moscow Central), I would have chosen fentanyl. It would be deadly at a low dose, and the victim could be blamed for ingesting or inhaling it. After the debacle with polonium in the Litvinenko case, it seems unlikely that a radioactive substance would be used again. While poisons from Himalayan plants may be difficult to detect, they also raise too many questions. Much the same could be said ricin. Nerve agents also point to a state actor, as was the case last year in Malaysia. I will be very curious to see if a poison can be identified, and whether that information will be released.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

PS- the poison has now been identified by the British authorities. According to press reports, it was a nerve agent, which would seem to be a means to draw attention. One of the police officers who responded has now been hospitalized and is in serious condition, likely because of exposure to the poison. George Smiley would have done more subtle and careful work.


Nagasaki Bomb. By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nukemap is a website that allows you detonate a virtual atomic weapon over the city of your choice. You can select the size of the bomb either by kiloton, or by presets. I first chose the a nuclear weapon tested by North Korea in 2013, and tested it as a surface burst over my much-loved city of Portland. The results were horrific: an estimated 32,230 fatalities and 41,500 injuries. When I tested the same blast over Manhattan there were 103,000 fatalities and 213, 430 injuries. In each case the map generates a series of concentric circles that illustrated the impacts from radiation, fireball, air blast, thermal radiation, etc. The website also models the radiation plume, which trails far off into the distance on the map.

This website can take you to a very dark place. I made the mistake of modeling the largest bomb that the USSR ever tested, and what would happen if it detonated over Portland, Oregon. The largest circle was for the thermal radiation, and indicated the areas in which people would receive third degree burns. This circle stretched for 60 kilometers or 11,300 km2. One end of circle passed Yale, Washington in the north, while Silverton, Oregon was on the the south edge of the circle. For this particular example, there were 1,241,130 estimated fatalities, and 574,390 injuries. So people were much more likely to be killed than injured. When I then tested the same blast over New York City, the same blast caused 7,633,390 fatalities and 4,194,990 injuries. At that point I stopped using the site.

This website is both bleak and fascinating, and might be a useful tool during a classroom discussion of nuclear proliferation, and the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability. The day that I visited the website in November 2017 over 130 million detonations already had taken place on the site.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Smallpox and North Korea

A patient being inoculated against smallpox in 1802, in a satirical cartoon. James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Biological weapons are both terrifying and elusive. On the one hand, the Soviet Union made long-term investments in bioweapons research during the Cold War, as Ken Alibek’s tell-all book Biohazard makes clear. On the other hand, these diseases have proved difficult to weaponize, and the problem of blowback has made them unlikely to be used by any state. Despite the allegations that Iraq was weaponizing diseases under Saddam Hussein, no large-scale biological weapons program was discovered after the U.S. and British invasion. Now there are new allegations being made about North Korea.

Given that North Korea’s leader had his own brother murdered, and is moving forward rapidly to expand the range of his nuclear weapons, it’s not difficult to imagine that he might be fascinated with biological weaponry. But is there any solid evidence for a North Korean program? Unlike nuclear weapons, biological weapons development can take place on a constrained budget and without difficult procurement or testing issues. As such, these programs are hard to detect. Nonetheless, Joby Warrick has an article in the Washing Post that points out that in 2015 the North Korean leader had his photograph taken in a facility “jammed with expensive equipment, including industrial-scale fermenters used for growing bulk quantities of live microbes, and large dryers designed to turn billions of bacterial spores into a fine powder for easy dispersal.” Perhaps even more disturbing, North Korean soldiers who have defected have allegedly had antibodies to smallpox, although these defectors mostly escaped decades ago.

Warrick’s article is worth reading in depth. How do we judge such a threat? On the one hand, were a virus such as smallpox ever released it would be truly a global catastrophe. On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge no state has used biological weapons since World War Two. Since that time, however, many Cassandras have warned that enemies were developing biological weapons. The United States has a long history of allegations against enemies that lead to war, only to be discredited afterwards, The U.S. warship Maine was quite possibly sunk by a coal fire, not the Spanish, but its explosion was used to justify the Spanish-American war. It’s unlikely that any North Vietnamese forces were even present on August 4, 1964 for the alleged second Gulf of Tonkin incident. The first incident led to a single bullet hole in a U.S. vessel. Nonetheless, these “events” were manipulated to form the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution by the U.S. Congress. In turn, President Johnson then used Congress’s authorization to massively expand the U.S. war in Vietnam. As it turns out, the U.S. intelligence services had completely misread the situation in that nation. The Bush administration alleged that Saddam Hussein was creating weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but none were found after the U.S.-British invasion. If we included smaller conflicts -such as the contra war, which was based on a myriad of allegations against Nicaragua in the 1980s- this list of false or questionable justifications for war would become lengthy. Given this background, how seriously should we fear this new potential threat?

Sadly, biological weapons programs are by their nature easy to conceal, and difficult to evaluate. As a result, this is one potential nightmare associated with North Korea that is profoundly difficult to place in a broader context. We simply don’t have sufficient information yet to know the true scale of the danger.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

The Nisman Conspiracy Theories

In Argentina a judge has just ruled that the death of Alberto Nisman was a murder, not a suicide. One of Nisman’s old employees was also charged as an accessory to murder. Nisman’s death has been an ongoing mystery, after he was found dead with a bullet wound in his head, the day that he was supposed to testify to Congress regarding a potential government coverup in the 1994 AMIA bombing.

My colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez and I wrote an article on this topic, which was published at an open-source journal. The focus of our work was the competing conspiracy theories regarding the Nisman case, and how they reflected not only the nation’s political divisions but also its history. If you are interested in this topic, please read our article, which is freely available.

Rodriguez, L. and Smallman, S. (2016). Political Polarization and Nisman’s Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina. Journal of International and Global Studies Volume 8, Number 1, p. 20-39.

The article ended with these sentences: “The best path forward would likely be for the Argentine state to ask for a panel of international experts to investigate both the AMIA bombing and Nisman’s death. This step is unlikely, given the interests of different political actors and the power of nationalism in Argentine political discourse. Nonetheless, only this step is likely to restore public trust and thereby weaken the power of conspiracy theories in Argentina.”

Are you interested in Latin America. You can find my own book on military terror in Brazilian history here.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Protest march in Buenos Aires 1 year death anniversary of Alberto Nisman. By Jaluj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The secret deal in Raqqa

Destroyed neighborhood in Raqqa. By Mahmoud Bali (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By the summer of 2017, the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria was the last remaining stronghold of ISIL in the Middle East. The U.S. backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) launched a major attack on the city beginning in June. On October 17, 2017, these forces announced the fall of the city and the utter defeat of ISIL. The BBC, however, had reporters on the ground, who reported a shocking twist to the story of the city’s fall. Members of the attacking forces had cut a deal to allow hundreds -perhaps thousands- of fighters to escape from the city. In a video titled, “Fall of Raqqa: The secret deal,” the BBC reporters traced the convoy’s path as far as Turkey, where they interviewed smugglers who took ISIL members across the border. Amongst the people who escaped were many foreign fighters, who threaten their own country’s security when they return. France, in particular, seems to be a target. …

The Dogs of War

Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook

Recently, there have been a series of articles pointing to the signs of war in the Middle East. Of course, given the ongoing civil war in Syria, the chaotic situation in Libya, and the current blockade of Yemen, it’s also true that war is already ravaging the region. Still, many observers are pointing to the real risk that the region might slide into the equivalent to World War One. The long-standing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia pushes the region towards unrestricted and massive warfare.

Of all the articles on this topic, I particularly like Michael Coren’s on the CBC News website, “Ominous signs that the next war in the Middle East is coming, and it won’t be pretty.” Coren points to particular signs that suggest that a conflict may be impending. What struck me in particular was the fact that 2,245 people had commented on this piece, which suggests that many people were as impressed by this brief analysis as I was. Highly recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2017

Drug War in the Philippines

Orthographic map of the Philippines. By Addicted04 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m teaching a fully online course on the Global Drug Trade this fall. In the Americas when we think of the drug trade we typically think of cocaine and the Mexican Drug War. Yet the drug trade is a global trade, which runs from the fields of poppies in Afghanistan, to the fentanyl produced in East Asia that is destined for North America. The Drug War has led to appalling violence in many nations, such as the Philippines.

President Duterte came to power in June 2016 as a populist, with a long history of outrageous statements and extreme positions. Regarding drug users and traffickers, Duterte said that he would “slaughter them all.” Immediately after his inauguration thousands of people were killed by death squads, or were shot by police upon the mere suspicion of doing drugs. The President’s policy was initially popular, but over the last few months people have tired of the unending violence.

In the United States, one could argue that the War on Drugs really dates to 1973, when President Richard Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Agency. This approach conceived as drugs as a security threat to be dealt by strengthening the border, increasing the number of police, and using the U.S. armed forces and allied militaries to target drug traffickers. In 1999, the United States adopted Plan Colombia to fight both the drug cartels and guerrillas in Colombia. The U.S. gave over eight billion dollars to Colombia to expand its armed forces, purchase military equipment, carry out aerial spraying, and fight the cartels. Despite this substantial investment, the supply and price of cocaine in the United States did not decline, even after the death of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel. The center of drug trafficking, however, did shift to Mexico. …

A very expensive poison, a book review

“The reception room in the building of the Federal Security Service.” RIA Novosti archive, image #98400 / Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Luke Harding’s, A Very Expensive Poison, describes how Russian security services murdered dissident Alexander Litivenko in 2006. While the study of the assassination itself is detailed, riveting, and depressing, the true horror is the picture that the book paints of the Russian state. According to Harding’s detailed and well-sourced account, Russia’s senior leaders -including Vladimir Putin himself- are deeply involved in corruption and organized crime. As such, the book is not the story of one man’s death, but also an indictment of an entire government.

The FSB is the successor agency to the much feared Russian KGB. Litvinenko had served as an agent within the organization, and even briefly met with Putin itself. Disillusioned with the FSB’s criminality he defected to the West with the aid of a Russian oligarch, and began to work for the British intelligence service, M-16.

The Russian state had many secrets to keep. I’ve made an academic study of conspiracy theories related to everything from the 2009 H1N1 “Swine flu” pandemic, to (with my colleague Leopoldo Rodriguez) the death of Argentine prosecutor Nisman. This man died hours before he had been scheduled to testify before Congress regarding the 1994 AMIA bombing. Conspiracy theories are interesting, because sometimes conspiracies do happen. Whether a narrative represents an accurate depiction of facts, or is part of an irrational worldview characterized by paranoia, is always a judgement call. In the case of Russia, there are numerous examples of conspiracy narratives of uncertain validity. For example, Harding discusses (50-51) the apartment bombings that provided the justification for the Russian invasion of Chechnya. Litvinenko argued in a book, Blowing Up Russia, that the Russian FSB itself had undertaken this attack as a false flag event. To the best of my knowledge no important new information to support this argument has emerged since the book’s publication, and the truth of this assertion is unclear. Given the seriousness of this allegation, however, it’s unsurprising that Litvinenko would fear Russia’s security services. Still, what drew him to Russian attention, Harding suggests, was not his work with M-16, but rather Spanish intelligence services. The Spanish state was investigating Russian organized crime’s activities (money laundering, bank fraud, real estate purchases, etc) in their own country. The Spanish authorities found evidence of close collaboration between Russian criminals and government authorities in their home country. …

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