Secret Russian spy base in Syria seized by Western-backed rebels

Screenshot from FSA videoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Rebel forces aligned to Syria’s Western-backed opposition have announced the seizure of a joint Syrian-Russian spy base, which observers say reveals the extent of Russia’s intelligence cooperation with Syria. The base is located at the base of the Tel Al-Hara Mountain, in southern Syria’s Golan Heights region, just south of the border crossing with Israel in the now largely destroyed Syrian city of Quneitra. The Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it took over the spy base on Sunday, following several weeks of fighting against rival groups, including Syrian government soldiers and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The FSA said the base, referred to as “Center C” by Russian intelligence, had been under Russian command until it was abandoned at a time and for reasons that remain unknown. In a three-minute video released by the Western-backed rebel group on YouTube, an FSA officer appears to be guiding the cameraman around part of the seized base. He points to several diagrams and captions on the walls, which are both in Arabic and in Russian. At some point in the video, the seal of Syrian intelligence is clearly visible, placed next to the seal of the GRU’s 6th Directorate, the branch of Russian military intelligence that is tasked with collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT). At another point in the video, a series of photographs can be seen that depict Syrian and Russian intelligence officers working together in gathering and analyzing intelligence. Interestingly, one of the walls in the base features a map of northern Israel, an area that is adjacent to the Golan Heights, and appears to show the location of Israeli SIGINT stations and military encampments. It is unclear when exactly the spy base was abandoned by the Russian and Syrian intelligence officers that staffed it, Read more of this post

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Iran silent about deadly blast that ‘lit up sky’ near Tehran

Parchin military complexBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The government of Iran is refusing to comment on a reported blast at a secretive military facility that some sources say “lit up the sky” last week. The blast is said to have taken place on Sunday night at the Parchin military complex, located approximately 20 miles southeast of Iranian capital Tehran. The semi-official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on Monday that the explosion had been caused by a “fire [that] broke out in an explosive materials production unit” east of Tehran, and that two people had died. Interestingly, however, the news agency did not specify the precise location of the blast, nor did it identify the “explosive materials production unit” in question. There was also no mention of the cause of the fire that allegedly resulted in the blast. A few hours later, the Iranian-language news site SahamNews, which is politically linked to the Iranian opposition, claimed that the blast happened at Parchin and that it was a “massive explosion” that “lit up the evening sky” and caused windows to shatter as far as 9 miles away from the complex. It is worth noting that the blast was reported just hours after Israeli officials accused Iran of conducting nuclear implosion tests at a host of nuclear facilities, including Parchin. Israel is among several countries, including the United States, that have accused Iran of conducting nuclear experimentation at Parchin. The last time that the site was inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency was in 2005. Since then, Iranian authorities have rejected repeated IAEA requests for access to the site. There are suspicions that the latest explosion may be part of what many suspect is a longstanding campaign of sabotage against the Iranian nuclear program, orchestrated by Israel with the possible cooperation of the US and other countries. The campaign is believed to include psychological operations, sabotage, as well as targeted assassinations of senior Iranian nuclear scientists. Read more of this post

Estonia arrests Russian ex-KGB intelligence officers

EstoniaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Authorities in Estonia have announced the arrest of two Russian citizens, said to be former employees of the Soviet-era KGB, who allegedly crossed into Estonian territory without a permit. The men have been identified as Alexandr Ladur, 54, and Mikhail Suhoshin, 64, and are reportedly retired intelligence officers. Estonian border police said the two men were apprehended while sailing on the river Narva, which flows from Lake Peipsi into the Baltic Sea and forms part of the border between Estonia and Russia. The two Russian citizens are being held on charges of illegally entering Estonian territory and resisting arrest. This is the second major diplomatic incident between Russia and the Baltic former Soviet republic in recent months. IntelNews regulars will recall that, in early September, the government of Estonia said Eston Kohver, a counterintelligence officer in the country’s Internal Security Service, was abducted by “a team of unidentified individuals from Russia”. The Estonian side claimed that the abduction had occurred at a border-crossing facility in southeastern Estonia. But Russian sources said at the time that Kohver had been detained while on Russian soil. Russian media later reported that the Estonian counterintelligence officer had been captured by Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as FSB, while undertaking an “espionage operation” inside Russia. Reports in the Russian press said Kohver was caught in Russia’s Pskov region, carrying a loaded firearm, €5,000 ($6,500) in cash, “covert video recording equipment”, an “eavesdropping device”, as well as “other items relating to the gathering of intelligence”. British newspaper The Guardian quoted Kalev Stoicescu, Russia expert at the International Center for Defense Studies in Estonian capital Tallinn, who did not rule out that the two alleged former KGB officers may in fact “have been merely fishing”. Read more of this post

Britain’s MI6 appoints new director amidst mounting global crises

Alex YoungerBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) has announced the appointment of a new director at a period that some see as the most critical for the agency since the end of the Cold War. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a brief statement on Saturday that Alex Younger will be replacing Sir John Sawers, who earlier this year announced he would be stepping down from the post. Prior to his appointment, Younger, 51, held the position of chief of global operations, which is considered the number two position at MI6. The Foreign Office statement described Younger as a “career SIS officer” who has worked for the agency since 1991, when he joined from the Scots Guards regiment of the British Army. He holds an economics degree and has served with MI6 in the Middle East, Europe, and Afghanistan, where he represented the agency as its most senior officer in the country following the US-led military of 2001. Upon his return to the United Kingdom, Younger directed MI6’s counterterrorism preparations in the lead-up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Some observers noted on Sunday that the new director’s appointment comes at a crucial period for Britain’s principal external intelligence agency, as it prepares to expand its operations in Iraq and Syria, in response to the growth of the Islamic State there. Additionally, British intelligence is refocusing on Eastern Europe, as the crisis in Ukraine threatens to further-damage relations between East and West, which appear to be on their direst state since the Cold War. Younger’s appointment will be seen as a reaffirmation by the government of the work of Sir John, who has led MI6 for four years. Many were surprised when Sir John, who was a diplomat, not an intelligence officer, was named as director of MI6 in 2010. It was said at the time that his appointment was meant to be seen as a public response by the government over strong accusations that the agency had seriously underperformed in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Sir John has tried to restore MI6’s reputation and has been particularly noted for his public appearances, which included lectures and speeches at parliamentary hearings. Read more of this post

China hacking Hong Kong protesters’ smartphones, says security firm

Hong Kong protestersBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
A mobile telephone security company has said the government of China is probably behind a sophisticated malware designed to compromise the smartphones of protesters in Hong Kong. Ever since the Hong Kong ‘umbrella revolution’ began to unfold, countless reports have referred to the use of smartphone applications as organizing tools by the protesters. According to one account, an application called FireChat was downloaded by more than 100,000 smartphone users in Hong Kong in less than 24 hours. FireChat is said to allow protesters to continue communicating with each other even when their individual devices are unable to connect to a mobile network. But a California-based mobile telephone security firm has warned that the Chinese government could be using such enabling applications to compromise the smartphones of pro-democracy protesters in the former British colony. Lacoon Mobile Security, which specializes in assessing and mitigating mobile security threats, said on Tuesday that it had detected several types of malware camouflaged as mobile phone applications designed to help the protesters organize. In a statement posted on its website, the security firm said that, once downloaded by a smartphone user, the malware gives an outsider access to the address book, communication logs and other private data stored on the unsuspecting user’s device. Lacoon added that what made the malware unusual was that it came in two different versions; one appears to target smartphones that run Apple’s iOS operating system, while the other is designed to compromise phones using Google’s Android software. The company noted that the types of malware that are circulating among Hong Kong protesters were some of the most sophisticated it had ever seen. They made use of a method called mRAT, which stands for multidimensional requirements analysis tool. Among other things, mRAT allows a hacker to take surreptitious pictures using the phone camera of a compromised smartphone. According to Lacoon, the design of the malware in question is so advanced that it is “undoubtedly backed by a nation state”. Read more of this post

Are US spy agencies sharing weapons, intelligence with Hezbollah?

Cyprus, Israel, Syria, LebanonBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
In its effort to amass regional support for its war against the Islamic State, the United States is reaching out to militant Shiites in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, according to some sources. In a report for New York-based magazine Newsweek, veteran intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein said on Wednesday that the meteoric rise of Sunni radicalism, in the form of the Islamic State, may have prompted the creation of a “de facto US-Saudi-Lebanese-Hezbollah-Iranian” alliance in the Middle East. Although no partner in this informal coalition is willing to admit its role in the collaborative effort, the common goal of eradicating Sunni extremism has brought about an “unwritten, unacknowledged cease fire” between these former adversaries, says Stein, quoting “authoritative sources”. Washington and Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that controls large swathes of Lebanese territory, have a common interest in combating the Islamic State and preventing its rule from spreading beyond Syria. So the Americans began reaching out to Hezbollah in 2012, says Stein, and have helped bring about a “regional consensus [...] to contain the conflict away from Lebanon and in Syria”. Remarkably, bitter adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are said to actively subscribe to the Washington-led consensus against the Islamic State. Washington’s decision to reach out to Hezbollah appears to have been prompted by the realization that the militant Shiite group, along with the official Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), were the only actors on the ground capable of fighting and defeating the Islamic State. Last August, says Stein, the US Pentagon unloaded $20 million worth of weapons in Lebanon for use by the LAF. The weapons were reportedly shipped through the Beirut International Airport, which his under the control of Hezbollah. The group promptly transferred the weapons to the LAF, which is traditionally dominated by Christians, but has recently developed an “arm’s length alliance with Hezbollah” due to their mutual concern over the rise of the Islamic State. Stein suggests that the US-Hezbollah relationship may now also include intelligence-sharing. He quotes a number of sources who claim that some Sunni militants have been apprehended thanks to intelligence-sharing between America, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Some claim that Iran acts as a mediator between Washington and Hezbollah, and that British diplomats also mediate between the two sides. Read more of this post

US spy agencies weigh in on telephone contracting deal

Ericsson TelecommunicationsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A host of American intelligence agencies are intervening to discourage a business deal that would see a vital aspect of the United States telephone network end up under the control of a European telecommunications firm. The contracting agreement concerns the administration of the US routing network, designed in the late 1990s as a kind of traffic controller of America’s deregulated and fragmented telephone system. The routing network ensures centralized access to pen-register data, which reveal the time, duration, telephone numbers and subscriber information associated with each telephone call. Because of that, the routing system is seen as a vital tool by American law enforcement and intelligence agencies that engage in state-sponsored communications interception. Although the routing control system is supervised by the US government’s Federal Communications Commission, its maintenance has been sub-contracted since the mid-1990s to a small Virginia-based private company called Neustar. Now, however, the FCC is apparently considering transferring the administration of the routing network to Ericsson Telecommunications, a Swedish firm that says it can do Neustar’s job more efficiently for a reduced cost to the government. As can be expected, Neustar objects to Ericsson’s bid, arguing that awarding the American telephone system’s administration to a foreign firm could have “unwarranted and potentially harmful” effects on American security. The company claims that the FCC is focusing solely on the financial aspect of the deal, while ignoring national security concerns. Neustar’s warnings are being echoed by a host of American intelligence agencies, who say they depend on the Virginia-based company for access to telephone data in the course of their investigations. They claim that, by allowing a non-American company to access the US routing system, surveillance data relating to national security investigations could be compromised. In a recent article, The New York Times quoted “current and former intelligence officials” as saying that they were “concerned that the government’s ability to trace reams of phone data could be hindered” if Ericsson won the contract. They cautioned that this would also hamper criminal and terrorism investigations. Read more of this post

Analysis: Europe’s ‘spy capital’ struggles to police espionage, terrorism

Vienna, AustriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Throughout the Cold War, Vienna was Europe’s busiest ‘spy hub’ linking East and West. Little has changed today, as the Austrian capital is still believed to feature “the highest density of [foreign spies] in the world”. A recently published book estimated that there are 7,000 spies among the 17,000 accredited diplomats who live and work in Vienna, a city of fewer than 2 million inhabitants. International spies have taken advantage of Austria’s relatively liberal espionage laws and have operated with near-unparalleled ease in the central European country for over 200 years. But now the country’s Ministry of Interior is seeking to terminate Austria’s liberal espionage regime and has initiated a plan to give local authorities more counterintelligence powers. Supporters of the proposal argue that Austria has “the most permissive spying laws in Europe”, which allow foreign agents to operate on Austrian soil with a high degree of impunity. This is because, under Austrian law, intelligence activities are not considered criminal unless they target the host country. For this reason, American, Russian, German, French, and other intelligence agencies have for years used Vienna as a base for recruiting agents and collecting intelligence. Supporters of the Interior Ministry’s proposal argue that the current legal regime has been used to harm the national interests of Austria and the security of the European Union —a reference to recent claims in the Austrian media that the United States National Security Agency has been spying on the United Nations headquarters in Vienna. Additionally, Austrian authorities say they are now worried about local Muslims who have been radicalized and have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. The government estimates that at least 140 Austrian Muslims have made the trip to the Middle East to join the militant organization. Austria’s counterterrorist agency, the BVT, said in its annual report for 2014 that another 60 radical Muslims had returned to Austria from the Middle East since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Marakovits told Bloomberg that Austrian security services are “having a hard time doing their job the way they are expected to do”. Read more of this post

Canadian spies were tortured, hanged abroad, says former official

Arthur PorterBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
A handful of Canadian spies were tortured and hanged abroad after they were caught spying, according to a former official previously tasked with overseeing Canada’s intelligence agency. IntelNews has covered before the case of Dr. Arthur Porter, a Cambridge University-educated oncologist is currently in prison in Panama. Porter is awaiting extradition to Canada for allegedly receiving large bribes in connection with his former post as Director General of the McGill University Health Centre in Montréal. According to the state of Quebec, Porter is one of several people who took bribes offered by a Canadian engineering company in return for being awarded a lucrative construction contract at McGill University. The allegations, which were first made by Canadian newspaper The National Post in 2011, prompted Porter to resign from his sensitive post in Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC), which he had held since 2008. SIRC investigates grievances against the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). In order to fulfill his Committee duties, Porter had been given a top-secret security clearance, which gave him access to the CSIS’ most closely held secrets. He has now authored a book, titled The Man Behind the Bow Tie, in which he describes some of the CSIS’ ‘dirty laundry’ in recent years. The imprisoned former official alleges that a handful of Canadian intelligence operatives were caught carrying out espionage in a foreign “country that was not exactly a close friend of Canada”. Porter does not name the country, but says the CSIS spies were apprehended while photographing military hardware, including armored vehicles. The captured spies were eventually “tortured and hanged”, says Porter, adding that “none of these incidents ever made the papers”. The former SIRC committee member seems to imply that the Canadian government opted to withhold the information from the public because the murdered spies had been acting “without the formal approval” of CSIS and were “stretching the limits of their official position” when apprehended by rival counterintelligence operatives. Porter claims that the truth behind the deaths of these operatives were hidden even from their families; in one case, the family of a murdered CSIS operative was told that he “fell off a balcony in Dubai”, says Porter. Andrew McIntosh, National Security Correspondent for Canada’s QMI News Agency, noted earlier this month that Canada’s intelligence community appeared “palpably uncomfortable” when confronted with Porter’s allegations. He and his colleagues were referred by SIRC to CSIS, whose spokesperson, Tahera Mufti, did not respond to emails and telephone calls. Read more of this post

Austrian reporter alleges NSA spies on Vienna, including UN complex

Roof of the IZD Tower in ViennaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A reporter for Austria’s state broadcaster claims to have uncovered a United States National Security Agency listening post in Austrian capital Vienna, which he claims spies on the United Nations facility, among other targets. In September 2013, Austrian media alleged that a villa in Vienna’s Pötzleinsdorf district belonging to the US embassy there was part of a sophisticated communications interception network operated by Washington. At the time, both the US and Austrian governments denied the claims, with the US embassy claiming that the building served as an open-source center that processed and evaluated information that was openly available in Austrian media outlets and the Internet. Now, however, Austrian reporter Erich Möchel, who works for the country’s state-owned ORF broadcaster, says he believes he has identified another part of an alleged extensive NSA-run listening network in the nation’s capital. The reporter published a series of photographs from the roof of the so-called IZD Tower, a commercial 41-story skyscraper located in Vienna’s 22nd district, which is within walking distance from the UN facility there. Möchel said the photographs show the roof of the building, which is one of the tallest in Vienna, and were leaked to him by an anonymous source. They show what appears to be a grey-colored boxy structure, which resembles a maintenance hut on the roof of the tower. The hut is enclosed by rows of solid steel bars resembling a fence, and surrounded by approximately 10 surveillance cameras. Interestingly, the hut, which overlooks the UN building complex, cannot be seen from the street, or from nearby buildings. Möchel speculates that the hut is made of fiberglass, which would allow it to absorb radio signals and commercial mobile telecommunications messages, with the help of antennas located in its interior. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #884 (Mossad edition)

Mossad sealBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
►►How Israel spies on the Sinai. Israeli intelligence services have expanded their activities in the Sinai Peninsula since the Hosni Mubarak regime fell in 2011, and along with it, the Sinai state security apparatus affiliated with the Egyptian Ministry of Interior. Israeli intelligence services often target young smugglers, attempting to pressure them into working as operatives for Israel in the peninsula.
►►Veteran Mossad operative Mike Harari dies. Israeli secret service agent Mike Harari, who played a major role in planning WRATH OF GOD, Mossad’s revenge attacks against Palestinian militants implicated in the 1972 Munich massacre of the country’s Olympics team, has died. He was 87. Harari was also involved in planning Israel’s dramatic rescue of hostages held by militants in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976. He was depicted by Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film “Munich”, a controversial account of the Operation WRATH OF GOD affair.
►►Mossad launches new recruiting website. The Mossad has launched a new website, in several languages, in order to recruit candidates to its ranks. The reported goal of the upgraded site is to make the organization more accessible to potential recruits in Israel and abroad, who “may not be exposed to the variety of positions available in operations, intelligence, technology and cyber, and administration”. The Israeli covert-action agency says positions are available for men and women alike.

CIA issues ‘stand-down’ on spying against Western Europe

CIA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The United States Central Intelligence Agency has issued a “stand-down order” to its stations in Europe, instructing them to cease all intelligence operations targeting allied countries, media reports claim. According to several Western European news outlets, including British newspaper The Guardian, CIA stations in Europe have been “forbidden from undertaking unilateral operations” involving assets recruited from within government agencies allied to Washington. Last summer, the German government instructed its intelligence agencies to limit their cooperation with their American counterparts “to the bare essentials”. Berlin also expelled the United States Central Intelligence Agency chief of station —essentially the top American official in the country. The moves came after successive revelations by American defector Edward Snowden, suggesting that Washington had spied on Germany and other Western European countries with unprecedented intensity in recent years. In July, Berlin arrested two German intelligence officers who it said were spying on Germany on behalf of the CIA. The Guardian said that the stand-down order came into effect shortly after the arrests of the CIA’s two German assets and Berlin’s subsequent reaction, which diplomatic observers described as “unprecedented”. The order was communicated to CIA stations “by senior CIA officials through secret cables”, said the paper. The decision is reportedly aimed at giving CIA stations in Europe time to evaluate the degree of operational security of their intelligence-collection programs and assess whether their officers were “being careful enough” so as to prevent further embarrassment for Langley. Additionally, CIA stations have been asked to evaluate whether targeting allied nations in espionage operations is “worth running the risk of discovery”, said The Guardian. Since the stand-down order was issued, CIA case officers have reportedly stopped meeting with all of their assets recruited from within allied governments. The London-based newspaper quoted one anonymous former CIA official who said stand-downs of this sort are not uncommon after operations are compromised, but added that he could not remember a stand-down order being “this long or this deep”. Read more of this post

More on British wartime honey-trap operative ‘FIFI’

Christine Marie ChilverBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
New material, including photographs, has emerged on ‘agent FIFI’, a World War II-era female British intelligence operative tasked with using her good looks to test the ability of male spy trainees to withhold sensitive information. As IntelNews reported last week, FIFI was the operational codename of Christine Marie Chilver, a British subject born in London of a British father and a Latvian mother, who was educated at a German-language school in Latvian capital Riga before attending Sorbonne University in Paris. In 1941, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) hired Chilver as a counterintelligence operative and tasked her with accosting SOE spy trainees at restaurants and bars and trying to entice them into revealing government secrets, in an effort to evaluate whether spies-in-training could “keep their mouths shut”. One declassified SOE document said FIFI was selected for the task due to her “unusual gifts of courage and intelligence”. According to British National Archives historian Jonathan Cole, FIFI became “a legend of SOE” and “a symbol of seduction”, and was rumored to have slept with a number of trainees in order to “find out whether they talked in their sleep”. Another SOE report noted that Chilver’s looks were “too striking and foreign for English tastes”, but added that most of the SOE trainees targeted by Chilver were foreign-born, so her cover as a French journalist was both adequate and suitable for her continental image. This past weekend, London-based newspaper The Sunday Telegraph published several photographs of Chilver, which were given to the paper by one of the wartime operative’s few friends, Janice Cutmore. Initially employed by Chilver as a house cleaner, Cutmore eventually cared for the retired SOE agent until the end of her life. When Chilver died, she left part of her estate to Cutmore, along with a single album of photographs of herself, many of them from the 1940s and 1950s. Cutmore told The Telegraph that, after leaving the SOE, Chilver cohabitated with her fellow-SOE operative and lifelong companion Jean ‘Alex’ Felgate, whom she never married. Read more of this post

Analysis: How does Israel recruit Palestinian informants in Gaza?

Erez border crossingBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
According to human-rights organizations, the Palestinian group Hamas has executed over 50 alleged Israeli informants in the Gaza Strip. Nearly two dozen Gaza residents were accused of collaborating with Israel and summarily shot in the weeks following the recent war between Israel and Hamas. There are serious concerns over the absence of appropriate legal processes in these executions. The issue of legal standards aside, however, there is little question that Israeli intelligence agencies have for decades relied on Palestinian informants to gather information on Arab communities in Israel and the Occupied Territories. These individuals provide the Israeli intelligence establishment with human intelligence or plant technical surveillance equipment as instructed by their handlers. But how do Israeli intelligence agencies, including the Mossad and Shin Bet, recruit Palestinian informants in difficult-to-penetrate places such as the Gaza Strip?

Palestinians who have been personally wronged by Hamas, or who oppose the militant group’s seven-year rule in the Gaza Strip, constitute low-hanging fruit for Israeli recruiters. Other informants, such as petty-thieves and other small-time criminals, are recruited through traditional intelligence techniques that include entrapment or blackmail. But it would be reasonable to assume that most recruits are lured by direct cash payments. Unemployment in the Gaza Strip is currently estimated at 40 percent, which makes offers of cash extremely enticing for a significant segment of the Gazan population. One officer in the Shin Bet —Israel’s domestic intelligence agency— said recently in respect to the recruitment of informants that “everything starts and ends with money”.

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China charges its ambassador to Iceland with spying for Japan

Ma JisengBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Authorities in China have reportedly arrested the Chinese ambassador to Iceland on suspicion of spying on behalf of Japan, according to media reports. Ma Jiseng, 57, is a career diplomat who spent over eight years at the embassy of China in Japan. He was there in two separate stints, from 1991 to 1995 and from 2004 to 2008. In December of 2012, he arrived with his wife to Reykjavik, Iceland, where he assumed the post of China’s ambassador in the Nordic island nation. But, according to reports in the Icelandic media, Ma hurriedly left Reykjavik for Beijing on January 23 of this year, telling his staff that he was supposed to return in March. His wife followed him soon afterwards. Today, nearly eight months later, Ma and his wife have yet to reappear in the Icelandic capital. The plot thickened last week, when the online Chinese-language review Mingjing News published a news story claiming that Ma and his wife had been summoned back to Beijing and arrested upon arrival by Chinese authorities “for spying on behalf of Japan”. Shortly afterwards, Kai Lei, editor at the Hong Kong-based Wenweipo Chinese-language newspaper, blogged that Ma had been “arrested by [China’s] Ministry of State Security” on suspicion of “leaking international secrets to Japan”. According to the media reports, Ma was believed to have been recruited by Japanese intelligence during his second diplomatic stint in Tokyo, which lasted from 2004 to 2008. Interestingly, however, the reports about Ma’s alleged arrest began vanishing from Chinese news media websites just hours after they initially appeared. Reporters in Iceland turned to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who said the Chinese embassy in Reykjavik claimed Ma was unable to return to Iceland “due to personal reasons”. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs refuses to comment on the case. Read more of this post

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