France approves sweeping spy bill in response to Islamist attacks

Attack on Charlie HebdoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Lawmakers in the French National Assembly have overwhelmingly approved a new bill giving the country’s intelligence services unprecedented domestic spy capabilities. The bill, which is dismissed by critics as France’s version of the United States’ PATRIOT Act, was drafted by the ruling Socialist Party just days after a group of armed Islamists attacked several targets in Paris. The attacks were primarily directed against France’s popular satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (see photo). A dozen members of the magazine’s staff, including several internationally-known cartoonists, were killed at the magazine’s headquarters in the French capital on January 7 of this year.

The newly approved bill provides blanket-approval for the wholesale interception and storage of communications metadata, which include information about the location and size of Internet-based communications exchanges. They also include information on the identities of those sending or receiving electronic messages. The legislation also includes a provision for the establishment of a new supervisory body called the National Commission for Control of Intelligence Techniques. Its mission will be to supervise the use of surveillance powers by France’s six intelligence agencies, as well as to handle complaints relating to communications interception from members of the public.

As the bill progressed through France’s houses of parliament, the French government and its supporters argued that the country needed national legislation that would take into consideration the rapid technical changes in digital telecommunications. But critics, which included most of France’s Internet service providers, claimed that the new law would give intelligence agencies unreasonably broad surveillance powers and would hamper online commerce. These claims, however, failed to convince lawmakers; the bill was thus approved by 438 votes for to 86 against. Most parliamentarians from France’s three main parties —the Socialist Party, the rightwing Union for a Popular Movement, and the centrist Union of Democrats and Independents— voted in favor of the bill. Observers noted with surprise that most lawmakers from the Radical Party of the Left also voted in favor of the bill. In contrast, the communist-led Left Front, as well as the Greens, voted overwhelmingly against the bill.

Colombian ex-spy head sent to prison over wiretapping scandal

Maria del Pilar HurtadoBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The former director of Colombia’s intelligence service, who recently surrendered after being on the run for five years, has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for organizing an illegal wiretapping campaign against politicians, judges and other high-profile personalities. María del Pilar Hurtado directed the highly disreputable Administrative Department for Security (DAS) from 2007 to 2009. But on October 31, 2010, she left Colombia, apparently unobstructed, despite being a prime subject in a high-level investigation into political spying by DAS. She later surfaced in Panama, where she formally requested political asylum. The latter was granted to her in November 2010, causing the amazement of public prosecutors in Bogota, who accused the Panamanian government of subverting Colombian justice.

Hurtado is among 18 senior officials facing charges for criminal activities during the administration of Colombia’s former President Alvaro Uribe. His critics accuse him of authorizing a massive program of political surveillance, which targeted former presidents, Supreme Court judges, prominent journalists, union leaders, human rights campaigners, and even European politicians. Last summer, after consistent diplomatic pressure from the Colombian government, Panama’s Supreme Court to ruled that Hurtado’s asylum had been granted to her in violation of the Panamanian constitution. Eventually, Hurtado’s asylum was revoked; but by that time the fugitive former spy director had once again disappeared. Her whereabouts remained unknown until September 30 of this year, when Interpol issued an international arrest warrant for her capture. That same evening, Hurtado appeared at the Colombian embassy in Panama and promptly identified herself, stating that she was turning herself in.

In reporting on Hurtado’s sentencing, the Reuters news agency noted on Thursday that approximately “two-thirds of Uribe’s closest political allies during his presidency […] have been convicted, sanctioned or investigated for crimes”. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that several senior Colombian justice officials have called for a wider investigation of Uribe himself and several of his top aides, for their role in the DAS wiretapping program.

Airbus to sue Germany for helping US spy on its operations

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.orgBND headquarters in Berlin
European conglomerate Airbus has announced it will file a criminal complaint over allegations that German intelligence services collaborated with their American counterparts to spy on the aerospace firm. The impending lawsuit stems from allegations made last week in the German media that Berlin colluded with Washington to carry out industrial espionage in several European countries. The alleged collaboration involved Germany’s Bundesnachrichtendienst, known as BND, and the United States’ National Security Agency. According to German media reports, the two agencies joined forces at the request of the NSA, in order to determine whether European companies were breaking international trade embargoes. For that purpose, the two agencies launched a joint communications interception project that targeted telephone, email and other online exchanges involving a host of governmental and corporate targets in Europe. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said last week that the BND used its Bad Aibling listening station to spy on, among other targets, the palace of the French president in Paris, the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels, as well as Airbus, which is headquartered in Toulouse.

A statement by Airbus, which was quoted by the Reuters news agency, said that the company was well aware that large firms competing for international contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros “are often targets of espionage”. However, said the company, the recent case involving the alleged BND-NSA collaboration caused it considerable alarm, “because there are firm reasons for suspicion”. The company added that it did not wish to speculate further and noted that it had communicated with German federal authorities requesting further information on the allegations of corporate espionage. Meanwhile, Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maiziere, who supervises the BND, denied rumors that Berlin had tried to cover up the collaboration between the BND and the NSA, and called for the espionage allegations to be investigated by parliament.

The news comes amidst a rocky period in the bilateral relationship between Germany and the United States. In July of last year, Germany expelled the CIA station chief —essentially the top American spy in the country— from its territory. The unprecedented move was prompted by a series of extraordinary disclosures made by US defector Edward Snowden, concerning extensive American intelligence operations against Germany.

Declassified report points to flaws in post-9/11 NSA wiretapping

NSA's Utah Data CenterBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A lengthy United States government report into the post-9/11 communications interception program by the National Security Agency says it was limited in both usefulness and effectiveness. The report examines the controversial NSA program codenamed STELLAR WIND, initiated in the wake of 9/11 on direct orders by the then-President George W. Bush. It instructed the NSA to launch an extensive program of data mining of American citizens’ information, as well as monitor their telephone conversations, Internet activity and financial transactions. The existence of STELLAR WIND was revealed in 2005 by The New York Times, based on allegations by a US government whistleblower, who three years later identified himself as US Justice Department official Thomas M. Tamm. By that time, Congress had stepped in to formally legalize the program, which many criticized as unconstitutional.

Last Friday, The New York Times received an internal report on STELLAR WIND that was produced jointly in 2009 by the inspectors general of five American law enforcement and intelligence agencies. A short, unclassified summary of the document had been published by the Department of Justice when the report had first came out. But The Times have now received a complete —albeit redacted— version of the report, following a Freedom of Information lawsuit it filed last year. According to the paper, the report includes “several paragraphs” describing “success” cases that ensured from the information derived from STELLAR WIND. However, these are all redacted. But the report also points out that the program’s secrecy made it extremely obscure even within the US Intelligence Community and thus it “hampered its effectiveness” by making it less useful. It appears that only a small, select group of Central Intelligence Agency analysts even knew of the program’s existence, while Federal Bureau of Investigation analysts and agents were effectively unable to use the program due to its “highly classified status”.

The report also states that, as of 2009, senior American intelligence officials “struggled to identify any specific terrorist attacks that had been thwarted” by STELLAR WIND. Additionally, it appears that none of the counterterrorist leads derived from the program between August 2004 and January 2006 proved useful in FBI investigations.

Macau authorities deny CIA tried to assassinate Snowden

PLA Macao GarrisonBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Authorities in the Chinese region of Macau have denied news reports that Chinese Special Forces averted an attempt by the United States Central Intelligence Agency to kill or capture American defector Edward Snowden. The reports were initially published on March 8 on the website of China News Service, China’s second-largest state-owned news agency after Xinhua. The news agency, which serves China’s Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, said that a secretive unit of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army held a private function to celebrate its success against an alleged attempt by the CIA to kill Snowden. The American former computer expert worked for the CIA and the National Security Agency before defecting to Russia in the summer of 2013. Prior to arriving in Russia, however, Snowden first sought refuge in Hong Kong, where he stayed until June 23.

According to Chinese media reports, the US sent a CIA assassination squad to Hong Kong in mid-June 2013, in an effort to either abduct or kill Snowden. However, the defector’s life was allegedly saved by men from the so-called “Sharp Swords” Special Forces unit of the PLA’s Macao Quick Reaction Platoon. The latter, which is part of the PLA’s Macau Garrison, had reportedly been urgently dispatched to Hong Kong by the Chinese government, in order to guard the high-profile American defector. Some reports suggest that a fierce firefight took place between the Chinese Special Forces troops and the CIA hit squad, which eventually left four CIA officers dead, including “a senior member of the CIA’s network in Hong Kong”. When Snowden transferred to Russia, the PLA unit returned to its base in Macau, where it remains today. Chinese news media alleged that a special “special event” was held in honor of the PLA unit, during which several of its members received “first-class merit awards” for protecting Snowden and neutralizing the alleged CIA operatives.

On Monday, however, the First Secretary of the Security Office of Macau, Wong Sin Chat, told local media that the reports of a PLA award ceremony were “nothing more than rumors”. He added that there had been no attempt by anyone to assassinate Snowden, and noted that, on behalf of Macau’s state authorities, he could “absolutely confirm” that the news reports had been inaccurate. Washington has yet to comment on the allegations.

Russian hackers accessed Obama’s email correspondence

White HouseBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Computer hackers believed to be connected to the Russian government were able to access emails belonging to the president of the United States, according to American officials briefed about the ensuing investigation. The cyberattack on the White House was announced by American government officials in October of last year, soon after it was discovered by security experts. But The New York Times said on Saturday that the hacking was far more intrusive than had been publicly acknowledged and that the information breach resulting from it was “worrisome”. The paper said that the individuals behind the cyberattack were “presumed to be linked to the Russian government, if not working for it”. It also quoted one unnamed senior US official, who said that the group that perpetrated the hacking was “one of the most sophisticated actors we’ve seen”.

Little concrete information has emerged on the hacking, but it appears to have started with attempts to compromise computers at the US Department of State. As CNN reported earlier this month, the hackers essentially managed to take control of the State Department’s declassified computer network and exploit it for several months. In most American government departments, senior officials operate at least two computers in their offices. One is connected to the government’s secure network used for classified communications; the other is used to communicate unclassified information to the outside world. In theory, those two systems are supposed to be separate. However, it is common knowledge that the publicly linked computers often contain sensitive or even classified information. It is this unclassified part of the network that the alleged Russian hackers were able to access, in both the State Department and the White House.

According to The Times, by gaining access to the email accounts of senior US government officials, the hackers were able to read unclassified emails sent or received by, among others, President Barack Obama. The US president’s own unclassified account does not appear to have been breached, said the paper, nor were the hackers able to access the highly classified server that carries the president’s mobile telephone traffic. Nevertheless, the operation to remove monitoring files placed in US government servers by the hackers continues to this day, and some believe that the presence of the intruders has yet to be fully eradicated from the system. The Times contacted the US National Security Council about the issue, but was told by its spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan, that the Council would “decline to comment”. The White House also declined to provide further information on the incident and the ensuing investigation.

Yemen’s Shiite rebels are not Iran proxies: US intelligence officials

YemenBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
American intelligence officials have cautioned against the popular narrative that Yemen’s Shiite rebels are proxies or Iran, noting that Tehran actually counseled them against conquering Yemeni capital Sana’a last year. Known as Houthis, the group formally calls itself Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) and consists almost exclusively of Zaidi tribesmen, who follow an obscure form of Shia Islam. Their denomination, which distinguishes them from Yemen’s Sunni majority, shapes their ethnic identity and has helped fuel their 20-year insurgency against the Yemeni state. In September of last year, Houthi rebels, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the spillover of the Arab Spring into Yemen, marched into Sana’a, which had been virtually abandoned by the government’s security forces, and took it over.

The surprising move caused many in the Middle East to accuse Iran, whose Shiite government maintains strong religious and ideological connections with Yemen’s Zaidi community, of using the Houthis as a proxy army in order to destabilize Saudi Arabia’s southern regions. The latter are also populated by Shiite tribes, who are ethnically affiliated with the Houthis and view Iran as a kind of spiritual homeland. In Washington, the alleged Iranian link to the Houthi insurgency has been pointed to repeatedly by lawmakers opposed to the recent agreement between the Islamic Republic and a group of nations that have come to be known as P5+1, representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. The lawmakers argue that, while nominally agreeing to end its nuclear program, Tehran has been secretly conspiring to destabilize the entire Arabian Peninsula.

However, a report in online news agency The Huffington Post said on Monday that American intelligence officials are far from convinced that Iran is actually directing the Houthi insurgency. Citing “American officials familiar with intelligence” operations in Yemen, the New York-based news agency said Iran actively opposed the Houthis’ advance on the Yemeni capital in September of last year, and tried to prevent it. The Houthis, however, simply ignored Tehran’s advice and took over Sana’a. The Huffington Post quotes one unnamed American intelligence official who says that “it is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force of Iran”. The article also quotes Bernadette Meehan, spokeswoman for the United States National Security Council, who says that “it remains [the NSC’s] assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen”.

If it is accurate, the US intelligence assessment would mean that Tehran is far more interested in promoting its agreement with the P5+1 than commandeering a proxy war in Yemen. Additionally, those who suggest that Yemen’s Houthis are guided by Iran appear to ignore the fact that the Zaidis follow a branch of Shiite Islam that differs markedly from Iran’s. Knowledgeable observers have pointed out that the Houthi insurgency is far more concerned with combatting local government corruption and having a say in the country’s internal power struggles than promoting Shiite Islam in Yemen and beyond.

ISIS leader al-Baghdadi mortally wounded in airstrike, say sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The spiritual leader of the Islamic State is wounded so severely that he is no longer able to command the group’s daily activities, according to sources in Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Sunni Islamic cleric who grew up in Samarra, Iraq, was appointed leader of the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in May of 2010. Since that time he has served as the public face of the group, which has conquered territory in Iraq and Syria that is equal to that of Great Britain.

For over a month now, reports have emerged in various Arab media suggesting that al-Baghdadi is seriously hurt and fighting for his life. But there has been no confirmation of his whereabouts or fate. On Tuesday, however, British newspaper The Guardian said it had concrete information that the ISIS leader is wounded so gravely that he is unable to supervise the day-to-day operations of the group.

Citing sources in Iraq, including an Iraqi adviser and a Western diplomat posted there, the British broadsheet said al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded on March 18 during an airstrike on an ISIS convoy. The attack allegedly took place in al-Baaj, a Sunni-dominated tribal region of Nineveh Province, in northwestern Iraq. The area is located near the Syrian border, 200 miles west of the city of Mosul, a Sunni stronghold that is currently ruled by ISIS forces. According to the The Guardian’s sources, the ISIS convoy was attacked by jet fighters for routine tactical reasons. Neither the pilots, nor the commanders of the operation, were aware that al-Baghdadi was among the convoy’s passengers. The ISIS leader sustained life-threatening injuries and was unconscious when he was taken at a nearby hospital. Since then he has been recovering, but his life is still under threat.

One source told The Guardian that at one point last month, senior ISIS commanders called for an urgent meeting to appoint a new Emir (leader) for the group, because they were convinced that al-Baghdadi was on the verge of death. They eventually decided, however, to wait until after al-Baghdadi’s demise before appointing a new Emir. Since the ISIS leader’s wounding, the group’s Shura (consultative) councils have taken on an increasingly prominent decision-making role, says the paper.

Germany helped Israel build atom bomb, says leading nuclear expert

Ben-Gurion and Adenauer in 1960By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The government of West Germany secretly funded the Israeli nuclear weapons program during the Cold War, according to a leading German nuclear expert. Today, Israeli authorities continue to deny the existence of the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. However, it is generally accepted that the country’s atom program began as early as 1952, with the establishment of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. By the mid-1960s, Israeli scientists had built at least one nuclear bomb; and by the time the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, the Jewish state had at least two nuclear warheads in its possession.

But how could a small, developing country fund one of the most expensive weapons programs in existence? According to Hans Rühle, one of Germany’s leading nuclear experts, the Israeli nuclear weapons program was primarily funded by the Federal Republic of Germany. Rühle was head of planning for Germany’s Ministry of Defense in the 1980s, and subsequently held various management positions in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In an article published last week in German newspaper Die Welt, Rühle says that Germany was “almost certainly” the financial powerhouse behind the ambitious Israeli nuclear weapons program.

The German expert states that the initial bilateral agreement was struck in 1960 in New York, during a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The program, codenamed “Aktion Geschäftsfreund” (“Operation Business Partner”) was solidified during a subsequent meeting between the two men in French capital Paris, in 1961. It stipulated that Germany would lend Israel 2 billion deutschmarks (approximately $500 million) for 10 years, under the pretext of developing the Negev desert into land suitable for agricultural production. The project had been zealously promoted by Ben-Gurion ever since he had become leader of his newly founded country.

The deal, says Rühle, was administered through Germany’s government-owned Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau development bank, which specialized in providing grants to emerging economies. It bore all the hallmarks of a typical capital assistance program aimed at strengthening West Germany’s economic and political ties with developing countries. However, with the full support of the German government, the funds were secretly channeled to building several nuclear facilities in Israel, including the Negev Nuclear Research Center. The latter’s existence was publicly revealed in 1986 by Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli engineer who had worked in the top-secret Negev facility from 1976 to 1985. The Israeli Mossad eventually abducted Vanunu from Italy and renditioned him to Israel, where he was jailed.

Captured files reveal new information about structure, history of ISIS

ISIS parade in SyriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A folder of secret documents, drafted by a senior commander of the Islamic State, reveals previously unknown information about the origins, meticulous planning and intelligence structure of the organization. Among other things, the documents show that the organization, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had plans to capture territory in both countries as early as 2010 —several years before its existence was even known. The folder belonged to Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi, a military general and political ally of Iraq’s late leader, Saddam Hussein. Better known as Haji Bakr, the former Baathist general became a founding member of ISIS and helped shape the organization until his death in a firefight in 2014. Following his demise, an unnamed informant stole the documents and secretly smuggled them into Turkey. It was there that German investigative newsmagazine Der Spiegel accessed them. On Saturday, following months of research, the newsmagazine published its findings based on the stolen documents. They reveal important information about the history and structure of the mysterious organization known as ISIS.

Der Spiegel notes in its analysis that Bakr himself is characteristic of the complexity of ISIS, which today controls territory equal to approximately that of Great Britain in both Iraq and Syria. Before the United States invasion, the former Iraqi general was a typical Baathist, who, like the regime he served, expressed strong secular views. But he became violently bitter in 2003, when he found himself unemployed and stripped of his status after the invading US forces dissolved the Iraqi military. He eventually joined a number of other unemployed former Baathist military and intelligence officers and decided to launch a counteroffensive against the predominantly Shiite Iraqi government. In 2010, this group of conspirators decided to inculcate their group with a Sunni religious identity, for reasons of political expediency. It was then that they appointed a highly educated and charismatic Sunni cleric, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the ideological face of the organization. In late 2012, the group began to actively exploit the chaos caused by the Syrian Civil War as an opportunity to capture territory in Syria, and then use it as a base to invade Iraq. The plan worked.

The folder acquired by Der Spiegel contains handwritten fragments from 31 different pages bearing organizational charts, lists of ISIS officials, as well as programmatic schedules. It reveals a hierarchical organizational structure with direct and indirect chains of command, which reach all the way down to local cells. According to the documents, these cells were initially set up in disguised form, so as to resemble Islamic schools or missionary facilities. Today these have expanded to include detention facilities, weapons depots, as well as a complex structure of Sharia-compliant educators, judges and enforcers. The organization also has an elaborate intelligence structure, which appears to undertake daily surveillance and security tasks. The latter depend on an army of officers, agents and informants, many of whom are as young as 16.

The documents detail several ISIS espionage operations in Syria and Iraq, which include meticulous studies of power structures of the local tribes. These were done in an effort to detect what Der Spiegel describes as “age-old faults within the deep layers of [tribal] society]”, and were then used by ISIS to divide and eventually subjugate dissident elements within the territory under their control. In other cases, informants were instructed to detect the personal weaknesses and faults of local leaders, which were subsequently used to blackmail them. Priority was given to recruiting members of powerful families, so as to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge”, Spiegel notes.

Snowden documents reveal New Zealand spy program in Bangladesh

Dhaka, BangladeshBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
New documents released by American defector Edward Snowden reveal an extensive intelligence-collection operation in Bangladesh, operated by New Zealand with American and Indian collaboration. The documents were analyzed by The New Zealand Herald in association with The Intercept, which received them from Snowden, a former technical expert with the US National Security Agency, who now lives in Russia.

The principal file, entitled “National Security Agency Relationship with New Zealand”, marked “Top Secret”, is dated April 2013. It states that New Zealand’s Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), has been actively intercepting mobile telephone communications in Bangladesh since at least 2004. The document, which was authored by the NSA, describes the GCSB as the leading agency involved in collecting counterterrorist-related signals intelligence in Bangladesh.

Another file, also released by Snowden, and dated 2009, explains that the interception is carried out by a special GCSB unit named Signals Intelligence Development Team and codenamed OCR. It also mentions that the operation is headquartered in a “special collection site” in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, which is equipped with interception systems. The Herald notes that New Zealand does not have an embassy or any other official buildings in Bangladesh in which to operate listening facilities. It thus speculates that the interception systems must be located in an American-controlled building.

The NSA documents describe the Bangladesh operation as “a success story” for New Zealand’s intelligence community, adding that it has provided “unique intelligence leads”, whcih have “enabled successful counterterrorist operations” by a host of agencies. The latter include Bangladesh’s own State Intelligence Service, the US Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence agencies from nearby India.

Ally of Ukraine’s pro-Russian ex-president found dead in Kiev

Viktor YanukovychBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
An ally of Ukraine’s deposed pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych has been found dead with gunshot wounds, in what is the eighth death in mysterious circumstances of a member of his family or close associate this year. Oleg Kalashnikov was a former parliamentarian representing the pro-Moscow Party of Regions, which was led by Yanukovych. He was among Ukraine’s most vocal pro-Russian politicians during the violent protests that led to the toppling of Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-Western government in Kiev. Reports from the Ukrainian capital said on Wednesday that Kalashnikov’s body was found outside his apartment there. Other sources said he was found dead inside his apartment. It was not immediately clear whether he had been murdered or whether he had committed suicide. Ukrainian police say they have launched an investigation in to the former parliamentarian’s death.

Kalashnikov’s death marks the eighth such macabre ending of a family member or close associate of Yanukovych this year. Last March, intelNews reported the death of Yanukovych’s 33-year-old second son, also called Viktor, who drowned in a lake in the Russian region of Siberia. He had been living in Russia with his wife and child since February of last year, when street protests by pro-Western Ukrainians toppled his father’s government.

Prior to Yanukovych’s son’s death, the former president’s close political ally, Oleksandr Peklushenko, once a regional governor with the Party of Regions, was found dead with a gunshot wound to the neck, in what Ukrainian authorities said was a suicide. Authorities say they have been unable to establish a common motive linking the numerous deaths of former Yanukovych allies and relatives. Most cases have been ruled suicides and no arrests have been made.

Austria probes gruesome murders with alleged Kazakh spy link

Vadim Koshlyak and Alnur MusaevBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
An Austrian court is hearing testimony this week on a gruesome murder case, allegedly by former officials in Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency, one of whom was found dead in his Vienna prison cell in February. The case, which resembles a Hollywood film plot, centers on the disappearance of two bank executives: Aybar Khasenov and Zholdas Timraliyev, both employees of JSC Nurbank, one of Kazakhstan’s largest private banking institutions, vanished without trace in 2007. Their bodies were found in May of 2011 in a dumping site in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest urban center. They had been stuffed in large metallic barrels filled with lime. Both had been tortured and one of them had been raped prior to being killed.

The Kazakh government of authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev accused Rakhat Aliyev of the murder of the two executives. Aliyev, who was Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, had served for years as Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister before being appointed director of the country’s intelligence agency, the National Security Committee, also known as KNB. In 2007, however, Aliyev, who by that time was serving as Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Vienna, divorced the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. He then fell out with the presidential family in spectacular fashion. He was almost immediately stripped of his government positions, including the title of ambassador, and issued with an arrest warrant, while the Kazakh authorities demanded that Austria surrender him to Astana.

However, Austrian authorities rejected two consecutive extradition requests by the Kazakhs and decided instead to investigate the case for themselves. They soon arrested Aliyev along with two of his alleged accomplices in the murder of the two Nurbank executives. The two, Vadim Koshlyak, a former bodyguard of Nazarbayev, and Alnur Musaev, who like Aliyev is a former director of the KNB, were also residing in Vienna at the time. All three were taken to prison while the Austrian authorities investigated the murders. The plot thickened in February of this year, however, when Aliyev was found hanged in his Vienna cell. The official verdict was suicide, but Aliyev’s family and lawyers have rejected it and they, along with many other exiled critics of Nazarbayev’s regime, have raised questions about possible complicity of the KNB in the killing. As intelNews reported back in 2009, a Kazakh intelligence operative was arrested by Austrian authorities in 2008, as he was trying to kidnap Musaev.

The trial of the two surviving defendants, Koshlyak and Musaev, opened on Monday in Vienna amidst tight security, involving dozens of judicial guards. Over sixty witnesses are scheduled to testify either in person or via video-link, many of them wearing disguises so as to conceal their identities.

Russia says it uncovered spy satellites disguised as space debris

Space debrisBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The Russian government says it recently detected a group of satellites that are spying on Russia while orbiting the Earth camouflaged as “space junk”. The finding was announced on Sunday, April 12, on the Moscow-based Zvezda television station, which is wholly owned by Russia’s Ministry of Defense. For much of the day, Zvezda marked “Space Day”, which has been annually commemorated in Russia ever since 1961, when cosmonaut Yury Gagarin journeyed in outer space.

The station hosted Major General Oleg Maidanovich, of the country’s Aerospace Defense Forces (ADF), in a program entitled “Special Operations in Space”. Maidanovich told the program that specialists in the ADF’s Intelligence Center uncovered “a newly deployed group of space satellites” that were designed to collect signals intelligence (SIGINT) from Russian telecommunications and other electronic systems. However, the satellites had been disguised to appear and behave like “space junk”, he said. By “space junk”, Maidanovich was referring to rocket stages, old and defunct communications satellites, and various other fragments of manmade devices that have ended up in outer space since the 1950s and are endlessly orbiting the Earth.

Maidanovich said that it was not unusual for space reconnaissance agencies to camouflage their spy satellites as space debris and deploy them into Earth’s orbit in a dormant state for several years. Then, once the target country’s space reconnaissance counterintelligence forces disregard the device as a piece of space junk, the satellite is suddenly reawakened and begins to collect SIGINT. For that reason, he said, Russia’s ADF monitors at least a fifth of a total of 100,000 objects orbiting planet Earth on any given day, due to concerns that such objects may be used for SIGINT collection by rival spy agencies.

The Russian ADF commander declined a request to identify the country believed to be behind the alleged camouflaged spy satellites, saying it was “not necessary to do so at the present time”. He added that his office typically notifies the Kremlin when it detects disguised spy satellites, and that the decision on whether to shoot them down is made “on a national level”.

ISIS has lost control of most oil fields: German intelligence report

Guard at a northern Iraq oil fieldBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
The Islamic State has lost control of approximately 95 percent of its oil production capacity following the advancing Iraqi counteroffensive, according to a leaked German intelligence report. Last June, a massive offensive by armed members of the Islamic state, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), conquered much of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. As the crumbling Iraqi army kept hastily retreating south, ISIS forces encountered almost no resistance during their onslaught.

In the past two months, however, a large-scale counter-offensive by Iraqi forces and irregular Shiite militias, supported by Iran and the United States, has reclaimed much of the land previously occupied by ISIS. Earlier this month, Iraqi forces recaptured the strategically located city of Tikrit, in a move that is widely viewed as the greatest victory so far for the anti-ISIS forces.

Along with Tikrit, Iraqi forces have managed to recapture a number of oil fields, which provided ISIS with a lucrative source of income for much of the past year. On Thursday, German broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung cited a leaked intelligence report that claimed ISIS had lost control of “a minimum of three oil fields” in northern Iraq. The Munich-based newspaper said it had seen a report on the subject authored by the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. According to the report, the Iraqi counteroffensive had reclaimed all but one of the ISIS-controlled oil fields in the country.

The BND documents state that the ISIS government now only controls the Qayara oil field, located in Iraq’s southeastern Nineveh province. The oil field’s daily output capacity of around 2,000 barrels leaves ISIS with only “five percent of the extraction capacity” it had before the Iraqi counteroffensive, says the paper. Moreover, satellite images taken last March show that retreating ISIS forces set fire to two of the largest oil fields in their possession, the Ajil and Himrin facilities. That, according to the BND, shows that ISIS were themselves pessimistic about being able to reclaim these oil fields from the Iraqi forces.

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