Trump administration instructs CIA to halt support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyThe White House has instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Some believe that the move indicates a change in American policy under United States President Donald Trump. But Syrian rebel commanders say they believe the move is temporary, and that military aid will be restored. For several years, the CIA has provided training and other forms of assistance to rebel groups in Syria, such as the New Syrian Force, which operate under the umbrella of the FSA. Aside from training, the assistance has included light and heavy ammunition, including antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

However, it appears that the CIA was instructed nearly a month ago by the White House to freeze all assistance to these rebel groups. Correspondents from the Reuters news agency said they confirmed the change in policy by speaking to senior rebel commanders from five armed groups operating under the FSA. These commanders told Reuters that they had not been given any official reason for the sudden termination of all CIA assistance. The change coincided with the change of guard at the White House, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Some in Washington, as well as some members of rebel factions in Syria, are concerned that the change in the CIA’s stance might denote a broader policy shift in the White House. During his election campaign, Mr. Trump said repeatedly that he would end America’s overt and covert support for the FSA and would focus instead on defeating the Islamic State.

But the rebel commanders themselves told Reuters that the freeze in CIA support was due to a wave of renewed attacks against them by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a Sunni militant group that was previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The rebels said that the CIA was concerned that weaponry provided to the FSA would end up in the hands of jihadist militants, so it temporarily halted its support until Jabhat Fateh al-Sham could be pushed back by FSA forces. Reuters published comments by two anonymous officials who were familiar with the CIA’s operations in Syria. They told the newspaper that the freeze of the CIA’s program had “nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing Barack Obama in January”. Additionally, said Reuters, Mr. Trump’s policy in Syria remains unknown. Several newspapers and news agencies contacted the CIA asking for comments, but the agency declined all requests on Wednesday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 February 2017 | Permalink

Advertisements

CCTV footage shows assassination of North Korean leader’s half-brother

Kim Jong-nam murderA Japanese television channel has aired footage showing the alleged assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who died in Malaysia on Monday. Investigators believe that Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader, and grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung, died after being deliberately poisoned by two women at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Shortly prior to his death, he reported that two women approached him at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and splashed his face with liquid poison —though some reports suggest that he was injected with a poisoned needle. According to Malaysian media, Kim was about to board a flight to Macau, where he had been living in exile since 2007. American and South Korean officials believe that he was killed on orders of the North Korean government in Pyongyang.

The footage —seen here in its entirety— is low quality and appears to have been taken from closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the airport. It was aired by Fuji TV, a Japanese television station based in Tokyo, Japan. The filmed sequence shows a man dressed in blue jeans, dark blue shirt and gray jacket, who closely resembles Kim, heading toward the low-budget departures hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. In subsequent footage he is shown being grabbed from behind by a woman wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, while another woman rapidly approaches him and assaults him from the front. The woman standing behind him appears to quickly put her hands over his face and pull rapidly backwards. The entire attack sequence lasts no more than two seconds, after which both women rapidly walk away. A stunned Kim then hurriedly stumbles away from the scene of the attack, and is seen approaching airport personnel. They direct him to a group of police officers. Another camera shows him trying to describe to the officers the attack that just took place, pointing to his face with his hands. The officers are then seen escorting him to a secure area of the airport.

Fuji TV did not reveal how it acquired the footage, and the connection between it and the death of Kim has not been independently verified or commented on by Malaysian authorities. However, regional observers have confirmed that the airport shown in the footage is indeed the low-budget departures hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Malaysian authorities have arrested four people, two men and two women, in connection with the attack. One of the men carries a North Korean passport; the other man carries a Malaysian passport, while the two women are in possession of Vietnamese and Indonesian travel documents. Authorities in Kuala Lumpur say they are still looking for four North Korean men who appear to have left the country shortly after the attack on Kim.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 February 2017 | Permalink

Indonesia to investigate North Korean restaurant reportedly used as spy base

Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta, IndonesiaIndonesian authorities said on Sunday that they will investigate a North Korean restaurant in the country, after a Singaporean news agency claimed it was being used as a center for espionage. The announcement comes amidst heightened tensions between North Korean and its neighbors, following the murder last week in Malaysia of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Kim, the grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung, died after two women approached him at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and splashed his face with liquid poison. Sources in South Korea and the United States have pointed at Pyongyang as the culprit of the assassination.

On Friday of last week, the Singapore-based news agency Asia One published a lengthy report into alleged North Korean espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The report claimed that North Korean intelligence agencies have operated extensive networks of operatives in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and that these networks have operated unimpeded for over two decades. The news agency cited an unnamed “intelligence source” as saying that the spy networks are operated by North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB). The RGB is in charge of special activities abroad, which include covert operations and intelligence collection involving espionage. It operates under the Ministry of State Security and answers directly to North Korea’s supreme leader.

According to Asia One, the RGB maintains some of its largest spy networks abroad in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, where Kim Jong-nam met a gruesome death last week. RGB personnel operating in these countries are North Korean citizens who are employed in the construction sector, as well as the tourism industry. Some operate North Korean restaurants, which are popular tourist attractions across Southeast Asia. The unnamed intelligence source told Asia One that North Korean restaurants serve “as a main front to conduct intelligence gathering and surveillance [against] Japanese and South Korean politicians, diplomats, top corporate figures and businessmen”. The RGB’s network in Indonesia is based in textile factories located in several Indonesian cities, said Asia One. There is also “an apartment located above a North Korean restaurant in [the Indonesian capital] Jakarta that is part of the RGB Indonesia office”, according to the report.

Following the news agency’s allegations, Argo Yuwono, senior commander for the Indonesian National Police, said that an investigation would take place into Asia One’s allegations. He said that his detectives would coordinate their activities with the Indonesian Foreign Ministry before moving ahead with the probe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 February 2017 | Permalink

Turkish diplomats stepping up espionage in Europe, claims German report

Turkish embassy in GermanyTurkish state agencies have asked the country’s diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in an effort to identify those opposed to the government, according to a German report. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating a military coup in July of last year, which resulted in an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the Erdoğan government has now tasked its diplomats stationed abroad to engage in intelligence collection targeting alleged Gülen sympathizers. The report cited “a confidential analysis by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution” (BfV), Germany’s counterintelligence agency. The analysis allegedly states that Turkish diplomats are now conducting systematic espionage activities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and other Western European countries. The BfV report allegedly claims that much of the espionage conducted by Turkish diplomats is directed by the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet. The agency is seen as the institutional guardian of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. It provides schools with religious education that is carefully tailored to be compatible with the country’s secular constitution, and trains the country’s imams, who are employed by the state. Der Spiegel claimed on Monday that Diyanet has asked its religious representatives stationed in Europe to look for Gülen sympathizers. According to the German newsmagazine, information is now pouring in from Turkey’s embassies and consulates. It includes names of individuals, as well as student groups, cultural organizations, schools and day-care centers that are seen as not sufficiently critical of the Gülen movement. Der Spiegel said it had seen a report sent to Diyanet by the Turkish embassy in Berne, Switzerland, which warned that many Gülenists had left Turkey and were now operating in Switzerland.

Late last summer, Der Spiegel claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and asked for assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. The BND reportedly refused to cooperate with the request. Another German news outlet, Die Welt, cited an unnamed German security official who said that the MİT employed more operatives in Germany than the East German spy agency did at the height of the Cold War.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2017 | Permalink

Wall Street Journal alleges US spies hide sensitive intelligence from Trump

Donald Trump CIAIn a leading article published on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal alleged that American intelligence officials are choosing to withhold sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump, fearing that it might be compromised. The WSJ, America’s leading newspaper by circulation, which is highly influential in conservative circles, cited “current and former officials familiar with the matter”. The paper said it was unclear how much information had been withheld from President Trump. It added that at no point did intelligence officials keep the president in the dark about critical security threats by foreign states or potential terrorist attacks by non-state groups. However, intelligence officials are consciously and systematically withholding information from the White House that concerns “sources and methods”, said the article. The term refers to the precise methods used by the United States Intelligence Community to collect information, as well as the identification of sources —human or otherwise— of the information.

In recent weeks, several media outlets have alleged that American intelligence officials are skeptical about providing the White House with sensitive information. Late last month, Steve Hall, a former member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Senior Intelligence Service, told National Public Radio that the matter of President Trump’s trustworthiness was “a live question” at the CIA. But this week’s article in The WSJ marks the first time that a conservative media outlet alleges that senior American intelligence officials mistrust the president. According to the New York-based newspaper, the Intelligence Community is uncomfortable with Mr. Trump’s “repeated expressions of admiration” for his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Many intelligence officials are also disturbed by the US president’s public support for the alleged hacking of Democratic Party computer servers by the Kremlin.

Relations between the White House and the Intelligence Community are said to be extremely tense at the moment. On Wednesday, President Trump repeated his previously stated allegation that the US Intelligence Community is systematically leaking information to the media in order to subvert his administration’s work. The WSJ said it spoke to a representative from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which heads and oversees the US Intelligence Community. The representative questioned the accuracy of the newspaper’s allegations, saying that “any suggestion that the US intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true”. The report was also denied by an official at the White House, who said that Mr. Trump and his aides had no evidence “that leads us to believe that [The WSJ article] is an accurate account of what is actually happening”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 February 2017 | Permalink

Two women arrested for assassinating North Korean leader’s half-brother

Kim Jong-namTwo women have been arrested in the past 48 hours in connection with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s supreme leader, who died in Malaysia on Monday. Kim, the grandson of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung, died after two women approached him at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and splashed his face with liquid poison. Some reports suggest that he was injected with a poisoned needle. According to Malaysian media, Kim was about to board a flight to Macau, where he had been living in self-exile since 2007. His relations with his brother, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, and the regime in Pyongyang, were adversarial, and some suggest that he had survived at least one assassination attempt in the past.

On Wednesday, Malaysian authorities announced the arrest of a woman carrying a Vietnamese travel document, which identified her as Doan Thi Huong (also reported as Doan Thin Hoang). No elaboration was offered on whether the travel document is genuine or forged. The 28-year-old woman is believed to have been arrested at the same airport where Kim’s assassination took place. Apparently she returned there by herself on Wednesday to catch an outbound flight to Vietnam, but was recognized by security personnel through the airport’s closed-circuit television monitoring system. Another woman, carrying an Indonesian passport, was arrested on Thursday in connection with the assassination, but no information was released about her. Some reports in the Malaysian media suggested that the second woman had been observed wandering around the Kuala Lumpur International Airport immediately following Kim’s assassination. It is believed that her co-conspirators inadvertently left her behind as they escaped the scene of the crime. Malaysian police said they also arrested a taxi driver who transported the women to the airport on the morning of the assassination. Four males, who are also believed to have helped organize the attack, remain at large.

Meanwhile South Korean and American government sources told news agencies that the assassins are thought to be agents of the North Korean government. Malaysian media said that senior North Korean diplomats were dispatched to Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday and held lengthy meetings with Malaysian government officials. Reports suggest that Pyongyang exercised pressure on Malaysian officials to cancel a planned post mortem examination of Kim’s body. But the request was allegedly denied. Malaysian officials did not respond to queries about whether Kim’s body will be handed to North Korea or flown to China for burial.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 February 2017 | Permalink

North Korean leader’s half-brother killed by female assassins in Malaysia

DPRK assassinThe half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has been killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia, reportedly by two female assassins who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Kim Jong-nam, was the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, and grandson of Kim Il-Sung, who founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. However, he left the country in 2007, reportedly after it became clear that his younger half-brother, Kim Jong-un, was the regime’s preferred successor to his father, Kim Jong-il.

Since that time, it is believed that the self-exiled Kim split his time between Singapore and China, and that he had a residence in the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It is also believed that he employed a variety of passports, including South Korean, Portuguese and Swiss, some of which were reputed to be forgeries. Even though Kim kept a relatively low profile in the past decade, relations between him and the North Korean regime were adversarial. He made occasional comments to the press that were critical of the government in Pyongyang, and at times criticized his half-brother’s character and actions. Intelligence sources in South Korea claimed that the DPRK tried to kill him at least once in the past.

It appears that Pyongyang may have finally managed to kill Kim on Monday morning, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia’s main international flight hub and one of Southeast Asia’s largest. The attack is believed to have taken place at 9:00 a.m. at the airport’s economy class terminal, where Kim was waiting to board a 10:00 a.m. flight to Macau. According to Malaysian news media, Kim was approached by two women, one of whom attacked him from behind. The female suspect reportedly covered Kim’s face with a “cloth laced with a poisonous liquid” that burned his eyes. A frantic Kim managed to run away and alert an airport employee, who called an ambulance. According to police, the victim told paramedics that someone had grabbed him from behind and “splashed a burning liquid on his face”. Some reports claimed that Kim was attacked with a poisonous needle or acid spray. According to Malaysian police spokesman Fadzil Ahmat, the grandson of North Korea’s founder expired on the way to a nearby hospital.

It was later confirmed that, at the time of his death, Kim was using a North Korean passport issued under the name “Kim Chol” and giving his date of birth as June 10, 1970. However, the travel document is believed to have been forged. Malaysian authorities said on Tuesday they had been unable to identify the suspects, but that an investigation was ongoing. Early on Wednesday, Malaysian authorities released CCTV footage of one of the suspects (pictured). Meanwhile, Kim’s body has been subjected to an autopsy, but the results remain unavailable. South Korean authorities told the Reuters news agency that Kim had been killed by assassins working for the North Korean government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 February 2017 | Permalink