Suicide bomb threat reportedly leads to evacuation of Iranian envoy to Turkey

Iran embassy in AnkaraThere were conflicting reports yesterday in Ankara of an alleged evacuation of Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, following credible reports of a suicide bomb attack, possibly by the Islamic State. Several Turkish media outlets reported on Monday afternoon that authorities in Ankara had communicated an urgent intelligence warning to the Iranian embassy there of a possible suicide bomb attack. According to the reports, members of the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were behind the planned attack.

At 2 pm local time, reports stated that Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian Fard, had been hurriedly evacuated from the Iranian embassy by Turkish security forces. By that time, all roads leading to the Iranian embassy, located next to the Ankara Hilton in one of the Turkish capital’s leafiest areas, had been cordoned off. Reporters from the Reuters news agency and Agence France Presse said that Turkish police and special forces had shut down Tahran Road, where the Iranian embassy is located, and were searching cars. Armed security forces had also surrounded the Iranian embassy, according to Reuters.

Strangely, however, reports of a possible bomb attack and of the ambassador’s evacuation were strongly refuted by the Iranian government, which denounced them as “sheer lies” and “complete fabrications”. In a statement published online on Monday afternoon, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that its diplomats in Ankara had noticed “an increased Turkish security presence” around the Iranian embassy. However, they continued working normally, as they were unaware of the reasons for the heightened security. They assumed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was appearing nearby, said the statement. A statement by the Iranian embassy in Ankara said that consular employees were present at the embassy and that all scheduled services were being offered without interruption.

In the past month, the embassies of Iran in Paris and Athens have come under attack by Kurdish separatists and leftwing groups protesting against Tehran’s alleged oppression of ethnic minorities in the country. In the past, the Islamic Republic has been rarely targeted by ISIS, whose members dismiss Shiite Islam as a heresy. In June 2017, two attacks were carried out simultaneously in Tehran, targeting the Iranian parliament and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of post-1979 Iran. In September of this year, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz, which killed 25 soldiers and civilians during a military parade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 October 2018 | Permalink

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Pakistan removes judge who accused spy agency of trying to rig general election

Shaukat Aziz SiddiquiThe government of Pakistan has dismissed a High Court judge who accused the country’s powerful intelligence agency of interfering with the judicial process in order to rig the outcome of last July’s general election. On July 25, the governing center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) was unseated by the conservative-centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former cricket star Imran Khan. The elections took place amidst a corruption scandal that saw Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan and leading member of PML-N, arrested on charges of fraud. Sharif was charged following the release of the so-called Panama papers, the massive data leak of documents belonging to Panamanian offshore firm Mossack Fonseca. The leak disclosed that Sharif and his family were owners of a large number of high-end properties in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world.

Shortly after the revelations, Sharif moved to Britain, where he and his children cared for his ailing wife. During his absence, he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. Sharif chose to return to Pakistan on July 13, less than two weeks prior to the general election, and was arrested upon arriving in Islamabad. His supporters claim that the media spectacle surrounding his imprisonment severely hurt PML-N’s electoral performance. Last month, the High Court in Islamabad suspended Sharif’s prison sentence and ordered his release on bail, saying that the prosecution had failed to prove conclusively that the high-end properties in the UK belonged to him. Sharif’s release prompted renewed accusations of electoral rigging by PML-N supporters, who claim that Sharif could have been released from prison before the elections, and that the High Court deliberately withheld its decision until this month in order to hurt PML-N.

In July, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a High Court judge, publicly added his voice to those claiming that Sharif’s arrest had been politically motivated. In a speech given before the Rawalpindi Bar Association, the High Court judge accused Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of exercising pressure on High Court judges in order to delay the decision to release Sharif on bail until after the general election. Justice Siddiqui’s charges made national headlines and prompted strong denials from the Pakistani military, which governs the ISI, and the Pakistan High Court. The latter launched an investigation of Justice Siddiqui, following a complaint issued by the country’s military leadership.

On Friday, the panel of judges that carried out the investigation on Justice Siddiqui, accused him of “conduct unbecoming of a judge of a high court” and recommended his removal from the High Court. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice of Pakistan announced that the country’s President, Arif Alvi, was “pleased to remove Mr. Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui […] from his office with immediate effect”. The announcement did not elaborate on the precise reasons that led to Justice Siddiqui’s removal from the country’s High Court. Siddiqui’s firing marks the first time that a judge has been dismissed under an elected government in Pakistan. In the past, such incidents have occurred only under military dictatorships, which have ruled Pakistan for prolonged periods since the country’s independence in 1947.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence has evidence Saudis planned to capture missing journalist

Jamal KhashoggiAmerican intelligence agencies have evidence that the Saudi royal family tried to lure The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, in order to capture him, according to sources. Khashoggi, 59, is a Saudi government adviser who in 2015 became a critic of the kingdom’s style of governance. He moved to the United States, from where he began to criticize Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, its support for the repression of political freedoms in Egypt, and other issues. He also joined the staff of The Washington Post and penned columns in which he criticized Saudi policies. He has been missing since Tuesday, when he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He went there for a scheduled appointment in order to be issued a document certifying his divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia.

Last Sunday, Turkish government officials said that Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate during his visit, probably on orders of the Saudi government. Turkish media reports said on Sunday that a 15-member Saudi team arrived in Istanbul shortly prior to Khashoggi’s visit to the consulate. The team, whose members carried diplomatic passports, tortured and then killed Khashoggi, said Turkish sources. They then dismembered his body and took it out of the consulate hidden inside a diplomatic vehicle. Saudi Arabia has denied the charges and said that Khashoggi left the consulate in Istanbul less than an hour after entering it on Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post cited anonymous US officials in claiming that the Saudi royal family had devised an elaborate plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia in order to capture him. The paper said that US intelligence agencies are in possession of communications intercepts of exchanges between Saudi officials, in which the plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia is discussed. The Post also cited “several of Khashoggi’s friends” who said that in recent months he received phone calls from Saudi officials close to the kingdom’s controversial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The officials reportedly offered Khashoggi political protection from prosecution if he returned to Saudi Arabia. They also offered him high-level government jobs, said The Post. But Khashoggi was skeptical of the offers and rejected them, his friends said.

The paper also cited an anonymous “former US intelligence official” who said that the travel details of the 15-member Saudi diplomatic team that went to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance “bore the hallmarks of [an extralegal] rendition” —a person’s unauthorized removal from one country and detention and interrogation in another. Turkey has said that the Saudi team arrived in Istanbul in two separate groups using private aircraft, and departed from the country at different times going to different destinations in the hours after Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2018 | Permalink

Major suspect in Maduro assassination plot dies in captivity in Caracas

Nicolás MaduroA leading suspect in a failed attempt to kill Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro using drones, has died in mysterious circumstances while being held by the country’s intelligence agency. The attack took place on August 4, 2018, in front of the Palacio de Justicia government complex in the Venezuelan capital Caracas. That afternoon, President Maduro was giving a nationally televised speech on the occasion of the 81st anniversary of the Bolivarian National Guard. An hour after the commencement of the outdoor ceremony, Maduro’s speech was interrupted by a loud noise that appeared to come directly from above, approximately 100 yards away from the podium. The noise turned out to have been a bomb affixed on a modified, commercially available drone. Moments later, another drone exploded after crashing into a building just two blocks northeast of where the Venezuelan president was standing. Seven members of the National Guard were injured in the attack.

President Maduro, who escaped unharmed, has blamed Colombia-based far-right extremists for the attack, and has named former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as their leader. But the Colombian government has rejected these allegations and has demanded to see proof. Throughout August, several people were arrested by Venezuelan authorities and charged with treason in connection with the assassination plot. Approximately 30 people have been named as participants in the plan. Among them was Fernando Albán, a 56-year-old critic of Maduro, who was serving as an opposition city councilor in Caracas. Althouth his arrest was announced on Friday, there were no reports about his fate over the weekend. On Monday, however, the government said that Albán had died after committing suicide. A subsequent report said that the 56-year-old had died after throwing himself out of a window located on the tenth floor of the headquarters of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, where he was being held. Later on Monday, Nestor Luis Reverol, Venezuela’s Minister of Interior, said that Albán voluntarily jumped out of the window as he was being transported to court in order to be formally charged.

On Monday night, Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab said during a television interview that Albán had been given permission to go to the bathroom and used it as an opportunity to kill himself. But critics of the government see the August 4 assassination attempt as a false-flag operation orchestrated by the Maduro administration to justify a new crackdown on the opposition. They claim that Albán was murdered and that it would have been impossible for him to throw himself out of a window given the security precautions that are in place at the Bolivarian Intelligence Service building. Meanwhile, Albán’s attorney, Joel Garcia, dismissed the Venezuelan government’s explanation of his client’s death as “totally false” and doubted that he would have been allowed to go to the bathroom unaccompanied.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 October 2018 | Permalink

Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

Turkey claims Saudi dissident was killed, dismembered inside Saudi consulate

Jamal KhashoggiTurkish government sources have said that a former trusted aide of the Saudi royal family, who was shunned by Riyadh after criticizing Saudi policies, was murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. Jamal Khashoggi, 59, is an American-educated former adviser to Saudi royals. He worked for years as an advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal, one of Saudi Arabia’s most recognizable public figures who represented the Kingdom as ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom. But in 2015, when Mohammad bin Salman, favorite son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, began to rise through the ranks of the royal family, Khashoggi became sharply critical of changes in the Kingdom’s style of governance. He moved to the United States, from where he began to criticize Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, its support for the repression of political freedoms in Egypt, and other issues. Earlier this year, Khashoggi joined the staff of The Washington Post and penned columns in which he criticized Saudi policies.

In recent months, Khashoggi moved to Istanbul and planned to marry Hatice Cengiz, a local graduate student. Last Tuesday, in preparation for his wedding with Cengiz, Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on a prescheduled visit, reportedly to request a document certifying his divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia. The document was reportedly required under Turkish marital law. But The Washington Post columnist has not been seen since. On Sunday, Turkish government officials said that Khashoggi had been brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate, probably on orders of the Saudi government. Turkish media reports said on Sunday that a 15-member Saudi team arrived in Istanbul shortly prior to Khashoggi’s visit to the consulate. The team, whose members carried diplomatic passports, tortured and then killed Khashoggi, said Turkish sources. They then dismembered his body and took it out of the consulate hidden inside a diplomatic vehicle.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia denied the charges and said that Khashoggi left the consulate in Istanbul less than an hour after entering it on Tuesday afternoon. But Turkish officials, speaking anonymously to local media, said that the government had “concrete proof” and that the case would be solved soon through a series of public announcements. However, no accusations have been issued publicly and some doubt that Ankara has evidence to implicate the Saudi government in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Others wonder whether the Turkish government will wish to enter into an escalating diplomatic confrontation with the powerful Saudi royal family. The New York Times said late on Sunday that the Turkish government “was waiting until the investigation was complete” before making a full disclosure regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance. Meanwhile government representatives in the United States, a close ally of the Saudi government, said on Sunday that the Department of State “cannot confirm Mr. Khashoggi’s fate” and that it is “following the case”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 October 2018 | Permalink

Britain sees Russian government hackers behind Islamic State cyber group

Cyber CaliphateA new report by the British government alleges that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is one of several supposedly non-state groups that are in fact operated by the Russian state. The group calling itself Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which was later renamed Islamic State. Today the Cyber Caliphate boasts a virtual army of hackers from dozens of countries, who are ostensibly operating as the online arm of the Islamic State. Their known activities include a strong and often concentrated social media presence, as well as computer hacking, primarily in the form of cyber espionage and cyber sabotage.

But an increasing number of reports, primarily by Western government agencies, have claimed in recent years that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact part of a Russian state-sponsored operation, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. On Wednesday, a new report by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) described the Cyber Caliphate and other similar hacker groups as “flags of convenience” for the Kremlin. The report was authored by the NCSC in association with several British and European intelligence agencies. American spy agencies, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also helped compile the report, according to the NCSC. The report names several hacker groups that have been implicated in high-profile attacks in recent years, including Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear, BlackEnergy Actors, Strontium, Tsar Team, and Sandworm. Each of these, claims the NCSC report, is “an alias of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces”, more commonly known as the GRU. The report concludes that Cyber Caliphate is the same hacker group as APT 28, Fancy Bear, and Pawn Storm, three cyber espionage outfits that are believed to be online arms of the GRU.

The NCSC report echoes the conclusion of a German government report that was leaked to the media in June of 2016, which argued that the Cyber Caliphate was a fictitious front group created by Russia. In 2015, a security report by the US State Department concluded that despite the Cyber Caliphate’s proclamations of connections to the Islamic State, there were “no indications —technical or otherwise— that the groups are tied”. In a statement issued alongside the NCSC report on Wednesday, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jeremy Hunt, described the GRU as Moscow’s “chosen clandestine weapon in pursuing its geopolitical goals”. The Russian government has denied these allegations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 October 2018 | Permalink