Analysis: Unease in Europe as Turkey intensifies espionage abroad

BND GermanyEarlier this week, it was revealed that the German government rejected a request by the head of Turkish intelligence to spy on Turks living in Germany. The rejection was an important moment in German-Turkish relations and highlights the growing unease in high-level exchanges between Turkey and the European Union.

On Monday, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper alleged that the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT), gave his German counterpart a list containing the names hundreds of Turks living in Germany, and asked him to spy on them. According to the newspaper, the list was given by MİT chief Hakan Fidan to Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The two men reportedly met at a security conference held in Munich last February. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that the list given to Kahl included 300 individuals and approximately 200 groups and organizations that the MİT wanted the BND to monitor.

It is extremely uncommon for information of this kind to be communicated informally between directors of intelligence organizations. Typically the exchange of information between cooperating intelligence agencies happens in a very formal and prescribed environment, not circumstantially during a conference. The episode described by the Süddeutsche Zeitung demonstrates a degree of amateurism on behalf of Turkey’s MİT. It is also symptomatic of the pressure that the agency is under by the Turkish government, following last July’s failed military coup in Ankara and Istanbul.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the failed coup, which included 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. In responding to the post-coup security pressures, MİT has been stretched to its limit. Asking the BND for assistance illustrates the Turkish agency’s limitations, especially when it comes to spying abroad. Read more of this post

Advertisements

Germany publicly rejects Turkish spies’ request to monitor dissidents

KurdsGerman intelligence and security agencies have publicly rejected a direct request made by Turkey’s intelligence chief to gather information on Turks who are living in Germany and are critical of the Turkish government. The request reportedly relates to attempts by the Turkish government to round up its critics, following a failed military coup in July of last year. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating the coup, which included 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.

Since the end of the failed coup, the Turkish state has initiated a nationwide political crackdown against alleged supporters of the coup. Over 100,000 people have been fired from their jobs, while hundreds of thousands have been demoted, censured or warned. Another 41,000 are believed to be in prison, charged with supporting the failed coup or being members of the Gülen network. But many observers in Europe view the coup as a catalyst that was exploited by the government in Ankara neutralize its political opponents.

On Monday, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, known as MİT, gave its German counterpart a list containing the names hundreds of Turks living in Germany, and asked him to spy on them. According to the newspaper, the list was given by MİT chief Hakan Fidan to Bruno Kahl, head of the Bundesnachrichtendienst, Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The two men allegedly met at a security conference held in Munich last February. The Süddeutsche Zeitung claims that the list given to Kahl included 300 individuals and approximately 200 groups and organizations that the MİT wanted the BND to monitor.

But instead of spying on these targets, the BND wrote to them and warned them that the Turkish state was after them. The German spy agency also warned them to stay away from any contact with Turkish authorities in Germany and to refrain from traveling to Turkey. On Tuesday, Germany’s Interior Minister, Thomas De Maiziere, confirmed the Süddeutsche Zeitung article and warned Turkey to respect Germany’s territorial sovereignty. “Here German jurisdiction applies”, said De Maiziere, “and citizens will not be spied on by foreign countries”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 March 2017 | Permalink

Sophistication of Hamas official’s killing points to Mossad, say sources

Mazen FaqhaThe sophistication behind the killing of a senior Hamas official, who was assassinated in his home in the Gaza Strip on Friday evening, points almost certainly to Israel, according to observers. Mazen Faqha, 38, helped plan several lethal operations by the Palestinian militant group, including a 2002 suicide bombing that killed nine and wounded over 50. Following an extensive manhunt, Israeli authorities arrested Faqha in the West Bank and in 2003 convicted him to nine life sentences. But in 2011, Faqha was among 1,027 Palestinian and Arab-Israeli prisoners that Israel released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, who was held prisoner by Hamas. Since that time, Faqha had lived in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave that has been under strict Israeli blockade since 2006.

Last Friday, March 24, Faqha was found dead inside the garage of his apartment block in Tel el-Hawa, a densely populated neighborhood in southwestern Gaza City. Initial reports stated that the Hamas official had been shot dead by a team of assailants outside his home. But subsequent accounts revealed that several gunmen were waiting for Faqha inside the car garage located on the bottom floor of the building that houses his apartment. It now appears that the assailants had been hiding in the garage for several hours before Faqha entered it with his car. Minutes earlier, his wife and young daughter had exited the car and made their way to the front door of their apartment. As soon as Faqha drove his car to the garage and closed the garage’s electric door, the gunmen shot him four times in the head from point-blank range and vanished. There was hardly a sound, because the assailants used weapons equipped with silencers. Faqha’s body was not discovered until 7:30 in the evening, a full 90 minutes after he was shot dead. His wife apparently thought that he was talking to their neighbors.

Investigators who are looking into Faqha’s murder say that his killers were intimately familiar with the architectural details of the apartment building where he lived, and had studied his daily routine. They also made sure to leave no traces behind. Consequently, their identity remains a mystery despite the presence of security cameras around the building. Hamas security officials say they believe that Faqha’s killers entered and exited the Gaza Strip by boat. The Palestinian militant group lost little time in blaming the murder on the Mossad, Israel’s primary external intelligence agency, which has targeted several Hamas officials for assassination in the past. Khalil al-Haya, Hamas’ second-in-command in the Gaza Strip said that Israel was the only beneficiary of Faqha’s demise. Khaled Mashal, who chairs Hamas’ Political Bureau, said Israel had “changed the rules of the game” by killing Faqha, adding that Hamas would “accept the challenge”. There has been no official comment from Israel in regards to Faqha’s killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 March 2017 | Permalink | Research credit: SF

North Korea is now robbing banks, says US intelligence official

North KoreaComments made by a senior American intelligence official on Tuesday appeared to suggest that the North Korean government was behind an attempt to steal nearly $1 billion from a Bangladeshi bank last year. The heist took place in February of 2016, when a computer malware was used to issue several requests to transfer funds from Bangladesh Bank —the state-owned central bank of Bangladesh— using the SWIFT network. The hackers were able to transfer five separate sums of $101 million each to a linked Bangladesh Bank account at New York’s Federal Reserve Bank. However, when further requests were issued, Federal Reserve Bank employees contacted Bangladesh Bank and blocked further transactions. Eventually, most of the transferred funds, which neared $1 billion, were recovered; but the hackers managed to get away with approximately $81 million worth of funds.

Forensic investigators described the heist as technically advanced. The antivirus company Symantec said it identified a piece of code in the malware that is known to have been used by North Korean government hackers in the past. Not everyone agreed with the claim that Pyongyang was behind the bank heist. But those who did, said that it was unprecedented in scope and aggressiveness. Some even said that the heist showed that North Korea’s cyber capabilities were among the most sophisticated and powerful in the world.

Meanwhile the United States government did not comment on the matter. However, this past Tuesday the deputy director of the National Security Agency appeared to confirm reports that North Korea was behind the Bangladesh Bank heist. Rick Ledgett, a 30-year veteran of the NSA, who is due to retire in 2018, was speaking at a public event hosted by the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. He reminded the audience that private researchers had connected the malware code used in the Bangladesh Bank heist with that used in previous hacking attempts launched by North Korea. “If that linkage […] is accurate”, said Ledgett, it “means that a nation state is robbing banks”. When asked by the moderator whether he believes that to be the case, Ledgett responded “I do. And that’s a big deal”. Foreign Policy magazine reached out to Ledgett following his talk and asked him for clarification about his comments regarding the Bangladesh Bank heist. But the NSA official simply said that “the public case [about the heist] was well-made”. Foreign Policy also contacted the NSA, but the agency said it preferred not to comment on the matter.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 March 2017 | Permalink

Israel’s chief of staff says Hezbollah killed its own commander in Syria

Mustafa Amine BadreddineAn Israeli military official has repeated claims in the Arab media that the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah killed its own military commander in Syria, following a dispute with Iran. Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, an expert in explosives and former bomb-maker, was a senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah. He rose through the ranks of the organization to become a trusted adviser to Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah. In 2011, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, set up by the United Nations, charged Badreddine with organizing the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was killed with over 20 other people in a massive bomb blast in Beirut, in February of 2005.

Soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the leadership of Hezbollah dispatched Badreddine to the Syrian capital Damascus. His stated mission was to command thousands of Hezbollah troops, who fought under Iranian guidance in support of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But on May 13, 2016, Badreddine was reportedly killed in Damascus, causing observers to describe his death as the biggest setback for the Shiite militant group since the 2008 assassination of its leading commander, Imad Mughniyeh. Initial reports in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanese media suggested that Badreddine might have been killed in an Israeli air attack. But a press statement issued later by Hezbollah said the commander had been killed as a result of an armed attack by Sunni rebels. However, on March 8 of this year, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab television network al-Arabiya said it had conducted its own investigation into Badreddine’s death, and had concluded that he was killed by Hezbollah itself. The network claimed that Hezbollah’s Secretary General Nasrallah had ordered Badreddine’s killing, after the Iranians demanded it. Apparently the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Civil War.

The claim that Badreddine was killed by Hezbollah was echoed on Tuesday by Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Speaking to the Associated Press, Lt Gen Eisenkot said that reports from Arab media that Badreddine was killed by his own forces agreed “with intelligence we have”, referring to the Israeli military. It is worth noting that Israeli officials rarely comment on intelligence operations, including assassination operations, choosing instead to adhere to a “refuse to confirm or deny” policy.

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

US politics in uncharted waters as FBI announces probe into Russian activities

James ComeyMonday’s official announcement that an investigation is underway into alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 United States presidential election was an important moment in American political history. It exposed the chaotic state of American politics and added yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come. This is regardless of the outcome of the investigation, which is being conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even if it fails to produce a ‘smoking gun’, the very fact that the country’s chief counterintelligence agency is examining the possibility that a US president was elected with help from Russia, is an astonishing development without parallel in modern American history.

It is important to recognize that the FBI would never have initiated such a controversial and politically charged investigation without having concrete proof of Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election. No agency of the US federal government would choose to dedicate enormous resources and personnel, and risk the political fallout that such a probe inevitably entails, without first having amassed indisputable evidence that necessitates it. Moreover, the FBI is not acting alone; its investigation almost certainly encompasses and incorporates similar probes carried out by other American security agencies, and possibly by agencies in allied countries, including the United Kingdom. It follows that the FBI investigation will undoubtedly confirm the existence of a systematic Russian intelligence operation that was aimed at influencing the outcome of last year’s American election.

As the present author has previously stated, it would be “extremely unusual and highly uncharacteristic of Russian spy agencies if they did not launch at least a rudimentary covert campaign to target the 2016 US presidential election […]. Indeed, the opposite would have been strange”. The central question, of course, is: what types of activities were part of the Kremlin’s covert campaign? Did it mostly involve the methodical production and dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’? Did it involve substantial funding of individual candidates or political parties? Or were there perhaps instances of extortion and blackmail of targeted individuals? These questions must be answered in full, and their inherent complexity explains fully why the FBI Director James Comey would not discuss details of the investigation on Monday.

Crucially, the FBI probe will have to answer conclusively the question of whether members of the administration of US President Donald Trump, or indeed the president himself, were implicated in the Kremlin’s actions. Did the president and his senior campaign team know that the Kremlin was —allegedly—assisting their efforts? If so, how did they know? And if not, did they deliberately ignore concrete warnings pointing to the contrary?

Every American, regardless of political persuasion, who genuinely cares about his or her nation’s political stability, hopes that the FBI probe finds no collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. However, there is an important sense in which, no matter the outcome of the investigation, serious damage has already been done. The reputation of American political institutions as a whole has been severely shaken, and mistrust between American civil society and its political institutions continues to rise exponentially. Meanwhile, it is safe to say that it will take months for the FBI’s probe to conclude. By then, the current chaotic state of American politics could be the a new permanently reality in Washington, a city that has witnessed much tumult in its history, though perhaps never as perplexing as the current crisis.

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

China has 5,000 spies in Taiwan, says official amidst espionage arrests

China and TaiwanA Taiwanese government official has alleged that China maintains an army of more than 5,000 spies in Taiwan, many of whom have infiltrated the highest levels of government and industry. The allegation came after two sensational arrests were made in Taiwan last week, of people accused of spying for Beijing. Taiwanese counterintelligence officers reportedly arrested a bodyguard of Annette Lu, Taiwan’s former vice president. The bodyguard, who has been identified in Taiwanese media as Wang Hong-ju, has been charged with receiving payments from his Chinese intelligence handler in return for providing information about Mrs. Lu. This incident followed another arrest, made earlier in the week, this time of a Chinese man who is believed to have initially come to Taiwan as a student. Zhou Hong-xu is accused of trying to recruit officials in the Taiwanese government by offering them money.

Following reports of the arrests, Taiwanese media quoted an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that Beijing maintains “about 5,000 individuals” who spy in Taiwan. These agents are allegedly tasked with “collecting state secrets” in the island country, over which China claims ownership. The anonymous Taiwanese official said that authorities in Taipei had uncovered no fewer than 60 espionage plots linked to China since 2002. Less than a third of those were uncovered before 2009, said the official. The year is important, because it marks the time when communications and transportation systems between the two nations were reestablished after decades of mutual isolation. The ease with which people from the two countries can travel in each other’s territory has increased exponentially since 2009. But so have instances of espionage by China, said the Taiwanese official.

Asked about the alleged targets of Chinese espionage in Taiwan, the official said that nearly 80 percent of identified cases of espionage by Beijing’s agents were aimed at military targets, with only 20 percent focusing on the civilian sector. However, the apparent disparity in numbers does not mean that China shows more interest in Taiwanese military secrets. Rather, the Taiwanese military has better counterintelligence defenses and thus a higher detection rate than the country’s civilian sector, said the anonymous source.

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