Germany arrests Tunisian man for producing biological weapon in his apartment

Ricin investigation GermanyGerman authorities have charged a Tunisian citizen with building a biological weapon, after finding significant quantities of the highly toxic substance ricin in his apartment. The 29-year-old man is referred to in public reports only as “Sief Allah H.”, in compliance with German law that forbids the naming of suspects until they are found guilty in court. German officials said last Thursday that the man remains in custody and has been charged with violating Germany’s War Weapons Control Act (known as Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz) and “preparing a serious act of violence against the state”.

According to reports, German intelligence services received a tip-off last month that the man had made online purchases of a coffee grinder and 1,000 castor seeds. Processing castor seeds creates a ricin byproduct, which can then be weaponized in the form of a powder, a fine mist, or solid pellets of various sizes. The end product is more powerful than many other toxic substances, such as cyanide. Upon entering the human body, ricin can cause multiple organ failure in less than two days. It has no known antidote.

After receiving the tip-off, German authorities began monitoring the suspect’s movements in the western German city of Cologne, near the Belgian and Dutch borders. By June, German police discovered that he had produced enough ricin to dispense as many as 1,000 lethal doses.

German media reported that “Sief Allah H.” is a sympathizer of the Islamic State. However, investigators have found no direct link between him and any militant organizations in Germany or abroad. Additionally, no evidence has yet been presented that he had planned an actual attack —in Germany or elsewhere— at a specific time. However, officials from Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said it was “very likely” that the arrest of “Sief Allah H.” had averted a terrorist attack. Late last week, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said that the suspect had made ricin by following instructions posted online by the Islamic State.

Throughout the weekend, several other apartments in Cologne were searched by German authorities. Search parties consisted of members of the local police, intelligence officers and scientists from the Robert Koch Institute, the German government agency tasked with monitoring hazards to public health.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 June 2018 | Research Credit: S.F. | Permalink

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Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

US imposes sanctions on companies for helping Russian spy agencies

YantarThe United States has for the first time imposed economic sanctions on a number of Russian companies, which it says helped the Kremlin spy on targets in North America and Western Europe. On Monday, the US Department of the Treasury said it would apply severe economic restrictions on a number of Russian firms that work closely with the Kremlin. One of the companies was identified as Digital Security, which Washington says has been helping Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. Monday’s statement by the Treasury Department named another Russian firm, the Kvant Scientific Research Institute, which it described as a front company operated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

But the Russian firm that features most prominently in Monday’s announcement is Divetechnoservices, an underwater equipment manufacturer. The US alleges that the FSB paid the company $15 million in 2011 to design equipment for use in tapping underwater communications cables. According to Washington, equipment designed by Divetechnoservices is today used by a fleet of Russian ships that sail on the world’s oceans searching for underwater communications cables to tap. One such ship, according to reports, is the Yantar (pictured), ostensibly an oceanic research vessel, which Washington says is used to detect and tap into underwater communications cables.

In addition to Divetechnoservices, the US Treasury has named three individuals who will face economic sanctions due to what Washington says is their personal involvement with the underwater hardware manufacturer. They are: Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy, the company’s owner and former director; Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun, who serves as Divetechnoservices’ general director; and Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov, identified as the manager of Divetechnoservices’ underwater surveillance program. These men —all Russian citizens— will not be able to enter into business relationships with American companies or citizens. On Tuesday, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the latest round of US sanctions as an act of desperation. The White House would fail in its effort to “force the Russian Federation to change its independent course of action in the international arena”, said the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2018 | Permalink

Israel has secretly worked with Emirates against Iran for decades, report alleges

Mohammed bin Rashid EmiratesA lengthy exposé by a leading American newsmagazine has claimed that Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two countries that officially have no relations, have been secretly collaborating for more than two decades. Their secret cooperation has been extremely tight and has included clandestine weapons sales and intelligence-sharing, according to the exposé, which was published on the website of The New Yorker on Monday and will feature in the magazine’s print edition on June 18. The lengthy piece, which deals with the changing geopolitics of the Middle East, is written by Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Washington Post, who has previously reported for more than two decades for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

Officially, Israel and the UAE have never had bilateral relations. The Emirates, an Arab federal state ruled through an absolute monarchical system, does not recognize Israel as a country. Consequently, the two Middle Eastern states have no official diplomatic, economic or military relations. But in his lengthy article published on Monday, Entous claims that Israeli and Emirati officials have been meeting in secret for at least 24 years. He alleges that the first clandestine meeting between the two sides happened in 1994 in Washington, after Abu Dhabi sought to purchase a number of American-made F-16 fighter jets. The US warned the UAE that Israel would veto the deal, fearing that these fighter jets in the hands of Arabs may eventually be used against it. But Israel did not pose a veto. Motivated by the Oslo I Accord, which it had signed the previous year, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin secretly reached out to the Emiratis and offered “to discuss the matter directly” with them.

The first series of meetings between the two sides took place “off the record […] in a nondescript office in Washington”, says Entous. Israeli and Emirati officials were diametrically at odds over the Palestinian issue, but were in almost complete agreement on the topic of Iran. Abu Dhabi saw Iran as a major threat to the stability of the Middle East, and so did Israel. Following the secret meetings, Israel lifted its objections to Washington’s sale of F-16s to the Emiratis. That, says Entous, helped “build a sense of trust” between the two Middle Eastern countries. By the end of the 1990s, there were allegedly regular secret meetings between Israeli and Emirati officials, which included the sharing of military, security and intelligence data.

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Analysis: The Islamic State is far from dead; it is regrouping and rebranding itself

Islamic State ISISIn a recent series of interviews to promote his new book, Anatomy of Terror, former FBI special agent and current counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan insists that the Islamic State remains potent and dangerous. Speaking last week to the British newspaper The Guardian, Soufan warned that, even though the Islamic State was unable to hang on to its self-described caliphate in the Middle East, the group has ample opportunities to regroup. In the days of al-Qaeda, “we only had one vacuum, in Afghanistan”, from where Osama bin Laden’s organization operated from and spread its message, said Soufan. “Now we have so many vacuums —Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, the Philippines— and it’s expanding. That’s very dangerous”, he warned.

Soufan, a well-read analyst and complex thinker, who today presides over The Soufan Group and oversees the Soufan Foundation, is right to warn against the notion that the Islamic State is on its way out. The group’s meteoric rise marked a watershed moment in the modern history of militant Sunni Islam. Even if it is militarily annihilated —a prospect that is far from certain— its physical absence will in no way erase its impact and influence among its millions of supporters and sympathizers. In fact, experts warn that the group is —like al-Qaeda before it— proving to be resilient and able to withstand intense military pressure from its enemies. Currently, all signs show that the Islamic State is actively reorganizing under the command of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The prolonged absence of the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi has prompted wild speculation about this supposed demise or severe incapacitation. There are even some who claim that he was killed by an Islamic State faction in an internal coup.

But most intelligence agencies agree that al-Baghdadi —and his core lieutenants— remain very much alive and well. Three weeks ago, The Washington Post cited anonymously a “senior United States counterterrorism official” who confirmed that, by all indications, al-Baghdadi was alive and was coordinating the group’s activities in its last strongholds in eastern Syria. This is supported by communications intercepts, detainee interrogations and statements by informants, said The Post. It is important to note that Al-Baghdadi continues to have alongside him some of the militant group’s most hardened commanders, most of whom were trained in intelligence and military tactics during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Under their guidance, retreating Islamic State forces are leaving behind cell-based formations of underground fighters in areas that are liberated by the fragile US-led coalition. Read more of this post

Most government hackers now target cell phones, not computers, experts say

Cell Phone - IAThe majority of government-sponsored hacking now targets cell phones, not personal computers, according to researchers who say that political dissidents are especially targeted by totalitarian regimes around the world. Until 2015, most government-sponsored hacking operations were directed against the personal computers of targeted individuals. However, experts tell The Wall Street Journal that as of this year cell phones have become a far more lucrative target than personal computers in government-sponsored hacking operations. Researchers with Lookout Mobile Security, a security software company based in the United States, say that detected phone-hacking operations that are believed to be sponsored by governments have increased by a factor of 10 in the first five months of this year, compared to 2015.

According to Lookout, the increase in hacking operations targeting mobile phones reflects the proliferation of smartphone usage around the world, as well as the increase in consumption of cell phone software. Government-sponsored hackers usually compromise their targets’ cell phones through malicious software disguised as cell phone applications. The Wall Street Journal also reports that the software needed to build malicious software for cell phones has become cheaper and more readily available. Compromising a target’s cell phone provides hackers with information that is far more personal and sensitive than what can be found on a personal computer. The paper quotes Mike Murray, Lookout’s vice president of security research, who says: “It is one thing to compromise someone’s computer. It’s another thing to have a listening device that they carry around with them 24 hours a day”. Compromised phones become immensely powerful espionage tools, explains Murray.

Many of the individuals whose cell phones are targeted by governments are activists or dissidents who campaign for political or economic reforms in their countries. Their cell phones are targeted in systematic hacking campaigns by countries like Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates, Cambodia, and Mexico, said Lookout. The Wall Street Journal cites Raj Samani, chief scientist for the antivirus firm McAfee, who claims that nearly 11 percent of cell phones worldwide were infected with some kind of malware in 2017. That statistic is likely to rise significantly by the end of 2018, says Samani.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 June 2018 | Permalink

US evacuates more diplomats from China over ‘abnormal sounds and symptoms’

US consulate in GuangzhouThe United States has evacuated at least two more diplomatic personnel from its consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, after they experienced “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. The latest evacuations come two weeks after the US Department of State disclosed that a consulate worker in Guangzhou had been flown home for medical testing, in response to having experienced “subtle and vague, but abnormal, sensations of sound and pressure”.

The evacuations from China have prompted comparisons to similar phenomena that were reported by US diplomatic personnel in Cuba in 2016. Last September, Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from its embassy in Havana and issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island. These actions were taken in response to allegations by the US Department of State that at least 21 of its diplomatic and support staff stationed in Cuba suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing, causing them to be diagnosed with brain injuries. In April, the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in Havana over similar health concerns.

US State Department sources told The New York Times on Wednesday that the two latest evacuees were among approximately 179 American diplomats and consular personnel stationed in Guangzhou, one of China’s largest commercial hubs. The city of 14 million, located 70 miles north of Hong Kong, hosts one of Washington’s six consulates in China. The building that houses the US consulate was presented to the public in 2013 as a state-of-the-art construction, which, as The Times reports, is “designed to withstand electronic eavesdropping and other security and intelligence threats”. The paper said that one Guangzhou consular employee that was evacuated this week is Mark A. Lenzi, who works as a security engineering officer. He is reported to have left China along with his wife and two children. An unnamed senior US official told The Times that a State Department medical team arrived in Guangzhou on May 31, and is currently examining all diplomatic personnel and their families.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 June 2018 | Permalink