Did Russian intelligence warn Turkish government of impending coup?

Turkey coupRussian and Turkish authorities will not confirm or deny reports that the Kremlin warned Turkey’s intelligence services about an impending coup on July 15, several hours before tanks appeared on the streets of major Turkish cities. On Wednesday, several Arab and Iranian news outlets claimed that Russian intelligence officials told the government in Ankara that the Turkish military was preparing a coup. The reports cited anonymous Turkish diplomats who said that Turkish intelligence was urgently alerted by the Russians “hours before [the military coup] was initiated on Friday”.

According to the unconfirmed reports, the secret preparations for the coup first came to the attention of Russian military intelligence. Its radio interceptors captured —and were subsequently able to read— a series of encoded radio messages exchanged between Turkish commanders in the early hours of July 15. There is no information about the precise circumstances of the alleged interception, though media reports note the significant presence of Russian military intelligence in the northern Syrian province of Latakia, a few miles south of the Turkish border. The reports state that the intercepted messages contained “highly sensitive army exchanges” involving a plan to send army helicopters to the Turkish resort port of Marmaris, where the Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan was holidaying, in order to kill or capture him. Russian intelligence officials reportedly shared the information with senior members of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT). The alleged exchange allegedly took place “several hours before the start of the coup” in Turkey.

However, government officials in Ankara will not comment on the possibility that Russian intelligence services may have warned the MİT about the coup. On Thursday, Russian government spokesman Dmitri Peskov was asked directly by journalists whether the Kremlin warned Turkish officials of an impending coup by the military. He responded saying “I have no information of that kind and I do not know which sources [the media reports] are citing in making these claims”. Russia’s TASS news agency interpreted Peskov’s comment as a denial. However, the wording in his response shows that he simply denies having personal knowledge of the incident. He does not deny it happened.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2016 | Permalink

French government acknowledges it has special forces, spies, in Libya

French special forcesThe death of three French Special Forces soldiers in Libya has prompted the first public acknowledgement by France that its troops are involved in “dangerous intelligence operations” in the North African country. The acknowledgement was made on Wednesday in an official statement issued by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister of Defense. In the statement, Le Drian said he “regretted the loss of three French officers who expired while on mission in Libya”. The acknowledgement came less than 24 hours after the Associated Press news agency claimed that a helicopter carrying French troops had been shot down in Libya. The report quoted unnamed Libyan officials as saying that the helicopter had been shot down by an Islamist militia in the outskirts of the city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya.

Paris has previously acknowledged the presence of French warplanes in Libya, which it says are only involved in reconnaissance operations. It is also known that France has set up a forward operating base in Niger, close to the southern Libyan border. But the French government has never before acknowledged the presence of French troops or intelligence operatives on Libyan soil. During the uprising that deposed longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, there were persistent rumors of daring operations by French commandos and intelligence operatives, which were never confirmed. In February of this year, French newspaper Le Monde claimed that French troops and spies were active in Libya. In a leading article titled “France’s Secret War in Libya”, the French daily said that President François Hollande had secretly authorized operations by elite special forces and officers of the DGSE, France’s General Directorate for External Security. But France’s Defense Ministry refused to comment on Le Monde’s allegations, while Laurent Fabius, who was then France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied the newspaper’s claims, saying that France did not have the means to intervene militarily in Libya.

Speaking shortly after Wednesday’s disclosure by the Defense Ministry, President Hollande said the three special forces soldiers had died while “carrying out perilous intelligence operations” in Libya. In a subsequent interview on the Paris-based France Info Radio, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll admitted that French operatives are indeed active in Libya. Asked whether the Defense Ministry’s statement offered such an acknowledgement, Le Foll responded: “French special forces are [in Libya], naturally, to offer assistance and to ensure that France has a presence wherever the struggle against international terrorism is taking place”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 July 2016 | Permalink

North Korea resumes Cold-War-era radio broadcasts for its spies abroad

Voice of KoreaIn a development that is reminiscent of the Cold War, a radio station in North Korea appears to have resumed broadcasts of encrypted messages that are typically used to give instructions to spies stationed abroad. The station in question is the Voice of Korea, known in past years as Radio Pyongyang. It is operated by the North Korean government and airs daily programming consisting of music, current affairs and instructional propaganda in various languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, French, English, and Russian. Last week however, the station interrupted its normal programming to air a series of numbers that were clearly intended to be decoded by a few select listeners abroad.

According to the South Korean public news agency, Yonhap, the coded segment was broadcast on shortwave at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, July 15. It featured a female announcer slowly reading a series of seemingly random numbers from an instruction sheet. The announcer began the segment by stating that she would “now provide a review on the topic of mathematics, as stipulated by the distance-learning university curriculum for the benefit of agents of the 27th Bureau”. She went on to read a series of numbers: “turn to page 459, number 35; page 913, number 55; page 135, number 86; page 257 number 2”, etc. This went on for approximately 12 minutes, said Yonhap.

The technique described above is informally known as ‘numbers stations’, and was extensively used by both Western and communist countries during the Cold War to send operational instructions to their intelligence personnel stationed abroad. Armed with a shortwave radio, an intelligence officer would turn to the right frequency on a pre-determined date and time, write down the numbers read out and proceed to decrypt them using a ‘number pad’, a tiny book that contained the key to deciphering the secret message aired on the radio. But the era of the Internet, mobile phones and microwave communications has caused the demise of ‘numbers stations’. The latter are rarely heard nowadays, though a number of nations, including Cuba, South Korea and Israel, are believed to still use them.

The last time North Korea is thought to have employed ‘numbers stations’ to contact its spies stationed abroad was in the spring of 2000, prior to the historic first Inter-Korean Summit that featured a face-to-face meeting of the then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and the then North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Since that time, the North Koreans are believed to have stopped deploying broadcasts to communicate with their intelligence operatives in foreign countries. Yonhap quoted an unnamed South Korean government source as saying that last Friday’s broadcast was the first number sequence aired by Pyongyang in over 16 years. According to the news agency, the broadcast has Seoul worried about “possible provocations” that may be planned by North Korean spies living secretly in the south.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: It seems everyone predicted the coup in Turkey except its spy agency

Turkey coupAfter the failure of the recent military coup d’état in Turkey, much attention has been given to the country’s armed forces, the police, even the judiciary. In contrast, little to no information has surfaced about Turkey’s intelligence establishment, which is led by MİT, the National Intelligence Organization. Did it anticipate the plot, and how did it fare as the crisis unfolded in the early hours of July 16?

Two days after the failed coup, American Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a senior member of the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security, claimed that “no one […] saw this coup coming”. Speaking on WNYM, a conservative talk-radio station in his home state of New York, Rep. King said that, as far as he was aware, “there was no diplomatic talk; there was no intelligence talk of this coup”. Speaking a day earlier, US Secretary of State John Kerry had stated that the White House had “no idea” that a coup was imminent in Turkey, and that developments in the country had “surprised everybody”.

As is often the case, King and Kerry were both wrong. Even as early as October of 2015, Norman Bailey, of the University of Haifa in Israel and the Institute of World Politics in Washington, was stating with certainty that Turkey’s “army will step in and take over” if it senses that the country is descending into chaos. On March 12 of this year, Russian observers warned that Turkey’s military was “gradually building up its political influence, thus laying grounds for a military coup”. Later in the same month, Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, asked: “could there be a coup in Turkey?”, and answered that “no one should be surprised […] if the Turkish military moves to oust Erdogan and place his inner circle behind bars”. And on March 30, the esteemed journal Foreign Affairs hosted an article by Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, in which she explained that Turkey was about to face its “next military coup”. During an interview on July 2 of this year, the present author spoke about the “very volatile situation within [Turkey]” and added: “I can’t think of any countries in the region that are more unsettled and unpredictable right now than Turkey”.

If analysts relying on open sources were able to issue concrete warnings about Turkey’s political instability at least a year in advance of the coup, it should be taken for granted that intelligence observers were equally alarmed over the same period. We know, for instance, that American intelligence analysts were “concerned for months” prior to the coup “about simmering tensions between President […] Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish military brass”. Read more of this post

Italian spy chief paid secret visit to Syria: news reports

Alberto ManentiThe head of Italian intelligence paid a secret visit to Syria earlier this month, a week after his Syrian counterpart visited Rome, according to reports from the Middle East. The Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, which first reported the alleged behind-the-scenes exchange, said the visits focused on counter-terrorism cooperation between Syria and the European Union. The paper said that the initial contact was made in late June by Major General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, who paid a secret visit to Rome. General Zeitoun’s visit was allegedly in response to an official invitation issued by the Italian government. The general is believed to have stayed in a secluded private villa, which was provided by the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency, known as AISE. He subsequently met with several Italian intelligence officials, including AISE Director, General Alberto Manenti.

A week later, Manenti secretly traveled to Syrian capital Damascus, where he stayed for several days. According to Gulf News, General Manenti met with his Syrian counterpart and other senior intelligence officials, as well as with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The main purpose of the secret meetings was to explore the potential for enhanced collaboration between Syria and the European Union on counter-terrorism issues. It appears that the Syrian government is willing to share intelligence on citizens of the EU who have traveled to Syria and have joined the ranks of the Islamic State, as well as other al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country. Damascus is even willing to give EU intelligence personnel access to captured Islamist fighters that are being held in Syrian government facilities.

In return, however, the Syrians are asking that the EU enters negotiations on possibly normalizing diplomatic relations with Damascus. Contacts between the EU and Syria were severely disrupted at the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and remain officially non-existent to this day. According to Gulf News, the Syrians told General Manenti that full intelligence cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism will ensue as soon as the EU normalizes diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus. The Italian intelligence official is believed to have told the Syrians that Rome will press the EU to move toward re-establishing relations with Damascus, in return for concrete steps taken in Syria toward “political transition” in the war-torn country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2016 | Permalink

Russian foreign intelligence headquarters has doubled in size since 2007

SVR hqRecent satellite images reveal that the headquarters of the Russian Federation’s external intelligence agency has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, is one of the successor agencies of the Soviet-era KGB. During the Soviet times, the present-day SVR was known as the First Chief Directorate or First Main Directorate of the KGB. Despite its name change, however, its mission remains the same, namely to collect secrets from targets outside the Russian Federation —often through the use of espionage— and to disseminate intelligence to the president. In the Soviet days, along with most of the KGB, the First Chief Directorate was headquartered in the imposing Lubyanka building, which is located in Moscow’s Meshchansky District. But in the early 1970s, the entire First Chief Directorate began a decade-long process of moving to a new, state-of-the-art complex in the southern suburbs of the Russian capital. The complex, which is located in Yasenevo, today houses the entire apparatus of the SVR, including its espionage wing, and is informally known as les (the forest) or kontora (the office).

Until 2007, the SVR’s Yasenevo headquarters consisted of a large Y-shaped office building that adjoins an imposing 21-story skyscraper, which is visible for several miles around. But an open-source collection of recent satellite images shows that the top-secret complex has doubled —and possibly tripled— in size in the past decade. Steven Aftergood, who edits the Federation ofMikhail Fradkov American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog, has published a collection of images that was compiled by Allen Thomson, an analyst who worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency from 1972 to 1985. The images clearly show that at least three more large buildings have been erected alongside the landmark skyscraper and the adjoining Y-shaped office block. These additions, says Aftergood, appear to have increased the SVR headquarters’ floor space “by a factor of two or more”. Moreover, the nearby parking capacity at the complex “appears to have quadrupled”, he adds.

There is no information available about what may have prompted the sudden building expansion at the SVR complex, nor whether it reflects drastic changes in the organizational structure, budget or mission of the agency. Secrecy News quotes Russian intelligence observer Andrei Soldatov, who suggests that there may be a direct connection between the expansion of the SVR facility and the appointment of Mikhail Fradkov as the agency’s director, in 2007. Fradkov is a Soviet-era diplomat, who some suspect was secretly an officer of the KGB. He served as Russia’s prime minister from 2004 to 2007, when he was appointed director of the SVR —a position that he retains to this day. There have been suggestions in the Russian media that Fradkov could succeed Vladimir Putin when the latter retires from his post as president of the Russian Federation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 July 2016 | Permalink

Australia, Indonesia exchange intelligence personnel to combat ISIS

2016 Jakarta attacksAn ambitious new personnel exchange program between intelligence agencies in Australia and Indonesia aims to combat the unprecedented rise of militant Islamism in Southeast Asia, which is fueled by the Islamic State. The program, which is already underway, aims to strengthen intelligence cooperation between two traditionally adversarial regional powers. According to The Australian newspaper, the scheme owes its existence to the growing recognition that the security environment in the region is rapidly deteriorating due to the popularity of the Islamic State. The militant group appears to have replaced al-Qaeda in the minds of many radical Islamists in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere, and is fueling the resurgence of smaller Islamist sects that have laid largely dormant for years.

Relations between militant Islamist sects in Indonesia —the world’s most populous Muslim nation— have traditionally been factional in nature. But some experts fear that the unprecedented growth of the Islamic State is galvanizing and uniting Islamist factions throughout Southeast Asia. Chief among them is the Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group operating across the region, which was behind the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200 people, 88 of them Australians. In January of this year, Jemaah Islamiyah praised a series of attacks in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, which were perpetrated by militants connected to the Islamic State. The attacks killed four people, far fewer than their perpetrators had hoped to harm. But they lasted for several hours and shocked many due to the ease with which the heavily armed terrorists were able to evade security measures. Similar attacks were recently prevented in their planning stages by security agencies in Malaysia and the Philippines.

These developments prompted the rapprochement that is currently taking place between two traditionally rival intelligence agencies, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency, commonly referred to as BIN. The two agencies have reportedly begun posting officers to each other’s headquarters on multi-month assignments. The purpose of these exchanges is to gain a detailed understanding of each other’s counterterrorist planning and operations, and devise areas of actionable cooperation. The plan can be characterized as ambitious, given that relations between ASIO and BIN were severely disrupted in late 2013 and are still damaged, according to some observers. The break in relations was prompted by revelations, made by the American defector Edward Snowden, that Australian intelligence spied on senior Indonesian politicians and their family members, including the wife of the country’s president. Indonesia responded by withdrawing its ambassador from Canberra and terminating all military and intelligence cooperation with Australia. Nine months later, the two countries signed a joint agreement promising to curb their intelligence activities against each other. Some observers suggest that it will take years for Indonesian and Australian intelligence to fully reestablish intelligence cooperation. However, the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Southeast Asia could be significantly accelerating this process.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 July 2016 | Permalink

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