French spy agencies conclude Assad government was behind Syria gas attack

Khan SheikhunA comprehensive report released yesterday by the French Intelligence Community concludes with certainty that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the April 4 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria. The report, a “national evaluation” based on France’s own intelligence sources and scientific analysis of samples collected from the site of the attack, indicates that the poison gas used in the attack came from stockpiles that belong to the Syrian government.

The sarin gas attack targeted Khan Sheikhun, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the southern region of Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The city is located on the main highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the city of Aleppo in the north of the country. The surprise attack killed nearly 100 people and drew near-universal condemnation from the international community. It also sparked a military attack by the United States, which launched a missile attack at a Syrian military base from where the sarin gas attack allegedly originated.

On Wednesday, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the publication of a report, which, he said, proves conclusively that the Syrian government perpetrated the attack. The six-page declassified version of the report concludes that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians”. It alleges that the conclusion rests on “intelligence collected by our services”, which includes “samples from the scene of the attack”. The latter are reportedly identical with samples collected from sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. Additionally, the French report concludes that the attack was conducted with the use of airplanes, which the Syrian rebel forces do not have.

The French intelligence report comes after a similar report from the United States concluded that Assad’s government was behind the attack on Khan Sheikhun. A few days after the attack, medical tests conducted on victims of the attack by Turkish experts showed that sarin gas had been used, but did not implicate a specific culprit. The Syrian and Russian governments deny all involvement in the attack and claim that it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 April 2017 | Permalink

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Same hacker group is targeting French and German elections, says report

Konrad Adenauer FoundationThe same group cyber-spies that attacked the campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is now attacking German institutions that are connected to the country’s ruling coalition parties, according to a report by a leading cyber-security firm. The Tokyo-based security software company Trend Micro published a 41-page report on Tuesday, in which it tracks and traces the attacks against French and German political targets over the past two years. The report, entitled From Espionage to Cyber Propaganda: Pawn Storm’s Activities over the Past Two Years, concludes that the hackers are seeking to influence the results of the national elections in the European Union’s two most powerful nations, France and Germany.

The Trend Micro report focuses on a mysterious group that cyber-security experts have dubbed Pawn Storm —otherwise known as Sednit, Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM. It says that the group has launched an aggressive phishing campaign against German political institutions, which has intensified in the past two months. The group allegedly set up fake computer servers in Germany and the Ukraine, and used them to try to infiltrate the computer networks of two elite German think-tanks, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF). The KAF is connected with the Christian Democratic Union party, which is led by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The FEF has strong ties with the centrist Social Democratic Party, which is part of Germany’s governing alliance.

The report’s leading author, cyber-security expert Feike Hacquebord, told the Reuters news agency that the hackers were possibly seeking to infiltrate the two think-tanks as a means of gaining access to the two political parties that are connected with them. Some cyber-security experts in Europe and the United States have said that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, the country’s military intelligence agency, known as GRU, is behind the cyber-attacks on France, Germany and the United States. But the Trend Micro report did not attempt to place blame on Moscow or any other country for the cyber-attacks. The Kremlin has denied involvement with the alleged hacking operations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 April 2017 | Permalink

Iranian spies second most active in Germany, says Interior Ministry

BND GermanyIranian intelligence operatives are the second most active in Germany after Russian spies, with much of their activity focusing on Israeli targets in the country, according to the German Interior Ministry. The information is contained in a report that was issued in response to a request by a member of Germany’s Bundestag last week. It states that Iranian spies have engaged in nearly two dozen known intelligence operations on German soil since 2007, and have even targeted individuals for assassination.

The Interior Ministry’s report reveals that German authorities initiated counterintelligence investigations against 22 cases of espionage by Iranian agents during the past decade. These account for over 17 percent of all counterintelligence cases conducted by the German state since 2007. Of the remaining cases 27 concerned Russian spies, while China and Turkey are believed to be behind 15 spy cases each. Syrian intelligence operatives were found to be behind a total of eight spy operations conducted on German soil in the past decade. According to the report, the majority of intelligence operations conducted in Germany by Iranian agents were attempts to secure material and technologies that could be used in Iran’s nuclear program. Approximately half of Germany’s federal states reported attempts by Iranian agents to secure nuclear-related goods in recent years.

But Tehran has also allegedly been implicated in attempted assassinations of German citizens, according to the report. One example mentioned in the document is that of Mustafa Haidar Syed-Naqfi. Sayed-Naqfi, who is a Pakistani national, was arrested in the northern German city of Bremen in January of this year for spying on behalf of Iran. According to German authorities, the Pakistani man compiled lists of potential targets for assassination by Iran. As intelNews reported at the time, Syed-Naqfi’s list of targets included prominent Jews or German-Israelis living in northern Germany. Among them was Reinhold Robbe, a politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who served for a number of years as president of the German-Israeli Congress. According to reports, the spy had compiled detailed maps of Robbe’s daily movements, which outlined his travel routines and the routes he took from his home to the DIG headquarters in Berlin. German officials believe that the type of surveillance that Sayed-Naqfi. carried out against Robbe indisputably leads to the conclusion that the politician’s assassination was being planned.

German authorities believe that Syed-Naqfi worked for the Quds Force, a Special-Forces unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, which is responsible for covert operations outside Iran. Last month, the Pakistani man was given a four-year prison sentence by a Berlin court for engaging in espionage on German soil.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2017 | Permalink

EU Council president grilled in closed-door probe of Polish-Russian spy deal

Donald TuskSenior European Union official Donald Tusk was grilled for several hours on Wednesday, in the context of a Polish government probe into an intelligence agreement between Warsaw and Moscow. But Tusk, who is the current president of the European Council, and served as Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014, dismissed the probe as politicized and said it was deliberately designed to harm his political career. The investigation was launched by the government of Poland earlier this year. Its stated goal is to investigate an agreement that was struck in late 2013 between Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (MCS) and the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation. The agreement allegedly took place in secret, but was never implemented. The government of Poland canceled it in 2014, after accusing Moscow of illegally annexing the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

On Wednesday, Tusk spent nearly three hours at the office of the prosecutor in Warsaw, in a question-and-answer session that was held entirely behind closed doors. As he was leaving the building, the former Polish prime minister said he could not comment on the content of his testimony. But he used strong words to dismiss the entire investigation as “extremely political”, while accusing those behind it as holding a vendetta against him. Tusk and his supporters believe that the probe was primarily initiated by Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the conservative Law and Justice party. They also claim that Kaczyński, who is Tusk’s political arch-foe in Poland, is spearheading a campaign of personal vindictiveness against him.

The rivalry between the two men began in 2010, when an airplane carrying a Polish government delegation to a World War II commemoration event in Russia crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing everyone onboard. Among the dead was Polish President Lech Kaczyński, Jarosław Kaczyński’s brother. Since the air disaster, the leader of the Law and Justice party has maintained that the Russian government deliberately brought down the plane. He also accuses Tusk, who was Poland’s prime minister at the time, of colluding with Moscow to eliminate his brother. These allegations remain unsubstantiated, but they have contributed to the emergence of a venomous political climate in Poland that has dominated national politics for years.

On Wednesday, during Tusk’s three-hour testimony, several thousands of his supporters demonstrated outside the office of the prosecutor, urging Tusk to run for president in a few years. It is a common expectation in Poland that Tusk will soon turn his attention to domestic Polish politics and run for the highest office in the land in 2020.

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

Nigerian spy chief suspended after $43 million cash stash found in apartment

EFCC NigeriaThe director of Nigeria’s powerful intelligence agency has been suspended on orders of the president, after a massive stash of cash totaling $43 million was found in an apartment in Lagos. The money was discovered by investigators working for the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Based in Abuja, the EFCC is a high-profile body that was created in 2003, in response to accusations by the international community that Nigeria is used as a major base for global money-laundering schemes.

According to media reports, the money was found in a vacant apartment located in Ikoyi, arguably the most affluent neighborhood of the Nigerian capital and one of the wealthiest urban areas in Africa. The cash had been wrapped in transparent plastic sheets and hidden inside several metallic filing cabinets, as well as concealed behind a fake partition in a wooden wardrobe. According to a statement issued by the Nigerian government, the apartment was searched following tip-offs by local residents. The latter allegedly reported that a mysterious woman was seen entering or leaving the apartment with suspicious-looking bags at all hours of the day or night. Some residents told EFCC investigators that the woman may have been a man in disguise.

Government officials in Lagos said on Wednesday that the apartment belongs to the National Intelligence Agency, Nigeria’s primary intelligence organization. An investigation has therefore been launched into how the cash was accumulated in the apartment, and whether it had been authorized by intelligence officials or other government executives. In the meantime, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the immediate suspension of Ambassador Ayo Oke, who has been serving as director of the National Intelligence Agency. The ambassador is believed to be under house arrest and is not permitted to resume his professional duties until after the investigation has been completed. President Buhari has asked to be given the results of the investigation in two weeks.

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

British tip helped French police foil ‘imminent’ terrorist attack

DGSEA tip from British intelligence helped French counterterrorist officials arrest two men who are thought to have been in the final stages of planning a large-scale terrorist attack, according to French media. Government sources in Paris say officers from the country’s domestic intelligence agency, DGSE, arrested two men on Monday. Both men are reportedly French citizens from France’s northern regions. They were residing in the southern port city of Marseilles, where they were arrested by the DGSE. They were later named as Merabet Mahiedine, 29, and Clement Baur, 23. It is alleged that Mahiedine has North African roots, but that Baur is a Caucasian convert to Islam. Both were allegedly known to French police for having repeatedly stated views in support of radical Islamist policies.

According to France’s Minister of the Interior, Matthias Fekl, the two men were planning to carry out a large-scale armed attack in Marseilles this week, which is the last before the long-awaited presidential election in the country. Some sources in the French intelligence community claim that the two men planned to kill one of the major candidates in the election. A number of reports suggest that their target was François Fillon, a conservative presidential candidate who served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. It is not known why Fillon may have been targeted, though some observers speculate that radical Islamists seek to promote the aspirations of Fillon’s main rival, the far-right candidate Marine LePen, whom they see as someone whose policies would further-radicalize Muslims in France and North Africa.

Reports in the French media state that DGSE officers confiscated several guns and significant quantities of bomb-making material that were found in an apartment belonging to one of the two men. Meanwhile, an aide to Mr. Fillon told the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro that the primary tip that led to the arrest of the two men in Marseilles came from British intelligence. The subsequent capture of the two men prevented an attack that would have almost certainly taken place “in the next couple of days”, according to sources in Paris.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 April 2017 | Permalink

Crisis looms over Pakistan’s impending execution of alleged Indian spy

Kulbhushan JadhavAnalysts warn that South Asia may witness its worst crisis since the 2008 Mumbai attacks if Pakistan carries out its threat to execute an Indian former naval officer whom it accuses of espionage. Authorities in Islamabad say Kulbhushan Jadhav (pictured) worked for the Indian Navy until 2003, when he was recruited by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), a government intelligence agency that conducts operations abroad. The Pakistanis claim that Jadhav was arrested in southwest Pakistan in 2016, where he was engaged in funding and training secessionist militants from Pakistan’s Baluch minority. The Baluch are an Iranic people, most of whom live in a region known as Baluchistan, which is split between Iran and Pakistan. There are populous Baluch communities in the southern city of Karachi, one of Pakistan’s most populous ports. Some members of the Baluch community have secessionist aspirations and are accused of terrorism by Iranian and Pakistani authorities.

Soon after Jadhav’s arrest in March 2016, the Pakistani military released excerpts of an alleged videotaped confession by the Indian former naval officer. In it, Jadhav can be seen confessing to having worked on instructions by the Indian government to inflame ethnic divisions in Pakistan, from 2013 until his arrest. Last month, a secret military court in Pakistan sentenced Jadhav to death on charges of espionage. India, however, has rejected Pakistan’s allegations, saying that Jadhav’s confession was extracted through torture. The Indians claim that Jadhav was kidnapped by Pakistani operatives in Iran and brought to Pakistan by force. Indian officials dismissed Islamabad’s claim Jadhav was carrying his Indian passport when the Pakistanis captured him, saying that no undercover intelligence officer operating abroad would be carrying an Indian passport. New Delhi has warned of “serious consequences” if Pakistan engages in “premediated murder” by executing Jadhav.

Some observers have noted that Jadhav was tried by a secret court martial, which signifies a radical break from standard practice. Moreover, the public announcements about his fate were made by the Pakistani military, rather than the civilian government, which is unprecedented. This leads some analysts to the conclusion that the Jadhav case is being handled solely by the military, which is trying to use Jadhav’s case to dissuade the government in Islamabad from reaching out to India with an offer for negotiations. There are also suggestions that the timing of Jadhav’s sentence might indicate that Islamabad hopes to exchange him for one or more of its intelligence officers that are being held by India.

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