FBI releases new information on alleged Iranian deep-cover spies

MEK supporters CaliforniaThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has charged two men of Iranian descent, who were arrested in California, of operating as deep-cover spies for Iran. Documents filed in a federal court in Washington, DC, name the men as Majid Ghorbani, 59, and Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38. Both have American citizenship and were arrested by the FBI in August, following a year-long counterintelligence investigation. The Los Angeles Times reports that Ghorbani is believed to have immigrated to the US from Iran in 1995. For the past two decades he has worked as a waiter at an upscale Persian restaurant in Santa Ana. Doostdar was born in the southern Californian city of Long Beach, but eventually moved with his family to Canada, and later to Iran, where he grew up. But he kept his US citizenship and made regular trips to America. It is believed that he planned to eventually move with his family to California.

According to the FBI, the two men were tasked by Iranian intelligence with carrying out surveillance on Jewish religious, cultural and political facilities in the US. They were also tasked with conducting surveillance and compiling reports of diplomatic and other facilities connected to the state of Israel. Another part of their mission, said the FBI, was collecting information on the activities and individual members of Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations in exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups. Until 2009, the European Union and the US officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred against the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US.

Documents filed in court by the FBI state that the two men were secretly recorded during a year-long counterintelligence operation, as they traveled throughout the US to observe MEK rallies and gather intelligence or Israeli diplomatic facilities. Locations visited by the two men allegedly include Chicago, New York and Washington, as well as several cities in the American West Coast. During those visits, they would compile reports that, according to the FBI, were meant to “enable an intelligence or military unit find [and] neutralize a threat”. The men also traveled back to Iran through third countries, bringing back written operational instructions from their Iranian intelligence handlers, according to the FBI documents. IntelNews wrote about the arrest of the two men in August. However, this is the first concrete information released by the FBI about their identities and activities. They are both accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government —a technical term for deep-cover espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 January 2019 | Permalink

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Huawei fires Chinese employee arrested in Poland for spying

Huawei PolandThe Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has fired one of its employees who was arrested last week in Poland on charges of spying for China, saying that his actions had “no relation to the company”. The man, identified in media reports as Wang Weijing, was arrested last Tuesday by Polish counterintelligence officers who conducted searches of Huawei’s offices in Warsaw and seized electronic hardware and documents. Wang reportedly learned Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University. In 2006, he was posted by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Chinese consulate in Gdansk, Poland’s largest Baltic Sea port city. In 2011, he left the Foreign Service and joined Huawei, which employed him at its offices in Poland.

Reports from Poland said that Wang was arrested alongside a Polish national, who was identified in media reports only as Piotr D. He is believed to be a mid-level executive of Orange, a French multinational telecommunications carrier who is Huawei’s main domestic partner in Poland. Polish media also reported that, prior to joining Orange, Piotr D. was an upper-level manager in an unnamed Polish intelligence agency. Piotr D.’s house was searched by security officers on Tuesday, along with Wang’s house. The two arrests came six weeks after Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, was arrested in Canada. Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder, was reportedly detained on December 1 in Vancouver at the request of the United States. Washington says it has evidence that Meng “tried to evade the American embargo against Iran”.

Over the weekend, Poland’s Internal Affairs Minister, Joachim Brudzinski, said that the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization —of which Poland is a member— should develop a joint position on whether to continue to allow Huawei to operate in Europe. But his call was reportedly met with a lukewarm response from government and private-sector leaders. Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it was concerned about Wang’s arrest and urged Warsaw to treat him “with fairness”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 January 2019 | Permalink

Shiite militias ‘acting like mafia gangs’ in Iraq’s former ISIS-held areas

Popular Mobilization ForcesThe Shiite militias that fought in the war against the Islamic State are now “engaged in mafia-like practices” in former Islamic State strongholds, enraging Iraqi Sunnis and sparking fears of another Islamist insurgency, according to a leading article in The Washington Post.  In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed Islamic State— was largely aided by Sunni Arabs’ belief that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015. Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS.

But there signs that about 50 Shiite militias, which were supported by the Iraqi state throughout the war against ISIS, are now becoming highly autonomous armed gangs that are undermining the central government in Baghdad. These militias —many of which are politically aligned with Iran— are essentially armed wings of Shiite political parties that control more than a quarter of the seats in the Iraqi parliament. In 2014, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government attempted to utilize the power of the militias by uniting them under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF troops participated in every major front of the war against ISIS and today are an officially recognized military force with rank and salary structures that are equivalent to those of the Iraqi military and police. Technically, the PMF operate under the command of the Iraqi prime minister. In reality, however, the militias that make up the PMF are led by their respective Shiite commanders, many of whom are ideologically allied to Tehran.

The PMF militias are today in control of much of Sunni-dominated Western Iraq, which they helped retake from ISIS. According to Washington Post correspondents Tamer el-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, the militias are now using their newfound territorial power to make large sums of money. Various PMF militias operate countless checkpoints across Western Iraq, on roads between cities or —increasingly— within cities such as Mosul, imposing toll fees on supply trucks and even on individual motorists. The two Washington Post correspondents warn that these militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families.

Additionally, PMF commanders make arbitrary decisions about which of the nearly 2 million Iraqi Sunnis, who were displaced in refugee camps due to the war, are allowed to return to their homes. Many of these homes and land that used to belong to Iraqi Sunnis are now being expropriated by PMF commanders, who claim that their previous owners collaborated with ISIS, often without evidence. This practice, say el-Ghobashy and Salim, is rapidly altering the demographic balance between Sunnis and Shiites throughout Western Iraq. The two authors forewarn that these mafia-like practices by the PMF are “fostering local resentments […] and revive the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 January 2019 | Permalink

Law advocacy center sues CIA for access to Jamal Khashoggi files

Jamal KhashoggiAn international law center based in New York is suing the United States Central Intelligence Agency for access to classified files relating to the death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, 59, was a Saudi government adviser who became critical of the Kingdom’s style of governance. He moved to the United States and began to criticize Saudi Arabia from the pages of The Washington Post. He was killed on October 2 by a 15-member Saudi hit-squad while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in order to be issued a certificate of divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia. After several weeks of vehemently denying any role in Khashoggi’s killing, the Saudi government eventually admitted that he was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

A few weeks after the murder, it was reported that British and American intelligence agencies were aware of efforts by the Saudi government to detain or otherwise silence Khashoggi, and that they had even warned Riyadh against such a move. In November, the CIA was reported to have concluded that Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, had personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder. After its intelligence committee was briefed by the CIA on the matter, the US Senate unanimously condemned bin Salman and the government of Saudi Arabia, and called on the White House to impose sanctions on the oil kingdom. However, US President Donald Trump appears to have rejected the CIA’s conclusion and has refused to condemn the Saudi government over Khashoggi’s murder.

Now the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York-based foundation specializing in national security and human rights, has filed a lawsuit against the CIA over the Khashoggi case. The lawsuit also names the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence as defendants. The 17-page complaint, filed in a New York court on Wednesday, calls for the “immediate release” of all records in possession of these government agencies about Khashoggi’s murder under the US Freedom of Information Act. It calls these records “imperative for the public to properly and timely evaluate Congressional and Executive responses to Mr. Khashoggi’s killing”.

The Justice Initiative is one of the programs of the Open Society Foundations, the international civil-society advocacy group founded by Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros. Since its establishment in 2003, the Justice Initiative has filed over 100 national and international lawsuits relating to national security, most notably regarding the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, which the agency launched following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 January 2019 | Permalink

Holland says Iranian spies assassinated two men on Dutch soil

Dutch Police HagueAuthorities in Holland have officially accused Iran of ordering the contract murders of two men on Dutch soil in 2015 and 2017, one of them just a block away from the Dutch foreign ministry’s headquarters. The announcement illuminates the reason behind the expulsion of two Iranian diplomats from Holland last year, which the authorities did not explain at the time.

The first of the two assassinations happened on December 15, 2015, in Almere, a coastal town located 25 miles east of Amsterdam. The victim was Mohammad-Reza Kolahi, a 56-year-old electrician who was wanted in Iran for allegedly planting a bomb in 1981. The bomb targeted the headquarters of the ruling Islamic Republican Party, killing more than 70, and is often referred to as the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in Iran’s history. Kolahi, a member of a Marxist-Islamist group calling itself the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), fled the country and was sentenced to death in absentia. He eventually married a Dutch national and acquired Dutch citizenship, changing his name to Ali Motamed. He was reportedly shot in the head at point-blank range by two assailants dressed in all black. Nearly two years later, on November 9, 2017, Ahmad Mola Nissi was also shot in the head in broad daylight by two assailants. The murder took place in the middle of the street in downtown Hague, site of Holland’s parliament and a host of international institutions. Nissi, 52, was a co-founder of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a secessionist group that seeks an independent Arab homeland in the oil-rich southwestern regions of Iran. Tehran has claimed for decades that both groups, MEK and ASMLA, have been supported by Iraq, Israel, the United States and the European Union.

On Tuesday, Holland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, informed the Dutch parliament that the country’s intelligence services had provided “strong evidence” that the Islamic Republic was involved in the assassinations of Kolahi and Nissi. He added that both men were Dutch citizens and that their murders on Dutch soil were “hostile actions” that directly violated Dutch sovereignty. He also revealed that the expulsions of two Iranian diplomats from Holland in June of last year were in direct response to the evidence unearthed by the Dutch intelligence services about the two murders. IntelNews readers will recall that the Dutch Foreign Ministry did not explain the reason for the expulsions when these were announced last summer. Also on Tuesday, the European Union announced the imposition of financial sanctions against two individuals associated with Iranian military intelligence, reportedly in response to Holland’s announcement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 January 2019 | Research credit: M.K. | Permalink

US sent troops to OPEC member Gabon just days before military coup

Libreville, GabonThe United States deployed troops to the Central African nation of Gabon just days before a group of military officers staged tried to take over power in the oil-rich nation on Monday. Situated on the Atlantic coastline of Central Africa, Gabon is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, despite producing of 176,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of Africa’s most significant oil producers, over a third of its 2 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line. The country has been ruled by the Bongo family for over a century with its current President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, having led the country since his father’s death a decade ago. In October of last year, however, Bongo went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering a stroke, and has yet to return. In a televised message aired on New Year’s Day, Bongo told the citizens of Gabon that he was recovering and would soon be returning to his duties.

But in the early hours of Monday gun shots were reported in the vicinity of the studios of Radio Télévision Gabonaise (RTG), the country’s state-owned national broadcaster in the capital city, Libreville. A few hours later, regular broadcasting was suspended. A message was transmitted on the national radio station frequency by troops claiming to be members of a group calling itself the Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon. Its leader, a man identifying himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, said that the armed forces had “doubts” about President Bongo’s “ability to perform the responsibilities of his office”. He also announced the formation of a “Council of National Restoration” that would “ensure the smooth operation of the state and guarantee a transition to democracy”. However, a few hours later a government spokesman told international media that the coup had been defeated and that Lieutenant Obiang was under arrest. Two of his co-conspirators had been killed, said the spokesman.

Interestingly, the US deployed 80 American soldiers to Gabon on January 2, less than a week before the coup unfolded. In a letter sent to Congress on January 4, US President Donald Trump said that the troops would be stationed in Libreville and would carry with them “appropriate combat equipment”. Their purpose, said President Trump, would be to provide security protection for US “citizens, personnel and diplomatic facilities” in Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Security analysts fear that the pending announcement of the delayed election results in the DRC may spark widespread riots in the country of 81 million people. On Monday, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) told reporters that there was “no change in the status of our forces in Gabon” and that they would not be involved in the domestic political situation. The US troops were “not currently tasked with securing [US] diplomatic assets [in Gabon]”, added the AFRICOM spokesman. However, AFRICOM said that additional US troops may deploy to Gabon, the DRC or the Republic of the Congo, should the need arise.

It is not known whether the coup plotters were aware of the presence of the 80 US troops in Libreville when they tried to take over power on Monday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2019 | Permalink

American held on espionage charges in Russia has three other citizenships

Paul WhelanAn American former Marine, who faces espionage charges in Russia, is a citizen of at least three other countries, namely Canada, Britain and the Republic of Ireland, according to reports. Paul Whelan, 48, was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on December 28 at the Metropol, a five-star hotel in downtown Moscow. News of Whelan’s arrest first emerged on January 3 in a report from Rosbalt, a Moscow-based news agency that known to be close to the Russian security services. He was reportedly indicted on Thursday and is now facing between 10 to 20 years in prison for espionage. His trial is not expected to take place until March.

According to Rosbalt, the FSB arrested Whelan in his hotel room while he was meeting with a Russian citizen who allegedly handed him a USB drive containing a list that included “the names of all employees of a [Russian] security agency”. However, Whelan’s family claim that the former Marine arrived in Moscow on December 22 to attend the wedding of an American friend who married a Russian woman. Whelan served two tours in Iraq with the United States Marines and was reportedly discharged for bad conduct. At the time of his arrest last month, he was the director of global security for BorgWarner, a Michigan-based manufacturer of spare parts for cars. He is believed to have visited Russia regularly since 2006, and is thought to have a basic command of the Russian language. He is currently being held in solitary confinement in Moscow’s Lefortovo detention center.

At the time of his arrest, Whelan was identified as an American citizen. On Friday, however, the Associated Press reported that he also has United Kingdom citizenship because he was born to British parents. Additionally, he is now believed to hold Canadian citizenship as well, because he was born in Canada. He then acquired American citizenship after arriving in the US with his parents as a child. It is not known how he acquired Irish citizenship, but the Irish government confirmed it on Friday. Also on Friday, the Washington-based National Public Radio said that embassies of at least four Western countries —the US, Britain, Ireland and Canada— were working to gain consular access to Whelan. On Thursday, the former Marine was visited in prison by Jon Huntsman, America’s ambassador to Russia. Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said London was “extremely worried” about Whelan’s fate and warned Moscow “not to try to use [him] as a diplomatic pawn”, possibly by exchanging him with Russians arrested for espionage in the West.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 January 2019 | Permalink