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

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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

Russian special forces troops seen in Egypt and Libya, say reports

Khalifa HaftarRussia may have become the latest country to deploy special forces soldiers in Libya, according to news reports citing anonymous United States officials. Late on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported that Russian special forces troops had been seen on the border between Libya and Egypt. The news agency said that the information came from “two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity”. The same article cited unnamed “Egyptian security forces”, who said that a 22-member Russian paramilitary team had set up an operations base in the Egyptian town of Sidi Barrani, which is located 60 miles from Libyan territory.

Libya has descended into a state of complete anarchy since the demise of the country’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan strongman was killed in 2011, as a result of a popular uprising backed by Western powers and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Arguably the strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the so-called Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army. The commander of the Libyan National Army is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the US under Washington’s protection for many decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to participate in the war. The Tobruk-led Government is ostensibly supported by the US. However, its military wing, led by Haftar, operates semi-autonomously, and some believe that Haftar has aspirations to lead his own armed faction in Libya. Last November, Haftar visited Moscow, where he met with senior government officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There are reports that the Russian special forces troops alleged seen in Egypt are operating in support of Haftar.

Earlier this week, a spokesman for the Tobruk-led government told Russian media that Moscow had promised to provide it with funding and military aid. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that a number of Russian private security contractors were in Libya and were providing services to Haftar’s militias. But there are no confirmed reports of the presence of Russian government troops on the ground in Libya. On Tuesday, Moscow denied the Reuters report and accused “certain Western mass media” of “spreading false information from anonymous sources” in order to “smear Russia”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 March 2017 | Permalink

Trump authorizes CIA to bring back regular use of drone strikes

DroneUnited States President Donald Trump has reportedly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to bring back the routine use of lethal airstrikes by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which his predecessor, Barack Obama, curtailed in 2013. Washington began employing limited strikes by UAVs, otherwise known as drones, in the early 1990s, during the administration of President Bill Clinton. But it was under the Obama administration that the use of drone strikes reached an all-time high, with hundreds of such attacks documented after 2008. It is believed that Obama used this remote attack method to combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while at the same time keeping his promise of bringing back American troops from the Middle East and Central Asia. However, in 2013 the US president severely curtailed the controversial program, which some say damaged America’s image by inflicting civilian casualties.

But on Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that President Trump had resuscitated the drone program and authorized the CIA to begin using Predator drones on a regular basis against identified targets in the Middle East and Central Asia. According to the newspaper, the president gave senior CIA project mangers the right to authorize drone strikes. Under the Obama administration, the president himself, or especially designated National Security Council officials, had to give the go-ahead before the CIA could carry out drone strikes around the world.

The Wall Street Journal said that President Trump made the decision on January 21, just hours after taking office, following a secret meeting with senior officials from the CIA. According to the report, the CIA requested some time to rebuild the program. But the agency has allegedly conducted at least one drone strike, which targeted Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a known al-Qaeda senior commander in Syria, who was reputed to be a son-in-law of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 March 2017 | Permalink

Russia possibly tried to kill Montenegro PM, says British foreign secretary

Boris JohsonBoris Johnson, the British foreign secretary has said in an interview that Russian spies may have orchestrated last year’s failed attempt to kill the then-prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Dukanović. Mr. Johnson, a senior figure in the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom, was a major contender for the prime minister’s position in 2016, after the administration of David Cameron collapsed under the weight of the Brexit vote result. Speaking on Sunday morning to reporter Robert Peston, of Britain’s ITV television network, Mr. Johnson said that the West should “engage” with Russia, but warned that it should also “beware” of Moscow’s “dirty tricks” in Europe and the United States.

The British foreign secretary spoke following reports that British intelligence services called an emergency meeting with representatives of the country’s major political parties, in order to warn them that Russia planned to use cyber-attacks to disrupt regional and national elections in the country. Mr. Johnson said that the government had “no evidence the Russians are actually involved in trying to undermine our democratic processes at the moment”. But he added that there was “plenty of evidence that the Russians are capable of doing that. And there is no doubt”, he went on, “that they’ve been up to all sorts of dirty tricks”. Some of those “dirty tricks”, said Mr. Johnson, targeted the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro, where last year there was “an attempted coup and possibly an attempted assassination”.

The British politician was referring to allegations made last October by authorities in Montenegro that “nationalists from Russia” and Serbia were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s then-Prime Minister Milo Dukanović and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. The allegations surfaced after 20 Serbians and Montenegrins were arrested by police in Montenegro for allegedly planning a military coup against the government. The arrests took place on election day, October 16, as Montenegrins were voting across the Balkan country of 650,000 people. The plotters had allegedly hired a “long-distance sharpshooter” who was “a professional killer” for the task of killing Đukanović. After killing the Prime Minister, the plotters planned to storm the parliament and prompt a pro-Russian coup in Montenegro, according to authorities. In response to allegations that the coup had been hatched in neighboring Serbia, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he would not allow Serbia to “act as the puppet of world powers”, a comment that was clearly directed at Moscow. Russia vehemently denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson is preparing to visit Moscow in a few days to meet with his Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov. He told ITV that he planned to deliver his “personal feeling” to Mr. Lavrov, which “is one of deep, deep sadness” about Russia’s foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 March 2017 | Permalink