Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part III

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part three in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

04. No shortage of high-profile assassinations and abductions in 2019. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, suspicious deaths and abductions in 2019. In January, the Dutch government officially accused Iran of ordering the contract murders of two Iranian men on Dutch soil in 2015 and 2017. The accusation prompted Iran to expel two Dutch diplomats from Tehran, which in turn prompted Holland to recall its ambassador from the Iranian capital. In March, a medical examination suggested that Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died allegedly by falling while intoxicated in a luxury hotel room in Washington, may in fact have been strangled to death. According to the medical examiner —whose name has been redacted in the declassified report— the state of Lesin’s hyoid bone showed signs of “hanging or manual strangulation” or asphyxiation. Also in March, Daniel Forestier, a former paramilitary officer in France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), who was under investigation for allegedly plotting to kill General Ferdinand Mbahou, a senior Congolese opposition figure, was shot dead in the French Alps. According to a police report, Forestier had been shot five times in the chest and head in what a public prosecutor described as “a professional job”. In August, German authorities accused Moscow of ordering the assassination in Berlin of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Chechen separatist who was shot in the head in broad daylight by a man wearing a wig and carrying a pistol fitted with a silencer. In October, Yossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad —Israel’s main external intelligence agency— said in an interview that he had authorized “more than a few” assassinations during his tenure and warned that more may be on the way. In October, Iranian authorities announced the capture of Ruhollah Zam, a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. It was later reported that the Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure Zam from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. In November, Ibragim Eldzharkiev, a senior counter-terrorism officer in the Russian police, was gunned down along with his brother in a downtown Moscow street, in what authorities described as a contract killing.

03. Saudi Arabia hired Twitter employees to spy on users. In November US authorities charged two Saudi-born employees of the social media firm Twitter with spying on American soil. They also charged a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family with handling the two employees. They were allegedly recruited in 2015, on orders from the Saudi government, to spy on the identities of anonymous Twitter users who posted negative views of Saudi Arabia’s ruling dynasty. The employees gave the Saudis private information that included the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users, who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media. One of the two Twitter employees reportedly managed to escape to the oil kingdom before he was captured by the FBI. Remarkably, only a day after the US Department of Justice charged the three Saudi citizens with engaging in espionage on American soil, Saudi officials hosted in Riyadh Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, reportedly to discuss “the longstanding Saudi-US partnership”.

02. A wiretapping scandal of vast proportions was unearthed in Spain. At the beginning of 2019, a Spanish court widened an investigation into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years. At the center of the case is José Manuel Villarejo, a 67-year-old former police chief, who allegedly spied on hundreds of unsuspecting citizens on behalf of corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. A year earlier, five active police officers and an employee of Spain’s tax revenue service admitted to working for Villarejo’s network. They disclosed information about Operation KITCHEN, an espionage effort that targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular, who was eventually jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case. The Gürtel case was the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, and brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of 2017. The BBVA, Spain’s largest bank, is also accused of having made illicit payments of nearly $11.1 million to Villarejo for over 13 years.

01. US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda. Weapons supplied to the Saudi and Emirati governments by the United States and other Western nations are ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militias in Yemen, according to two separate investigations. The weapons are being supplied to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen, in support of the country’s Sunni-dominated government. Since 2015, the Yemeni state has been at war with an Iran-backed alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities, known as the Houthi movement. In an effort to support Yemen’s Sunni government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the UAE with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry. However, a report published in February by Amnesty International alleged that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen, which have al-Qaeda links. A separate investigation aired by CNN claimed that weaponry given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries has been ending up in the hands of Salafist militias in Yemen. Among them is the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

This is part three in a three-part series; Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 2 January 2020 | Permalink

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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