Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Mohammed bin Salman04. Unprecedented security changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Analysts agree that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its most important political changes in generations. On November 4, 2017, nearly 50 senior Saudi officials, including at least 11 princes, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, were suddenly fired or arrested. A royal decree issued on that same evening said that the arrests were carried out by a new “anti-corruption committee” led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne. The king and his son appear to be in the process of removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the Kingdom’s security services, which they now control almost completely. Earlier in the year, the BBC alleged that Saudi security services were secretly abducting Saudi dissidents from abroad and jailing them in Saudi Arabia. Also in November, Saudi Arabia was seen to be behind a failed attempt by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri —a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen— to resign while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. There were allegations that Hariri was under arrest by the Saudis, who objected to the presence of Hezbollah members in his cabinet. But Hariri later returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.

03. Extraordinary transformation of the intelligence landscape in South Korea. Developments in North Korea have been at the forefront of security reporting in recent months. But reports from the Korean Peninsula have largely ignored the dramatic changes Moon Jae-intaking place in the intelligence infrastructure of South Korea, which are arguably as important as developments north of the 38th parallel. In June, the new center-left government of President Moon Jae-in banned the powerful National Intelligence Service (NIS) from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering. The move came after a lengthy investigation concluded that the NIS interfered in the 2012 presidential elections and tried to alter the outcome in favor of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, using 30 dedicated teams of officers for that purpose. In November, three former NIS directors were charged with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid Park, who has since been impeached and is now facing a lengthy prison sentence.

02. Turkey’s fallout with the West is affecting spy relations. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. However, rising tensions in the country’s domestic political scene are negatively affecting Ankara’s relations with its Western allies, particularly with Germany and the United States. Last month, Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who Ankara says helped orchestrate the failed July 2016 military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Washington flatly denies these allegations. In May, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused “the secret services of [Western] countries” of “using journalists and also bloggers [as spies] in Turkey”. Earlier in the year, a German report claimed that the Turkish state had asked its diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in order t to identify those opposed to the government of President Erdoğan. In some cases, Turkish spies have asked their Western European counterparts to help them monitor the activities Turkish expatriates, but such requests have been turned down. Nevertheless, there is increasing unease in Western Europe as Turkey intensifies its unilateral intelligence activities aimed at monitoring political dissent among Turkish communities abroad.

01. With America divided, Russian spies make dramatic post-Cold War comeback. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for the once all-powerful Russian spy agencies. But, if CIA and FBI assessments are correct, the bitterly divisive state of American politics gave Russian spooks a chance for a dramatic comeback. Using a mixture of human and online intelligence operations, Russian spies helped drive a wedge between the White House and the US Intelligence Community. American intelligence agencies are tasked with providing information to Putin and Trumpassist policy-makers, including the president. So when the CIA and the FBI conclude that the Russian government launched an extensive and sophisticated campaign to undermine the 2016 US presidential election, one expects the president to take that advisement under serious consideration. However, the US leader has openly dismissed the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community and has publicly stated that he believes President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that his country did not meddle in the US election.

What we have here, therefore, is a US president who sees the Kremlin as more trustworthy than his own Intelligence Community. This is a remarkable, unprecedented state of affairs in Washington, so much so that some CIA officials have reportedly questioned whether it is safe for them to share information about Russia to President Trump. Throughout that time, the FBI has been conducting an extensive counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the president’s campaign team and the Kremlin. As intelNews has noted before, the FBI probe adds 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, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. The state of Russian politics may be uncertain, and the country’s economy in bad shape. But Russian spooks can look back to 2017 as the year in which they made an unexpected comeback, scoring a dramatic victory against their decades-old rival.

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

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 03 January 2018 | Permalink

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Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part II

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 see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be posted tomorrow.

07. 2017 was marked by high-profile assassinations and suspicious deaths. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, and suspicious deaths in 2017. In January, Brazilian authorities launched an investigation into a suspicious plane crash that killed Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki, who died while leading the largest corruption probe in the nation’s history, involving government officials and two giant companies. In February, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading member of Open Russia, a think tank founded by Russian oligarchs opposed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, nearly died Kim Jong-namas a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Also in February, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia by two female assassins, who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Some alleged that Kim, who was a critic of his brother’s policies in the DPRK, had made contact with US intelligence prior to his assassination. In March, the Israeli military alleged that Amine Badreddine, 55, an explosives expert and senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah, was murdered by his own people while fighting in Syria. Allegedly 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 Syrian Civil War. In October, Malta’s best known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose reporting about offshore tax evasion revealed in the Panama papers prompted a major political crisis in Malta, was killed when the rented Peugeot 108 car she was driving exploded near her home in central Malta. Eyewitnesses said that the explosion was so powerful that it tore apart the vehicle and was heard from several miles away. Finally, in November, Zhang Yang, one of the highest-profile generals in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, committed suicide according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang had seen a meteoric rise to power, but unceremoniously fell from grace as a result of President Xi Jinping’s nationwide campaign against corruption.

06. CIA ends its support for opposition rebels in Syria. In February, the White House instructed the CIA to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move ended a policy that begun under US President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Some analysts warned that the decision by the White House to terminate US Milo Dukanovicsupport for the rebels could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations. In August, there were reports that US troops exchanged fire with former FSA rebels in Manbij, a Syrian city located a few miles from the Turkish border.

05. Britain accused Russia of trying to kill Montenegro prime minister. In late 2016, authorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro alleged that “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister,  Milo Dukanović, and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. Remarkably, in March of 2017, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview that Russian spies may have indeed orchestrated the failed attempt to kill Dukanović, as part of a broader plan to prevent the former Yugoslav republic from entering NATO. It is not every day that a senior cabinet official of a NATO member-state accuses the Kremlin of carrying out an assassination attempt against a European head of state.

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

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 02 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part I

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 see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; parts two and three will be posted on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

khalifa haftar10. Saudis, Israelis, are illegally funding a CIA-backed warlord in Libya. The strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under CIA protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to launch his military campaign. American legal experts, including a former special counsel to the United States Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accuse Haftar of ordering his troops to commit war crimes. But there is much evidence to suggest that Israeli, Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies are illegally breaking a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Libya and arming Haftar with advanced weaponry.

09. Why are American, Canadian diplomats in Havana going deaf? In 2015, relations between Cuba and the United States experienced an unprecedented rekindling, which culminated with the reopening of the US embassy in Havana after more than half a century. But in the past year, US authorities became enraged with the Cuban government after American diplomats reportedly suffered hearing loss and brain trauma as a result of a mysterious so-called “covert sonic weapon” that was directed against the American embassy. The US State Department blamed Cuba for the incident, but some believe that US embassy Cubathe alleged device may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities. In October, the White House expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the US in response to the incident. But the question of what harmed the health of at least 20 employees at the US embassy in Havana remains largely unanswered.

08. Role of spies in German-Swiss economic war revealed. In the wake of the Panama and Paradise leaks, offshore tax havens have faced intensifying worldwide calls for the introduction of transparency and accountability safeguards. Predictably, they are resisting. In April of 2017, German authorities announced the arrest of an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) in Frankfurt. It appears that the Swiss man, identified only as Daniel M., was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to prevent German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. It is believed that he was arrested while monitoring German efforts to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. A few months after Daniel M.’s arrest, Germany announced an unprecedented investigation into three more officers of the NDB, on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks.

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

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 01 January 2018 | Permalink

German intelligence warns European officials of fake Chinese LinkedIn profiles

BfV GermanyIn an unusual step, German intelligence officials have issued a public warning about what they said are thousands of fake LinkedIn profiles created by Chinese spies to gather information about Western targets. On Sunday, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) held a press conference in which it said that it had discovered a wide-ranging effort by spy agencies in China to establish links with Westerners. The agency said that it undertook a 9-month investigation, during which it identified 10,000 German citizens who were contacted by Chinese spy-run fake profiles on LinkedIn. Across Europe, the number of targets could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the BfV.

The main targets of the operation appear to be members of the German and European Union parliaments. Also targeted are members of the armed forces, lobbyists and researchers in private think tanks and foundations in Germany and across Europe. These individuals were all targeted as part of “a broad attempt to infiltrate Parliaments, ministries and administrations”, said BfV Director Hans-Georg Maassen. He added that the fake LinkedIn profiles are of people who claim to be scholars, consultants, recruiters for non-existent firms, or members of think tanks. Their profile photographs are usually visually appealing and are often taken from fashion catalogs or modeling websites. During the press conference BfV officials showed examples of what they said were fake LinkedIn accounts under the names “Rachel Li” and “Alex Li”. The two identified themselves as a headhunter for a company called RiseHR and a project manager at the Center for Sino-Europe Development Studies, respectively. The information on these accounts was purely fictitious, said the BfV officials.

Individuals who have been targeted by the Chinese include European politicians and senior diplomats, according to the Germans. Many were invited to all-expenses-paid conferences or fact-finding trips to China by their LinkedIn contacts, presumably in attempts to recruit them for Chinese intelligence. At the closing of the press conference, the BfV urged European officials to refrain from posting private information on social media, including LinkedIn, because foreign intelligence operatives are actively collecting data on users’ online and offline habits, political affiliations, personal hobbies and other interests. In a statement issued on Monday, the Chinese government dismissed the German allegations, saying that the BfV’s investigation was based on “complete hearsay” and was thus “groundless”. Beijing also urged German intelligence officials to “speak and act more responsibly”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2017 | Permalink

Norway invites Israeli nuclear whistleblower who is barred from leaving Israel

Mordechai VanunuThe controversial Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who was jailed for 18 years for revealing the existence of Israel’s nuclear program, has been invited to go to Norway to be reunited with his new wife. Vanunu was employed at Israel’s top-secret Negev Nuclear Research Center, located in the desert city of Dimona, which was used to develop the country’s nuclear arsenal. But he became a fervent supporter of nuclear disarmament and in 1986 fled to the United Kingdom, where he revealed the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the London-based newspaper The Times. His action was in direct violation of the non-disclosure agreement he had signed with the government of Israel; moreover, it directly challenged Israel’s official policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’, which means that the country refuses to confirm or deny that it maintains a nuclear weapons program.

Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, managed to lure Vanunu to Italy with the help of a female intelligence officer who befriended him. Vanunu was abducted by a Mossad team in Rome and secretly transferred to Israel, where he was tried and convicted to 18 years in prison. He was released in 2004, after having spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement. His release is conditional on a number of restrictions, which means that Vanunu is barred from speaking to foreigners and barred from leaving the country. However, in May 2015, Vanunu married a Norwegian theologian, Kristin Joachimsen. Last Friday, Joachimsen spoke on Norway’s TV2 channel about her marriage with the Israeli nuclear whistleblower. During her interview, she revealed that she had successfully filed a request for family reunification with her husband with the Norwegian government. According to Norwegian law, a family member living abroad is entitled to apply for reunification with a family member who is legally living in Norway. Reporters from TV2 contacted the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, which confirmed that Joachimsen’s family reunification request had been granted by the government. Consequently, Norway had officially contacted Israel stating its willingness to host Vanunu so that he could be reunited with his wife.

However, there is no guarantee that Vanunu will be permitted to leave Israel. In her interview, the nuclear whistleblower’s wife said that his application was scheduled for review in Israel sometime in November. But she added that she had no idea whether Vanunu would be allowed to leave the Middle Eastern country. On Sunday, a spokesman from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that the restrictions on Vanunu’s freedom of movement following his release from prison were imposed “due to the danger that he posed” to the security of Israel. In a subsequent written statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Israel would “continue to review updates of the situation in order to determine appropriate restrictions in accordance with security dangers” posed by Vanunu.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2017 | Permalink

Saudis say they busted spy ring, foiled suicide attack on defense ministry

Saudi security forcesOfficials in Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that they foiled an elaborate suicide attack on the country’s defense ministry headquarters and infiltrated a foreign spy ring in the Kingdom, arresting its members. The near-simultaneous announcements were made by a member of the Presidency of State Security, an intelligence body founded only in July of this year, which is directly accountable to the county’s prime minister.

The government-controlled Saudi Press Agency reported that two Yemeni and two Saudi nationals were arrested in early-morning raids in the capital Riyadh. The four men, said the news agency, were preparing to launch a sophisticated attack against the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, which is centrally located in the nation’s capital. According to the report, the four would-be attackers had trained in explosives and in the use of suicide belts. Upon searching their safe house in Riyadh, Saudi security officers reportedly found firearms and hand grenades, as well as knives and at least two ready-to-use suicide belts, each weighing in excess of 15 pounds, or 7 kilos. The four men are believed to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In a near-simultaneous announcement, the Presidency of State Security said that its officers had managed to infiltrate an alleged foreign spy cell. The Reuters news agency quoted an anonymous Saudi government source who said that “a group of people” were arrested in Riyadh for carrying out “intelligence activities for the benefit of foreign parties”. The members of the alleged spy ring had regular “contacts with external entities, including the Muslim Brotherhood”, said the anonymous source, referring to the Egyptian-based group that has branches in many Arab countries. The source added that the leaders of the alleged spy ring had received intelligence training and financial support from two foreign countries, which have not been publicly named.

It was not clear on Wednesday morning whether the two developments —the arrest of the alleged terrorists and the spy ring infiltration— were related.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2017 | Permalink

What the Seychelles Trump-Russia story reveals about Emirati intelligence

Emirati intelligence has to be seen in two disparate tiers: actual home-grown intelligence efforts, which usually revolve within the small policing and military forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE); and more elaborate, highly secretive, outsourced activities that use the UAE as a facilitating conduit or go-between with a clear advantage to Emirati interests.

The first tier is relatively modest and somewhat easy to describe: each emirate within the country has its own police force that takes responsibility to gather and act upon any intelligence, usually encompassing security, crime, and drug-trafficking. Additionally, the police forces of the two main cosmopolitan areas, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, each have their own departments to investigate, arrest, and prosecute transgressors. The capitol police in Abu Dhabi prides itself on ultra-modern intelligence capabilities, and cooperates with international organizations, other countries, and policing agencies. In addition, the UAE leadership has taken initiatives recently to create a domestic level of intelligence scholarship and professionalization, namely in the form of the National Defense College in Abu Dhabi. But those long-term aims are still just that: long-term and far from being fully developed and realized.

That leaves the aforementioned Tier Two, which involves plots worthy of Hollywood. The first aspect of Tier Two Emirati intelligence involves the outsourcing of performance to private companies. This is best exemplified by the agreement announced at the end of February with the Harris Corporation, following a $189 million two-year contract that was granted to provide a battle management system to the UAE Armed Forces. The BMS system de facto means Harris will be responsible in the UAE for initial operational capabilities, as the country tries to develop advanced contemporary battlefield management solutions. These types of agreements are very much a foundation for the actual realization and enactment of Emirati intelligence capabilities, in that they rely on the expertise and technological materiel of professional corporations (almost never Emirati themselves). It is indeed a basic ‘dollar for defense’ purchasing scheme. This strategy provides the nuts and bolts of Tier One Emirati intelligence, while simultaneously creating an intelligence dependency that works at cross-purposes with the institutional mission of the aforementioned National Defense College.

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