Former CIA officer connected with abduction of Muslim cleric flees Europe

Sabrina De SousaA former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was convicted of involvement in the 2003 abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, says she fled Europe for the United States in fear of her safety. Sabrina De Sousa, 63, was a diplomat at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, when a CIA team abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured and raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him —apparently without Italy’s permission or consent. They were able to trace the American operatives through a substantial trail of evidence they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. The US government has refused to extradite the 22 officers to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2015. Portuguese authorities threatened to extradite her to Italy, but in 2017 the Italian government partially commuted her sentence to house arrest and reduced it from seven to four years. There were reports at the time that Italy had bowed to diplomatic pressure from Washington. On Monday, however, Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera said that De Sousa had fled Europe and returned to the US in fear for her personal safety. The former CIA officer told the paper that she decided to return to the US after senior American officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Italy earlier this month. Pompeo traveled to Rome for an official visit on October 1, while Haspel met with senior Italian intelligence officials on October 9.

De Sousa told Il Corriere della Sera that Haspel’s visit to Italy “verified for the Italian government that the American administration had washed its hands of my situation”. For this reason, and “terrified of the consequences that I could face” in Italy, “I decided to leave”, said De Sousa. She did not elaborate on the precise connection between her partially commuted sentence and Pompeo and Haspel’s visit to Italy. She added that recent changes to the US Whistleblower Act made it possible for her to openly discuss further details on her case, but did not elaborate. Her Italian lawyer, Andrea Saccucci, spoke to the Reuters news agency and confirmed that his client had left Europe for the US.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2019 | Permalink

Colombian spy chief resigns over fake dossier that linked militants to Venezuela

Comando Conjunto de InteligenciaColombia’s military spy chief has resigned, after the Colombian president was found to have misused intelligence at a United Nations speech to blame Venezuela for allegedly aiding paramilitary groups. For many years, authorities in Bogotá have accused Venezuela of aiding armed groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These groups have been engaged in a decades-long guerrilla war against the Colombian state. In 2017, the largest of these groups, the FARC, laid down its weapons and signed a peace treaty with the Colombian government. But the ELN has refused to follow suit, while a number of hardline FARC leaders recently announced that they would be resuming their armed struggle against the Colombian authorities.

In recent months, the rise of Venezuela’s Western-supported opposition leader Juan Guaidó has further-fueled tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. Bogotá has come out in support of Guaidó, while many anti-government Venezuelans, some of them armed, have sought refuge in Colombia. Colombia rejects Venezuela’s claims that it is giving shelter to terrorists and argues instead that it is providing humanitarian aid to Venezuelan refugees. In turn, it accuses Caracas of sheltering ELN and FARC guerrillas, a claim that the Venezuelan government strongly denies.

Last week, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Colombian President Iván Duque unveiled a dossier of evidence that purportedly proved beyond doubt Venezuela’s collusion with Colombian paramilitaries. Duque told the United Nations gathering that the collusion was supervised by no other than the President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. But within hours of Duque’s speech, reporters who scrutinized the dossier found that much of the photographic evidence in it had been downloaded from the Internet. Moreover, the photographs were not taken in Venezuela, as Duque claimed in his speech, but in Colombia.

The revelations have dominated the news headlines in Colombia and Venezuela in the past week, with the Colombian government engaging in damage control. On Monday, General Oswaldo Peña, Colombia’s military intelligence chief, resigned over the fake dossier. General Peña directed the Comando Conjunto de Inteligencia (Joint Intelligene Command) of the Colombian Armed Forces, which was seen as the primary spy agency behind the information contained in the dossier. In his resignation letter, General Peña wrote that “as a general of the [Colombian] Republic” he was fully aware that he needed to take responsibility for his activities and the activities of his subordinates. President Duque has not commented on the general’s resignation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 October 2019 | Permalink

Facebook says it disabled disinformation campaign linked to Saudi government

Facebook ArabicFacebook has disabled a large network of fake accounts that it says were involved in an extensive disinformation operation tied to the government of Saudi Arabia. The social media company said on Thursday that the operation concentrated on spreading state-approved propaganda that extolled the Saudi royal family and its policies in the Middle East. The operation employed over 350 fake accounts, which collectively had nearly 1.5 million followers. It is believed that the Saudi propaganda scheme was also active on Instagram, the popular image- and video-sharing service, which is owned by Facebook.

According to Facebook’s Office of Cybersecurity Policy, the Saudi disinformation operation used an interconnected network of fake accounts that were made to look like they represented local news outlets in a number of Middle Eastern countries. The accounts circulated carefully written news reports that presented Saudi officials and the Kingdom in a positive light. Major themes in posts included the philanthropic work of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the economic and social policies he has instituted since his ascent to power. Other posts expressed support for Saudi’s involvement in Yemen, where the Saudi government is leading an anti-Shiite military campaign. Several posts criticized Qatar, which Saudi Arabia accuses of sponsoring terrorism, and Iran, which is Riyadh’s most formidable regional rival. For several months last year, the fake news network circulated posts that expressed strong skepticism about claims that the Saudi government ordered the murder of one of its leading critics, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey.

Although Facebook, regularly deletes fake accounts for what it calls “inauthentic behavior”, it almost never issues statements tying groups of accounts to specific governments. However, according to Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of Facebook’s Cybersecurity Policy Office, “investigators were able to confirm that the individuals behind this are associated with the government of Saudi Arabia”. Gleicher added that the disinformation campaign spent over $100,000 promoting its posts online. Most were in the Arabic language and targeted countries in the Middle East and North Africa, he said. The social media giant’s announcement came 48 hours after a report in The Washington Post quoted several cyber security experts who said many government’s other than Russia’s use social media to spread disinformation, including those of Israel, China and Saudi Arabia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Sri Lanka attacks may indicate ISIS is moving east, say experts

Sri Lanka ISISThe April 21 suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, which were claimed by the Islamic State, may indicate that the militant group is moving east in search of fertile recruiting ground, according to some observers. In the words of The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, the attacks “reminded the world in dramatic fashion that [the Islamic State] does not need to control territory to be a major threat”. In fact, as the loss of its Middle Eastern territory has forced the Islamic State to decentralize, the group has begun to turn to its peripheral affiliates further afield. These “will become more dangerous” as the core of the Islamic State weakens, according to Callimachi and Schmitt.

But the Sri Lanka attacks may also demonstrate that the Islamic State is moving further east in search of either territory to conquer or new groups of committed fighters to incorporate into its ranks. It follows that Sri Lanka is one of several East Asian countries that face major threats by the group, as the latter tries “to ignite creating fear in societies already battling so much division”, says Ash Gallagher, an American war correspondent based in East Asia. Writing for the British newspaper The Independent, Gallagher notes that not only is the Islamic State already established in Afghanistan (where it has “swallowed whole units of Taliban fighters”, according to The Times), but it is becoming increasingly powerful in the Philippines. Experts have been warning for a while that the number of foreign Islamic State fighters entering the Philippines has been growing, and the momentum they generate among local Islamist groups may prompt them to declare a new caliphate in the near future. In fact, a caliphate was declared there in May 2017 by local Islamist leaders who had previously declared their allegiance to the Islamic State. By October, government forces had defeated the so-called “East Asia Wilayah”, a self-declared overseas province of the Islamic State, by retaking Marawi, the capital city of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province, from Islamic State rebels. The military operation became known as “the battle of Marawi” and is thought to have been the longest urban battle in the postwar history of the Philippines. More than 1,200 people died in the five-month battle, most of them civilians. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced to this day as a result of the fighting. Read more of this post

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, 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 believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. 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. China flexes its HUMINT muscle. Much has been written about China’s cyber-espionage capabilities. These are undoubtedly formidable and growing. But in 2018 Beijing also showed that it is becoming increasingly active in human intelligence —namely the use of human spies to clandestinely collect information. In January, the FBI arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, who served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007, accusing him of having received “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” by China in exchange for carrying out espionage. In May, France confirmed the arrests of two French intelligence officers who are accused of spying for the Chinese government. The suspects are current and former officers in the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE), France’s primary external intelligence agency. At least one of the two suspects was reportedly stationed at the embassy of France in Beijing when French counterintelligence became aware of his alleged espionage. And in October the DGSE, along with France’s domestic security agency, the DGSI, warned of an “unprecedented threat” to security after nearly 4,000 leading French civil servants, scientists and senior executives were found to have been approached by Chinese spies using the popular social media network LinkedIn.

03. The Islamic State is quickly evolving into a clandestine organization. Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been defeated and that the he would be removing all US forces from Syria. Virtually no Western intelligence agency agrees with the view that ISIS has been defeated. In August, the US Department of Defense reported to Congress that ISIS retains over 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Another report by the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team warned that ISIS is morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. Earlier this month, the US Pentagon warned again that ISIS is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria cautioned that the group is witnessing a revival. What is more, recent analysis by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting says that a campaign of revenge by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government against Sunni Arabs in regions once controlled by ISIS is aiding Islamists and fueling another pro-ISIS rebellion in the country. Overall, there are today four times as many Sunni Islamist militants in the world than on September 11, 2001, according to a study published in November by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

02. Nearly 150 Russian diplomats were expelled by 24 countries over Skripal poisoning. Relations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low this year, with the expulsion of nearly 150 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions came in response to Britain’s worldwide diplomatic effort to condemn Russia for the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, which was allegedly carried out by Russian government agents. They were publicized with a series of coordinated announcements that were issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of March 13, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian “undeclared intelligence officers” that had been expelled from Britain the previous week. As intelNews explained at the time, the expulsions sent a strong political message to Moscow and did disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence activities in the West. But they are expected to have a limited effect on Russia’s ability to carry out intelligence operations on foreign soil of the kind that allegedly targeted Skripal.

01. CIA suffered ‘catastrophic’ compromise of its spy communication system. That was alleged in a major report published by Yahoo News, which cited “conversations with eleven former US intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter”. The report described the compromise of an Internet-based covert platform used by the CIA to facilitate the clandestine communication between CIA case officers and their sources —known as agents or spies— around the world. It reportedly caused a “catastrophic” compromise of the system that the CIA uses to communicate with spies, which caused the death of “dozens of people around the world” according to sources. What is more, the report suggested that the CIA was warned about the potential shortcomings of its online communication system before 2009, when the first penetrations began to occur. In response to the compromise, the CIA has reportedly modified, and at times completely abandoned, its online communication system. However, the implications of the system’s compromise continue to “unwind worldwide” and the CIA is “still dealing with the fallout”, according to Yahoo News. The effects on the agency’s operational work are likely to persist for years, it said.

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

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, 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 believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. 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 is here.

07. Russia accused of using ISIS hacker group as cover to launch cyber attacks. The group calling itself Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which later renamed itself Islamic State. Today the Cyber Caliphate boasts a virtual army of hackers from dozens of countries, who are ostensibly operating as the online arm of the Islamic State. Their known activities include a strong and often concentrated social-media presence, as well as computer hacking, primarily in the form of cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage. But a report issued in October by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre described the Cyber Caliphate and other similar hacker groups as “flags of convenience” for the Kremlin. The report echoed the conclusion of a German government report that was leaked to the media in June of 2016, which argued that the Cyber Caliphate is a fictitious front group created by Russia.

06. Outgoing CIA director said US killed ‘couple of hundred’ Russians in Syria. Sources from the US Pentagon, said that the armed confrontation took place on February 7, 2018, when a 500-strong Syrian government force, which allegedly included hundreds of contracted Russian soldiers crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. US-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side is said to have estimated at the time that over 100 attackers had been left dead, with another 200-300 injured. The toll later rose to nearly 400 dead. At a press conference held soon after the armed clash, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter. But on April 12, the outgoing director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, appeared to acknowledge that US troops killed hundreds of Russians in Deir al-Zour. He was speaking before a committee of the US Senate during a hearing pertaining to his nomination to serve as the next US secretary of state. Pompeo said that: “in Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple of hundred Russians were killed”.

05. Iran tried to bomb conference in France with over 30 senior US officials present. On June 30, members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. And on the same day, a fourth person was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests. All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant group that was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government. NCRI conference participants included over 30 senior US officials, including US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference.

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

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 28 December 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, 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 believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; Part two is available here. Part three is here.

10. Taiwan admits that Chinese general Liu Liankun was one of its spies. In April, the government of Taiwan acknowledged publicly for the first time that Liu Liankun, a Chinese major general who was executed by Beijing in 1999 for espionage, was indeed one of its spies. Liu, who headed the Department of General Logistics of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was accused by the Chinese government of having spied for Taiwan for five years, in exchange for nearly $2 million in bribes. He was eventually executed by lethal injection in a Beijing prison. He was 58. At the time of his conviction, Liu was the most senior Chinese military officer to have ever been convicted of spying for Taiwan. The island nation denied that Liu spied on its behalf and refused to acknowledge that it had any role in his espionage activities. But in April Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau unveiled its renovated memorial at its headquarters in Taipei City. Among the plaques, visitors to the memorial saw one dedicated to Liu for the first time.

09. Israel charges former cabinet minister with spying for Iran. In 1992, when he was 35, Gonen Segev, was elected as one of the Knesset’s youngest members, representing the conservative Tzomet party. Initially an opposition Knesset member, Segev eventually left Tzomet and joined a governing coalition with the Labor Party, in which he served as Minister of Energy and Infrastructure. In 2004, after exiting politics, Segev was arrested on a flight from Holland while reportedly trying to smuggle several thousand ecstasy pills into Israel. He was jailed for five years but was released from prison in 2007, after a commendation for good conduct. Shortly after his release, Segev moved to the Nigerian city of Abuja, where he practiced medicine. It was there, the Shin Bet claims, that he was recruited by Iranian intelligence. He was reportedly detained in May of this year during a trip to Equatorial Guinea, following a request by Israeli officials. He was then extradited to Israel and arrested as soon as he arrived in Tel Aviv. Israel’s Shin Bet security service said that Segev admitted being in regular contact with Iranian intelligence agents in Nigeria, where he lived after 2007, and other countries around the world. He also said that he was given a fake passport by his handlers, which he used to visit Iran on two separate occasions in order to hold secret meetings with Iranian intelligence officers.

08. European Union agrees to establish joint intelligence training school. In November, 25 members of the European Union agreed to establish a joint intelligence training academy, a move interpreted by some as a concrete effort to deepen inter-European security cooperation following Brexit. The announcement came just hours after leading EU heads of state spoke in favor of establishing a joint EU defense force. Calls for tighter cooperation between EU members in the areas of defense and security have been issued for decades. But the upcoming departure of Britain from the EU —popularly known as Brexit— appears to have prompted Germany and France to propose deeper integration as a response to the rise of anti-EU sentiment across the continent. The new intelligence academy initiative will be led by Greece —an EU member since 1981— and will be headquartered in Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004. It will work in cooperation with the individual intelligence agencies of the 25 co-signatory states, along with NATO and with other regional security bodies.

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

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 27 December 2018 | Permalink