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

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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

Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink

US diplomats secretly met with Taliban without Afghan government

TalibanIn a dramatic change to longstanding policy, senior United States diplomats have reportedly held secret meetings with Taliban leaders without the presence –and presumably knowledge– of the Afghan government. For over a decade, the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they view as a puppet regime controlled by Washington. They have instead sought to speak directly with the United States, without Kabul’s mediation. In 2015, the United States sought to initiate peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha, but the effort collapsed after the Afghan government denounced it and demanded a seat at the table. The negotiation process has remained dormant since then.

Last week, however, The Wall Street Journal reported that a series of unannounced meetings have been taking place between a delegation of senior Taliban officials and an American team led by Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. On Saturday, The New York Times confirmed the story, saying that meetings between the two sides were being held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an informal diplomatic mission. Citing “two senior Taliban officials”, The Times said that the American diplomats have been meeting with members of the Taliban’s political commissariat. But the paper said it had no information about the substance or progress of the talks. If The Times’ claims are accurate, they would mark a dramatic reversal of longstanding US policy on the Taliban. Since 2001, Washington has consistently argued that any negotiation process involving the Taliban would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. Therefore, direct talks between Washington and the Taliban without Kabul’s mediation would mark a major shift in America’s security strategy in Afghanistan and beyond.

The New York Times said it contacted the US Department of State in Washington, seeking clarification about the alleged talks. But a spokesman refused to discuss the claims and insisted that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government”. However, The Times noted that the spokesman did not expressly deny the existence of the talks with the Taliban.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2018 | Permalink

Judge rules that Trump’s tweet did not disclose top-secret CIA operation in Syria

Free Syrian ArmyA United States federal judge ruled on Monday that a tweet by President Donald Trump did not inadvertently disclose a top-secret program by the Central Intelligence Agency to aid rebel groups in Syria. The lawsuit, brought by The New York Times, centered on news reports published in 2017 by Reuters, The Washington Post, and others, claiming that the US president had terminated an extensive CIA program that provided assistance to rebel forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. The program was reportedly initiated by US President Barack Obama, who in 2015 instructed the CIA to assist armed groups operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Aside from training, the CIA assistance reportedly included the provision of light and heavy ammunition, such as antitank missiles, mines and grenades.

But President Trump allegedly terminated $1 billion program soon after he took office. Last July, the president openly disputed an account by The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous, which claimed that Trump had ended the program as a concession to Russia. In a tweet, Trump said: “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad”. Shortly afterwards, another newspaper, The New York Times, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, arguing that the president’s tweet had effectively disclosed the existence of the covert CIA program and seeking full details from the government. But the CIA rejected the The New York Times’ rationale, at which point the paper took the case to court.

But on Monday, US District Court Judge Andrew Carter Jr. dismissed the paper’s argument. In a 20-page decision, posted online by the US-based news website Politico, Judge Carter said that President Trump’s tweet had been too vague and ambiguous to be considered as effectively declassifying the secret CIA program. At no point did the US president “make an unequivocal statement, or any statement for that matter, indicating that he was declassifying information”, said the judge. Additionally, Trump’s tweet and other public statements on the matter did not undermine the legal authority of the US government to continue to keep details about the CIA program under wraps. According to Politico, which reported on Judge Carter’s decision, this development will make it difficult for other FOIA filers to use Trump’s tweets as justification for seeking information about secret government programs. Meanwhile, The New York Times said on Monday that it would seek to appeal Judge Carter’s decision.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 July 2018 | Permalink