Opinion: Mishandled analysis of 1982 Tyre attack had implications for US, France

1983 Beirut barracks bombings

BETWEEN 1982 AND 1983, 450 defense personnel and civilians from Israel, the United States and France were killed in Lebanon as a result of four consecutive terrorist attacks conducted by Hezbollah. For years, questions have been raised whether these attacks could have been prevented.

In 2000, a senior Israel Security Agency (ISA) official wrote a report on the huge explosion in the Israeli compound in Tyre, Lebanon, in 1982. Based on the available intelligence, he reached a firm conclusion: it was a suicide bombing by a Shiite terrorist inside a booby-trapped vehicle, and not a gas balloon explosion, as was officially claimed. Requests to publish the new report with the recent conclusions were denied by ISA senior officials, for reasons that remain unknown. This prompted questions and strong doubts among counterterrorism experts and the Israeli the public, about whether the initial report from 1982 was actually a serious mistake of judgement, or even a cover-up.

Twenty years later, in November 2020, an investigative article was published in Israel by Ronen Bergman, which shed light on new details indicating a high probability that the attack in Tyre was a Hezbollah terrorist attack and not a result of an explosion of gas balloons. The article stated that in 1982 Israeli authorities, especially the ISA, were not ready to admit that their intelligence missed the attack and did not stop it in time. As a result, lessons were not learned regarding the immediate need to strengthen the security of foreign compounds in Lebanon against possible threats from Hezbollah. In 1983 Hezbollah used the same modus operandi of car bombs to attack US and French forces in Beirut and later the —then new— Israeli compound of Tyre.

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Opinion: Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination 25 years ago was an intelligence failure

Rabin Arafat

THE ASSASSINATION OF YITZHAK Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, on the evening of November 4, 1995, by an extreme right-wing Jew was one of the most traumatic events in the history of the State of Israel. Contrary to the public perception that the assassination happened as a result of a security failure and poor management of the Israel Security Agency (ISA), I argue that the murder was mainly due to an ISA intelligence failure.

“The Shamgar Inquiry Commission”, as it was known because it was chaired by Meir Shamgar, former president of the Supreme Court, submitted its report in March 1996. This commission found significant failures in the security measures taken by the ISA to protect the late Prime Minister. But, in my opinion, its findings were seriously wrong, as it avoided diving into the major intelligence failure that led to this tragic incident.

On the evening of November 4, 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by Yigal Amir, a 27-year-old student who was known as an extreme rightwing activist. Amir was waiting for the prime minister next to his car and shot Rabin three times from a close distance, in spite of the fact that four of Rabin’s bodyguards were surrounding the prime minister. Amir claimed to have done it “for Israel, for the people of Israel and the State of Israel”. He was found guilty and was sent to serve a life sentence in prison.

The progress in the peace process with the Palestinians, known as the Oslo Accords of 1993, allowed the political breakthrough of a peace agreement with Jordan in October 1994. Rabin was awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, for their role in the creation of the Oslo Accords.

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Soviets penetrated West German spy agency by recruiting ex-Nazis, research shows

Heinz FelfeTHE SOVIET UNION INFLICTED incalculable damage to West German spy agencies —and by extension to their American patrons— by recruiting dozens of former Nazis who populated the ranks of West German intelligence after World War II. These are the preliminary conclusions of a study into the topic by Danny Orbach, a lecturer in history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which relies on recently declassified documents from American and German intelligence agencies.

Following the end of World War II and the partition of Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany —commonly known as West Germany— established a new intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). Under American and British tutelage, the BND focused on combatting communist subversion, with the German Democratic Republic —East Germany— and the Soviet Union as its main intelligence targets.

Between 1956 and at least 1971, the BND employed hundreds of former members of Germany’s Nazi-era intelligence agencies. These included the Gestapo (wartime Germany’s Secret State Police) and the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), which was the intelligence of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the SS. The reason for hiring these officers is that they were experts in anti-communist operations, having spent many years working against the Soviet Union and its supporters inside Germany. Their criminal past as members of some of the Nazi war machine’s most ruthless elements was ignored. Eventually their files were destroyed by an embarrassed BND in the 1960s and 1970s.

But Orbach’s study shows that many of these former Nazi intelligence officers felt no allegiance to West Germany —which they saw as a superficial American creation. Additionally, many were opportunists and thrill-seekers, and actively sought to sell secrets to foreign intelligence agencies. Although these former Nazis “worked as mercenaries and moles for the highest bidder”, most were recruited by the Soviet Union, says Orbach. Several were led by feelings of vengeance against the West, which they blamed for Germany’s defeat in the war.

Among these former Nazis was Heinz Felfe, a former officer in the Sicherheitsdienst from Dresden, who “despised the Americans” for destroying his home city, says Orbach. He rose through the ranks of the BND, eventually becoming head of Soviet counterespionage. Felfe gave the Soviets thousands of classified BND files and single-handedly exposed the identities of at least 100 agents of the Central Intelligence Agency behind the iron curtain, according to Orbach. He was eventually arrested and imprisoned in 1961, but was released in 1969 in exchange for 21 Western citizens held in the Soviet Union. He lived most of the remainder of his life in the Soviet Union and East Germany. He died in 2008.●Orbach told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he plans to include unpublished information about the Soviet Union’s penetration of the BND in an upcoming book, which will detail the work of former Nazi officers in the BND during the Cold War.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: The second intifada, a spontaneous act that shocked Israelis and Palestinians

Guest Ed PostOn the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the second intifada (October 2000), the debate arises again in Israel as to whether the Palestinian move was an initiative of Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority or whether it was a spontaneous evolution on the Palestinian side that largely surprised not only Israel but also the Palestinians.

One opinion in Israel states that the intifada was the result of an initiative by the head of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, and that Israeli intelligence knew about it in advance and warned Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who did not listen. This opinion was expressed in the memoirs of Maj. Gen. Res. Amos Gilad, formerly the head of the research division in the Israeli Military Intelligence (IMI) and former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Lieutenant Gen. Res. Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon. However, the picture presented by the two former IDF senior personalities seem to be wrong, and in this article, I’ll present another view showing that actually, the IMI (which is responsible for Israel’s national intelligence estimates), contrary to its allegation, failed to predict the Palestinian moves and did not warn the IDF and the Prime Minister to prepare for the intifada.

The different and probably correct opinion has been argued by the ISA (Israel Security Agency, known also as Shabak or the Shin Bet) former managing directors at the time, who discussed the event very openly and presented a clear conclusion: namely that Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat did not initiate the intifada but was as much surprised by it as was Israel. The source of the views presented by ISA leaders is the book The Gatekeepers (in Hebrew) by David Moreh (2014), in which six former ISA leaders were interviewed. Among other things, the book raised the question of how the second intifada broke out. It is important to mention that there is no doubt in Israel that the ISA is the organization that has the best intelligence on the Palestinian territories. Read more of this post

Islamic State’s new leader issues video vowing ‘not a single day without bloodshed’

ISIS SyriaIn a recent video message, the new head of the Islamic State calls COVID-19 a “great torment” from God against unbelievers, and vows that “not a single day will pass without bloodshed” due to attacks by his forces. The 39-minute video is entitled “The Crusaders Will Know Who Will Win in the End”, and began to circulate on the popular messaging application Telegram last Thursday.

The message in the video is delivered by Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who last year succeeded Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the leadership of the Islamic State. The Sunni militant group announced al-Qurashi’s ascension to the leadership on October 31, 2019, lust days after its founder and spiritual leader was killed by American troops in Syria. The United States is offering up to $5 million reward for information leading to al-Qurashi’s capture or death.

The video is the third message issued by the Islamic State’s new leader, and the second one this year. In it, al-Qurashi refers to the coronavirus pandemic, recent political changes in Iraq, and the ongoing negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The video also admonishes al-Qaeda’s branches in Africa, several of which are engaged in an increasingly bloody battle with forces allied to the Islamic State.

The majority of the video focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, which al-Qurashi describes as “a great torment” sent by God to non-Muslims, and says that he and his leadership “rejoice” in seeing the virus’ effects on the West. He adds that the enemies of the Islamic State will continue to be “struck down” by the pandemic like Egypt’s pharaohs were struck by the 10 plagues described in the Bible.

But al-Qurashi also focuses on Iraq, speaking with visible satisfaction about the apparent withdrawal of US troops from the country in recent months. Since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by the US in January, American troops have withdrawn from at least six military bases throughout Iraq, which are now under the control of the Shi’a-dominated Iraq Security Forces. They include critical installations in the outskirts of Baghdad, in Kirkuk near the country’s Kurdish-dominated northern region, in Mosul, in western Iraq, and along the Syrian border. Additionally, Iraq now has a new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has vowed to crush the remnants of the Islamic State throughout his country.

Without substantial military presence by the US, the Islamic State does not see the Iraq Security Forces as capable of defending those regions —after all it has defeated them before. It therefore views the US military’s withdrawal as an unexpected opportunity to reignite its insurgency and even take back the lands that it controlled until a few years ago. In the latest video, al-Qurashi directly addresses the Iraqi government, which it describes as the “government of infidels in Iraq” and as “the American government”. He warns that “not a single day will pass without bloodshed”, as “jihadists will start to increase their attacks against the crusaders”. These attacks he says, will be “only the start of bigger attacks in Iraq and Syria”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 June 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: No, the coronavirus was not bioengineered. The rumors are false

Coronavirus COVID-19Ever since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, in December of last year, prominent public health scientists have consistently condemned rumors that it may have been bioengineered. The scientists are right to persist. The rumors that the novel coronavirus was deliberately weaponized are not supported by the available scientific evidence.

Coronaviruses are not new in nature or to humans. SARS-CoV-2 (SARS-associated coronavirus 2) is only the latest coronavirus we have identified that infects humans and causes disease (COVID-19). Because other corona viruses have also been isolated, it is possible to sequence the genome of these viruses. This provides detailed information about their origins. This is particularly important in light of the rumors that this virus has been manipulated by various governments.

Similar to the SARS-CoV strain, the one responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), this novel virus also binds to a protein, the receptor for angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is found on cells in humans, in the lungs, kidneys, GI tract, heart, and bladder. The virus uses a “spike protein” to attach to the receptor protein on cells in these regions, and then punctures the cell to inject the viral nucleic acids (genetic material). Once inside the cell, the virus nucleic acids are reproduced by the cell, and new viruses are manufactured.

When scientists analyzed the nucleic acids sequence responsible for attaching to cells, they found that the sequence was optimal, but not ideal. This means that the virus can recognize and bind tightly to the ACE2 receptor protein, but it is not perfect. This is analogous to having an old key (spike protein) that will fit into a lock (ARE2 receptor), but does not always work properly (open the door). In bioengineering, the goal is to have the perfect key so that all of the virus can enter cells and reproduce rapidly. This perfect fit is not found in SARS-CoV-2. This provides evidence of natural selection, and not of bioengineering.

Additionally, the SARS-CoV-2 genome has a unique amino acid in an important region of the spike protein. This amino acid, a proline, has an unusual structural characteristic that causes a protein to make a sharp change in direction (a turn). This is not seen in the SARS-CoV, the closest genetic relative to SARS-CoV-2. Furthermore, when the sequence for the SARS-CoV-2 is compared to other coronaviruses, the SARS-CoV-2 sequence does not appear to be derived from previously sequenced viruses. This fact also points to natural selection, since a bioengineered virus would be based on a known template that could be easily manufactured in a laboratory.

Rather it appears, from genetic and biochemical analysis, that SARS-CoV-2 started in bats, moved to pangolins, and then to humans. It is unclear whether the evolutionary changes that gave rise to the SARS-CoV-2 variant changed once it entered pangolins from bats, or whether it entered humans and continued evolving into the strain we see today. While the evidence indicates that it is highly unlikely that the virus was bioengineered, it is impossible to determine whether it entered humans in its present form, or evolved once it crossed the species barrier.

Author: Dr. A.T. | Date: 24 March 2020 | Permalink

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

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

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

07. Western spy agencies hacked into Russia’s version of Google. Media reports tend to portray Western intelligence agencies as constantly defending themselves against cyber attacks from abroad —notably from North Korea, Iran and Russia. The reality of cyber espionage is far more complicated, as intelligence agencies from all sides adopt defensive and offensive postures, often concurrently. One example of this complexity emerged in last June, when the Reuters news agency reported that Western spy agencies used a malware described as the “crown jewel” of cyber-espionage tools to hack into Russia’s version of Google. The hackers targeted Yandex (Яндекс), the largest technology venture company in the Russian Federation and the fifth most popular search engine in the world. Yandex also provides services such as mapping and email in Russia and several other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The hackers appeared to be interested in acquiring technical information about how Yandex authenticates user accounts. That information could potentially enable them to impersonate Yandex users and access private information such as email messages, geolocation information, and other sensitive data. Reuters said that the hackers attempted to breach Yandex for purposes of espionage, not sabotage or disruption, or stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes.

06. The CIA may have lost 17 of its spies in Iran. If the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown. As we explained in July, losing 17 assets in one big sweep sounds fantastical. However, if it is true, it would mark one of the biggest intelligence-collection disasters in the CIA’s 72-year history. What may be equally worrying for the CIA is that the Iranians claim to have visually identified a number of CIA case officers, whose job is to recruit and handle foreign assets. If the Iranians are telling the truth, many units at the CIA will be in recovery mode for quite some time.

05. NATO allies use spy agencies to back opposing sides in Libyan War. The chaos that is the Libyan Civil War deepened this year, largely because foreign countries are backing opposing sides in the conflict. In April, several European Union member-states, led by Italy, criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. France has joined the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011 he returned to Libya in order to launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli. The GNA is supported by Italy, and more recently Turkey, which has offered to send troops to help the GNA in its war against the LNA. It is wroth noting that, in 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle.

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 1 January 2020 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, 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 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 one in a three-part series. Part two is here. Part three is available here.

10. Germany’s BND now boasts the world’s largest spy headquarters. In February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the Zentrale des Bundesnachrichtendienstes, which is the new headquarters of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The BND, which operates as Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, is now believed to be the owner of the largest headquarters of any spy agency in the world. Interestingly, the German spy agency employs fewer than 7,000 employees, which is only a fraction of the employees employed by the BND’s American, Russian or Chinese equivalents. Some analysts have interpreted this development as part of Germany’s attempt to reassert itself as a major player in the global security landscape, especially following the election of US President Donald Trump, whom Berlin views as being disinterested in European security. During her inauguration speech, Chancellor Merkel said that the world was becoming “increasingly confusing”, which made the need for a “strong and efficient [German] foreign intelligence service […] more urgent than ever”. Interestingly, the new complex features a sizeable visitor’s center that is open to the public, making the BND the world’s first foreign intelligence agency with a public-access visitors’ facility.

09. Israel extends intelligence document classification period to 90 years. Israel, home of one of the world’s most active intelligence communities, augmented the secrecy of its espionage apparatus by raising the classification period of official intelligence documents to 90 years. Until the end of last January, government documents produced by Israel’s spy agencies, such as its external spy organization, the Mossad, or its domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, could remain hidden from public view for up to 70 years. In 2018, Israel’s Supreme Council of Archives, a body within the Israel State Archives that advises the Office of the Prime Minister on matters of classification, recommended against extending the classification period by more than five years. But in early 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the recommendation and managed to pass an amendment to the classification regulations, which will keep documents secret for 90 years from now on. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which published news of the amended regulation, said that documents from 1949, the year that the Shin Bet and the Mossad were founded, would normally have been published this year. But now they will remain hidden from public view until 2039. Documents relating to more recent cases will not be released until 2100.

08. The CIA kept a secret communication channel with North Korea for 10 years. The overtures made in recent years by US President Donald Trump to North Korea surprised many —but probably not the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In an article published in July, The Wall Street Journal claimed that an intelligence channel between the CIA and North Korean intelligence officials has been active for at least a decade. The previously unreported channel has led to a number of public meetings, such as the 2014 visit to Pyongyang by James Clapper, the then US Director of National Intelligence, as well as an earlier visit to the North Korean capital by former US President Bill Clinton in 2009. However, most of the contacts have been secret. They include several visits to North Korea by CIA official Joseph DeTrani before and after Clinton’s visit, as well as two trips to Pyongyang by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, in 2012 and 2013. His successor, Avril Haines, also visited North Korea, said The Journal, but noted that the channel went “dormant late in the Obama administration”. Upon becoming CIA director following the election of Trump to the presidency, Mike Pompeo was briefed about the secret channel’s existence and decided to resume it, with Trump’s agreement. That led to his eventual visit to North Korea along with Andrew Kim, who at the time headed the CIA’s Korea Mission Center. Eventually, this channel of communication facilitated the high-level summit between Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore.

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 31 December 2019 | Permalink

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