Analysis: US Capitol attack marks the beginning of a prolonged period of insurrection

Rightwing militancy 2021IF WEDNESDAY’S ATTACK ON the United States Capitol Complex was part of a coup d’état, then the American political system should be considered safe for the time being. The mob that ransacked the Capitol was disordered, leaderless, and appeared to have no coordination, or even direction. However, the broader militant movement that it represents is evolving very rapidly. If left unchecked, it will be able to turn its weaknesses into strengths and spell major trouble ahead for the already stormy waters of American politics. The nation’s law enforcement and security agencies must therefore prepare for a period of widespread insurrection, some of which will be armed and lethal in nature. Insurrectionist acts are likely to occur across the nation, and may last for months, if not longer.


Wednesday’s attack was carried out by what can be described as the militant wing of the American nationalist-populist movement. This wing is not strictly representative of the US president’s broader political base. Its members see themselves as vanguard soldiers who are prepared to take extreme action to avert President Trump’s imminent departure from the White House. Such militant attitudes are not typical among Trump voters. Yet this vanguard is revered by Trump’s political base, a sizeable portion of which appears to be in support of Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol. Indeed, early polling by YouGov suggests that over 40 percent of Republican voters strongly or somewhat support the attack on the US Capitol.Q Quote 1

Many members of this frontline force belong to organized militant cells, like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and —more recently— the Proud Boys. But these groups provide limited operational direction to their members, and were certainly not commanding Wednesday’s events. In fact, an audiovisual analysis of the attack shows that most of the assailants operated in makeshift groups and many didn’t even know each other’s names. There were no leaders directing the attacks on Wednesday. It is indeed likely that the militant figureheads of the movement were as surprised by the turn of events as the hapless members of the US Capitol Police.


Many of the assailants were armed with tactical equipment, as well as with clubs, shields, chemical irritants, knives and other weapons. It also appears that at least one group of insurgents arrived at the Capitol with ropes, which they subsequently used to scale its walls. This points to earlier planning and coordination, which likely involved at least some reconnaissance. Read more of this post

Isaac Shoshan, Israeli undercover operative and case officer, dead at 96

MossadIsaac Shoshan, an Israeli undercover operative, who was involved in some of Israel’s most daring and controversial intelligence operations for over 40 years, has died. In 1990, Shoshan co-authored the book Men of Secrets, Men of Mystery with another Israeli former intelligence officer, Rafi Sutton. In 2019, his career was featured in the book Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, written by the Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman.

In 1942, Shoshan, a Syrian Jew, traveled for the first time from his native Aleppo to Palestine, which was then under a British mandate. The 18-year-old was soon recruited by the Palmach, the intelligence wing of the Haganah, an armed underground Zionist organization. He carried out undercover work under the Palmach’s so-called ‘Arab Section’, or ‘Arab Platoon’, which consisted of Zionist paramilitaries and intelligence collectors who had grown up speaking Arabic.

After undergoing Islamic religious and cultural training, Shoshan participated in a Palmach operation to kill Sheikh Nimr al-Khatib, in early 1948. Al-Khatib was a Palestinian warlord that the Haganah feared would lead an Arab insurrection against Israel after the impending British withdrawal from Palestine. Although the assassination operation failed, al-Khatib was seriously injured and effectively incapacitated for the rest of his life.

Shoshan was then tasked with carrying out operations in several Arab countries, posing as an Arab. His base was Beirut, where he operated a taxi and worked at a kiosk as a cover. His activities included an elaborate assassination operation against Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Riad al-Suhl, which was aborted at the last minute by the Israeli leadership.

In the mid-1950s, Israeli intelligence disbanded its Arab units, following several failed operations, such as the so-called ‘Lavon affair’, which led to the arrests and executions of some of its undercover operatives. At that time, Shoshan was recalled to Israel, where he began to work as a case officer, with occasional undercover trips abroad, during which he posed as an Arab. He retired in 1982, but continued to carry out contracting work for the Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies until the late 1980s.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 January 2021 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2020, part III

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when intelNews was launched, 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 2021 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2020. They are listed below in reverse order of significance, starting from 10 and leading up to 1. This is part three in a three-part series. Part one is available here and part two is here.

01. COVID-19 prompts spy agencies’ mission shift that is ‘reminiscent of the space race’. The worldwide competition to invent a vaccine that can curtail the spread of COVID-19, and to secure sufficient quantities of the vaccine, has prompted a mission shift in major intelligence agencies around the world. This mission shift is taking place with such speed that it is “reminiscent of the space race”, according to The New York Times. In an article published in September, the paper cited “interviews with current and former intelligence officials and others tracking the espionage efforts”, who suggest that the mission shift observed in spy agencies worldwide has been among the fastest in history.

02. Swiss neutrality ‘shattered’ as leading cryptologic firm revealed to be CIA front. Switzerland continues to reel from the shock caused by revelations in February that Crypto AG, the world’s leading manufacturer or cryptologic equipment during the Cold War, whose clients included over 120 governments around the world, was a front company owned by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The revelation, published by The Washington Post and the German public broadcaster ZDF, confirmed rumors that had been circulating since the early 1980s, that Crypto AG had made a secret deal with the US government. According to this year’s revelations, the CIA and West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) secretly purchased the Swiss company and paid off most of its senior executives in order to buy their silence. The secret deal allegedly allowed the US and West Germany to spy on the classified government communications of several of their adversaries —and even allies, including Italy, Spain and Greece, as well as Austria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

03. Danish spy service helped US collect intelligence on NATO allies. There was surprise among intelligence observers in August, when Lars Findsen, director of the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (FE, or DDIS in English) was “relieved of duty for the time being”. The Danish Ministry of Defense said the decision was taken following “a series of whistleblower revelations”. We now know the reason: apparently a secret arrangement between Danish and American intelligence agencies enabled Washington to collect intelligence on Danish citizens, as well as spy on some of its closest European allies, including Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, and Holland. The revelation prompted a heated political discussion in Denmark, while Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch authorities launched investigations into the alleged spying. Some in Denmark called for the Minister of Defense, Trine Bramsen, to release to the public a four-volume report government produced about the alleged Danish-US spy collaboration. This has not yet happened.

04. US forces are secretly helping the Taliban fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The original reason the United States sent troops to Afghanistan was to fight al-Qaeda and its local allies, the Taliban. Now, however, it appears US forces are helping the Taliban defeat the Islamic State in northeastern Afghanistan. The American military’s newfound role in Afghanistan reportedly reflects the view of the White House that the Taliban have no aspirations outside of Afghanistan, while the Islamic State seeks to challenge America’s interests worldwide. According to The Washington Post‘s military affairs reporter Wesley Morgan, US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces in Afghanistan have been instructed to provide air cover to Taliban forces as they fight the Islamic State. The resources used in that capacity consist of weaponry that was initially deployed against the Taliban, but is now being secretly repurposed to assist the Taliban in their fight against the Islamic State. According to Morgan, the JSOC team in Kunar, which provides air cover to the Taliban, jokingly refers to itself as the “Taliban air force”. It is unclear whether al-Qaeda, which is a close ally of the Taliban, is benefiting from that assistance.

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 31 December 2020 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2020, part II

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when intelNews was launched, 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 2021 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2020. They are listed below in reverse order of significance, starting from 10 and leading up to 1. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be published on Thursday.

05. A group of foreign mercenaries, including Americans, organized a failed coup in Venezuela. In early May, Venezuelan authorities stopped Operation GEDEÓN, an attempt by around 60 armed mercenaries and local dissidents to forcibly remove President Nicolás Maduro from office. The plan centered on infiltrating Venezuela by sea and capturing the Simón Bolívar International Airport, in an attempt to arrest and expel Maduro and other senior cabinet members. It appears, however, that the operation had been infiltrated by Venezuelan government spies and informants. At least two Americans participated in the failed operation, which was allegedly masterminded by Major General Clíver Alcalá Cordones a Colombia-based retired military officer who has since entered US custody on drug-trafficking charges. It has also been alleged that the coup was launched from Colombia with the support of Silvercorp USA, a private security group led by Jordan Goudreau, a Canadian-born former sergeant in the US Green Berets. Allegations by the Venezuelan government that the coup was also supported by the Central Intelligence Agency have not been corroborated with evidence.

06. Argentine ex-president and spy agency leaders indicted in wiretapping probe. In Argentina, a widening investigation into a domestic spying program was broadened to include Mauricio Macri, the country’s former president, and the spy chief that served under him. The alleged espionage took place between 2015 and 2019, when Macri served as the first democratically-elected non-Peronist president of Argentina. But the country’s current president Alberto Fernández, has pledged to reform the security agency, which is known as the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI, formerly SIDE). In June, the government gave a federal court in Buenos Aires a deposition containing list of over 80 names of Argentine citizens who were allegedly spied on by the AFI without a warrant during Macri’s administration. Since that time, the court has been investigating, aside from Macri, Gustavo Arribas, who served as AFI director under Macri, as well as his deputy director in the spy agency, Silvia Majdalani, and her brother-in-law, Darío Biorci. The names of other alleged culprits remain secret, reportedly because they are still serving as undercover agents in the AFI.

07. One of the world’s most wanted men may have worked for several spy agencies. Austrian financier Jan Marsalek, dubbed by some as “the world’s most wanted man”, is connected with the sudden collapse of Wirecard AG in Germany. Wirecard (est. 1999) was a German provider of financial services, such as electronic payment transaction systems. It declared insolvency in June, after an audit revealed that nearly €2 billion ($2.3 billion) were missing from its accounts. Marsalek, who had worked as Wirecard’s chief operating officer since 2010, was last seen heading to Manila, Philippines, before vanishing into thin air. An investigative report by The Financial Times revealed that his entrance record into the Philippines had been forged, probably by an intelligence agency. Some claim that Marsalek is now under Russian protection. Other reports suggest that he may have worked “for several intelligence agencies at the same time” prior to his disappearance, including as an informant for the Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT). Meanwhile, Marsalek’s whereabouts remain unknown.

This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be published on Thursday.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 30 December 2020 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2020, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when intelNews was launched, 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 2021 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2020. They are listed below in reverse order of significance, starting from 10 and leading up to 1. This is part one in a three-part series. Part two will be available on Wednesday and part three on Thursday.

08. Spanish high court broadens illegal wiretap probe to include senior politicians. In September, Spain’s highest criminal court broadened the scope of the Gürtel case, which refers to one of the most extensive corruption scandals in Spanish political history. It centers on an extensive network of tax evasion, bribery and money laundering, which brought together leading business executives, criminal kingpins, and senior politicians from Spain’s conservative Partido Popular (PP). In 2018, the scandal effectively brought an end to the government of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and has virtually annihilated the PP’s once robust electoral popularity. But this corruption investigation is now resulting in several related probes, among which is Operation KITCHEN, an espionage effort connected to the Gürtel case, which targeted Luis Bárcenas, a PP senator and treasurer. It turns out that, once senior government executives realized Bárcenas was about to turn government witness, they set up an espionage operation aimed at preventing him from doing so. Now a new series of prosecutions is taking place in connection to Operation KITCHEN, involving leading PP figures.

09. Massive hacker attack triggers emergency US National Security Council meeting. The computer systems of the United States government are targeted by hackers every minute of every day. These attacks do not usually prompt emergency meetings of the National Security Council —the country’s most senior decision-making body, which is chaired by no other than the president. But the massive data breach that was uncovered earlier this month did just that, with some experts describing it as potentially being among “the most impactful espionage campaigns on record”. Although only discovered two weeks ago, the cyberespionage campaign is believed to date to last spring, possibly as early as March. Sources called it a highly sophisticated operation that originated from a “top-tier” adversary —a term that refers to a handful of state actors that have access to the most elite cyber operatives and advanced technologies in existence. It will take weeks to uncover the extent of the damage caused by this breach, and many months —possibly even longer— to recover from it. Security expert Bruce Schneier said that, in order to fend off against “persistent access, the only way to ensure that your network isn’t compromised is to burn it to the ground and rebuild it, similar to reinstalling your computer’s operating system to recover from a bad hack”.

10. In extremely rare move, Russia’s spy agency disclosed identities of undercover officers. The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), which inherited the external intelligence functions of the Soviet-era KGB, does not usually disclose the identities of its undercover operatives. But in January of this year, in an extremely rare move, its director, Sergei Naryshkin, did just that during a commemoration event marking the centenary of the KGB and the SVR. The identities of seven non-official-cover officers, referred to in Russian as ‘pазведчики-нелегалы’, or ‘illegals’ —most of whom are now retired or dead— were disclosed along with brief biographical notes. The term illegals refers to undercover intelligence officers who are secretly posted abroad without diplomatic cover. Accordingly, they have no official connection to a Russian diplomatic facility, while some even pose as citizens of third countries. The accompanying biographies released by the SVR disclose no specifics about the countries in which these illegals operated, the type of work they carried out, and the specific dates in which they were active. Most of them operated between the late 1960s and the early 1990s.

This is part one in a three-part series; Part two will be available on December 30 and part three on December 31.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 29 December 2020 | Permalink

Holland expels two Russian diplomats, summons Kremlin envoy to issue protest

AIVD HollandOn 10 December 2020, the Dutch Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Kajsa Ollongren, sent a letter to the House of Representatives to inform them about the disruption of a Russian espionage operation in the Netherlands by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD).

In connection with Ollongren’s revelations, two Russians using a diplomatic cover to commit espionage on behalf of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) were expelled from the Netherlands. The Russian ambassador to the Netherlands was summoned by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, which informed him that the two Russians have been designated as persona non grata (unwanted persons). In an unusual move, the AIVD also issued a press statement about this incident in English. The AIVD also released surveillance footage (see 32nd minute of video) of one of the two Russian SVR officers meeting an asset at a park and exchanging material.

The two expelled persons were officially accredited as diplomats at the Russian embassy in The Hague. Minister Ollongren says one of the two SVR intelligence officers built a “substantial” network of sources working in the Dutch high-tech sector. He pursued unspecified information about artificial intelligence, semiconductors, and nano technology that has both civilian and military applications. The Netherlands has designated “High Tech Systems and Materials” (HTSM) as one of 10 “Top Sectors” for the Dutch economy.

In some cases the sources of the SVR officers received payments for their cooperation. According to Erik Akerboom, Director-General of the AIVD, said the agency had detected “relatively intensive” contact between sources and the SVR officers in ten cases. The case involves multiple companies and one educational institute, whose identities have not been revealed. The minister states in her letter that the espionage operation “has very likely caused damage to the organizations where the sources are or were active, and thereby to the Dutch economy and national security”.

The minister announced that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) will take legal action against one source of the two Russians, on the basis of immigration law. The minister also announced that the government will look into possibilities to criminalize the act of cooperating with a foreign intelligence service. Currently, that act on and by itself is not a punishable offense. Under current Dutch and European law, legal possibilities do exist to prosecute persons for violation of confidentiality of official secrets or company secrets.

This newly revealed espionage operation follows other incidents in the Netherlands, including a GRU operation in 2018 that targeted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, and a case in 2015 involving a talented Russian physicist working on quantum optics at the Eindhoven University of Technology. In the latter case, no information was made public about what information the physicist sold to Russian intelligence services. And in 2012, a senior official of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was arrested for intending to sell classified official information to a Russian couple in Germany who spied for Russia. He was eventually given an eight year prison sentence.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 14 December 2020 | Permalink

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

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