Hardline military official to take command of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency

Lieutenant General Asim MunirThe hardline former director of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is preparing to take the helm of the country’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). Lieutenant General Asim Munir, who has spent more than two decades as a career military officer, has been officially appointed as director-general of ISI. In one of his first notable assignments, Munir served as a military attaché in Pakistan’s embassy in Saudi Arabia. After being promoted to a two-star general, he was appointed commander of Force Command Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan’s northernmost region. The area borders Jammu and Kashmir, an autonomous Indian-administered region, which the Pakistanis claim belongs to them. Gilgit-Baltistan is also a strategic geopolitical corridor that connects Pakistan with one of its major regional allies, China.

In late 2016, after concluding his service in Gilgit-Baltistan, Munir was appointed by Chief of the Pakistan Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to serve as director-general of Military Intelligence, the spy wing of the Pakistan Army. In September of this year, Munir was promoted to lieutenant general, a move that prompted rumors that he would soon become head of ISI. According to The Asia Times, which published a summary analysis of Munir’s career, his recent promotion confirmed that he was “the army chief [General Bajwa]’s guy” and that he was favored to lead the ISI. Technically it is Pakistan’s prime minister who appoints the head of ISI. But in reality the chief of the Army is the one who selects the spy agency’s director. The past four directors of the ISI have all been handpicked by Pakistan’s military leadership.

Munir’s appointment as head of Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency was due to his experience in working closely with Pakistan’s most important strategic partners, China and Saudi Arabia, said The Asia Times. The career military officer is known within army ranks as a nationalist hardliner who views the army as a central guarantor of political stability in Pakistan. He is also a practicing Muslim and has sought to strengthen the ties between Islam and the Pakistani armed forces. According to The Asia Times, Munir is expected to deepen the ISI’s involvement in Pakistan’s domestic political affairs. This is something that concerns pro-democracy and other opposition activists in the country, who have been alarmed by the recent rise to power of /Imran Khan, a former cricket player and Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister. Munir will be formally sworn in his new position on October 25, when the current director-general of ISI, Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, is expected to announce his retirement.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 October 2018 | Permalink

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Britain sees Russian government hackers behind Islamic State cyber group

Cyber CaliphateA new report by the British government alleges that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is one of several supposedly non-state groups that are in fact operated by the Russian state. 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 was later renamed 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 an increasing number of reports, primarily by Western government agencies, have claimed in recent years that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact part of a Russian state-sponsored operation, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. On Wednesday, a new report by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) described the Cyber Caliphate and other similar hacker groups as “flags of convenience” for the Kremlin. The report was authored by the NCSC in association with several British and European intelligence agencies. American spy agencies, including the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, also helped compile the report, according to the NCSC. The report names several hacker groups that have been implicated in high-profile attacks in recent years, including Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear, BlackEnergy Actors, Strontium, Tsar Team, and Sandworm. Each of these, claims the NCSC report, is “an alias of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces”, more commonly known as the GRU. The report concludes that Cyber Caliphate is the same hacker group as APT 28, Fancy Bear, and Pawn Storm, three cyber espionage outfits that are believed to be online arms of the GRU.

The NCSC report echoes the conclusion of a German government report that was leaked to the media in June of 2016, which argued that the Cyber Caliphate was a fictitious front group created by Russia. In 2015, a security report by the US State Department concluded that despite the Cyber Caliphate’s proclamations of connections to the Islamic State, there were “no indications —technical or otherwise— that the groups are tied”. In a statement issued alongside the NCSC report on Wednesday, Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Jeremy Hunt, described the GRU as Moscow’s “chosen clandestine weapon in pursuing its geopolitical goals”. The Russian government has denied these allegations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 October 2018 | Permalink

Envelopes containing deadly ricin poison intercepted at US Pentagon

PentagonAn investigation was opened in the United States on Tuesday, after two envelopes containing the deadly poison ricin were intercepted at the Pentagon. The envelopes were reportedly intercepted at a mail screening facility located in the vicinity of the headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Washington, DC. One of the envelopes was addressed to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while the other was addressed to Admiral John Richardson, who serves as Chief of Naval Operations. According to US news media, the envelopes were found to contain a powder-like substance. Upon discovery, the envelopes were secured by members of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the US Department of Defense’s law enforcement body that is responsible for safeguarding the Pentagon complex.

On Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that the substance inside the envelopes had been examined by its technicians and had tested positive for the deadly poison ricin. Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin found inside the seeds of castor oil plants, known commonly as castor beans. Though mostly harmless in its natural state, the toxin can be processed and effectively weaponized in the form of pellets, liquid acid, mist or powder. If it finds its way into the human body, through ingestion, inhalation or injection, it can kill in fewer than 48 hours. Death usually occurs as a result of organ failure and internal bleeding, which lead to a collapse of the circulatory system. There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.

On Tuesday afternoon, parts of the Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign office in Houston, Texas, were shut down, after two staff members came in contact with what was described as a “white powdery substance” inside an envelope. The staff members were rushed to the hospital, but tests carried out later that day showed that the substance was non-toxic.

The FBI said on Tuesday that its technicians would carry out further tests on the substances found at the Pentagon and at Senator Cruz’s office, in order to confirm the initial findings. It also said that there would be no further announcements until the tests are completed. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s mail screening facility remains under quarantine.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 03 October 2018 | Permalink

Saudi state spies on dissidents in Canada using software built by Israeli firm

Embassy of Saudi Arabia in CanadaThe government of Saudi Arabia is spying on expatriate dissidents in Canada using commercially available software designed by an Israeli company, according to researchers at the University of Toronto. This is alleged in a new report published on Monday by the Citizen Lab, a research unit of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, which focuses on information technology, international security and human rights. The report’s authors say they have “high confidence” that intrusive surveillance software is being deployed to target the electronic communications of Saudi dissidents, including Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist who has been living in Canada’s Quebec province for nearly 10 years.

Abdulaziz, 27, arrived in Canada on a student visa in 2009. In 2014, having publicly voiced criticisms of the Saudi royal family and Saudi Arabia’s repressive political system, and having been threatened by Saudi authorities, Abdulaziz successfully applied for political asylum in Canada. In 2017 he was granted permanent residency status. For the past eight years, Abdulaziz has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of the Saudi government, mostly through his satirical channel on YouTube. The channel, called Yakathah, has over 120,000 subscribers and its content has angered Saudi authorities. The latter have warned Abdulaziz’s parents and last summer arrested two of his brothers, in what he describes as attempts to silence him.

Researchers from Citizen Lab claim that the Saudi government has been targeting expatriate dissidents such as Abdulaziz using various techniques, such as sending them spyware-infested messages that express support for anti-government demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. The report also notes that these messages make use of Pegasus, a surveillance software system that has been previously implicated in surveillance activities against political dissidents from Gulf countries. The software was designed by NSO Group Technologies, an Israeli digital surveillance company based in Herzliya, a small coastal town located north of Tel Aviv.

The Citizen Lab report comes at a time of heightened tensions in relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia. In August, Canada’s Global Affairs Ministry issued sharp criticisms of the Saudi government’s human rights record, while Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “gravely concerned” about the suppression of political speech in the Kingdom. She also urged the Saudi government to release a number of jailed political activists and stop censoring Saudi women activists seeking gender equality. But her comments enraged the Saudi royal family, which controls the Kingdom. Within days, the Saudi government expelled Canada’s ambassador from Riyadh and restricted its economic ties with Canada. The Kingdom also recalled several thousand Saudi students who were studying in Canadian universities on Saudi government scholarships.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 October 2018 | Permalink

Iran spied on ISIS supporters through fake phone wallpaper app, say researchers

Cell Phone - IASupporters of the Islamic State, most of them Persian speakers, were spied on by the government of Iran after they downloaded a fake smartphone application with wallpaper images, according to an online security firm. Iran is a major adversary of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. The latter considers Shiism (Iran’s state religion) as an abomination. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), relies largely on supporters from the Arabic-speaking regions of the Levant. But according to estimates, Sunnis constitute about 10 percent of Iran’s population, and ISIS has found some fertile ground among Iran’s 8 million-strong Sunni minority. As a result, the government in Tehran is highly mistrustful of Iranian Sunnis, many of whom are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris or Turkomans, and systematically spies on them.

According to the Israeli online security firm Check Point Software Technologies, one way in which Tehran has spied on Persian-speaking ISIS supporters is through fake smartphone applications. In an article published last week, the company said it had uncovered a state-sponsored surveillance operation that it had codenamed “Domestic Kitten”. The Check Point article said that the operation had gone on for more than two years, but had remained undetected “due to the artful deception of its attackers towards their targets”. The surveillance of targeted phones was carried out with the help of an application that featured pro-ISIS-themed wallpapers, which users could download on their devices. Yet another program linked to the same vendor was a fake version of the Firat News Agency mobile phone application. The Firat News Agency is a legitimate Iranian information service featuring news about Iran’s Kurdish minority. But both applications were in fact malware that gave a remote party full access to all text messages sent or received on the compromised phones. They also gave a remote party access to records of phone calls, Internet browser activity and bookmarks, and all files stored on the compromised phones. Additionally, the fake applications gave away the geo-location of compromised devices, and used their built-in cameras and microphones as surveillance devices.

Check Point said that the majority of compromised phones belonged to Persian-speaking members of Iran’s Kurdish and Turkoman minorities. The company stressed that it was not able to confirm the identity of the sponsoring party with absolute accuracy. However, the nature of the fake applications, the infrastructure of the surveillance operation, as well as the identities of those targeted, posed a strong possibility that “Domestic Kitten” was sponsored by the government of Iran, it concluded. Last July, the American cyber security firm Symantec said that it had uncovered a new cyber espionage group called “Leafminer”, which was allegedly sponsored by the Iranian state. The group had reportedly launched attacks on more than 800 agencies and organizations in in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2018 | Permalink

Crowdfunding campaign seeks release of CIA’s mind control program files

CIA headquartersAn online fundraising campaign is seeking to secure the release of over 4,000 pages of documents relating to a controversial mind control program developed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The project, referred to as MKNAOMI/MKULTRA in US government files, was a joint effort by the CIA and the US Department of Defense to study the effects of substances such as heroin and LSD on the human brain. It began in 1953 and over the years involved the work of hundreds of scientists, many of whom were not aware they were working on a CIA project. But it was hurriedly shut down in 1976, once post-Watergate investigations by the US Congress revealed that it led to the death of at least one person and involved the application of drugs on hundreds of nonconsenting subjects. Several lawsuits relating to MKULTRA have been filed in US courts in recent years.

In 2004, the Black Vault, a volunteer website specializing in publishing declassified government documents, released tens of thousands of pages that were released by the CIA following a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application. The agency released the file along with an 85-page index that listed the file’s contents. But in 2016, a Black Vault reader noticed that some of the listings contained in the file were missing from the documents. Working through the news aggregation and discussion website Reddit, a group of readers identified all the irregularities in the released documents and notified Black Vault’s owner, John Greenwald. Greenwald then contacted the CIA and, following a two-year exchange with the agency’s FOIA desk, he was told that the missing pages would require a separate FOIA request. The reason, according to the CIA, is that the original FOIA request had requested documents pertaining to “mind control”, whereas the missing pages related to “behavioral modification”, which is a separate topic.

The CIA told Greenwald that releasing the pages pertaining to “behavioral modification” would require a payment of $425.80, at 10 cents per page. After failing to convince the CIA that it should release the pages for free, because they should have been included in the original 2004 FOIA petition, Greenwald decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign. He used the popular crowdfunding website GoFundMe to request $500 toward a new FOIA and related expenses. By Wednesday night, the campaign had exceeded the amount requested by Greenwald. The owner of the Black Vault website now says that he is preparing to file a FOIA for 4,358 pages about MKULTRA that are missing from the original 2004 document release.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 August 2018 | Permalink

Germany arrests Jordanian intelligence operative who spied on mosque

Hildesheim mosqueAuthorities in Germany announced yesterday the arrest of a German national who is accused of spying on a central German mosque on behalf of Jordan, according to media reports. The man was reportedly arrested on Tuesday at an unknown location by officers of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). In a press statement, the agency said the man is a 33-year-old German national named “Alexander B.”. German privacy rules forbid the public identification of crime suspects prior to their conviction in a court of law.

According to the public statement issued by the BfV, the 33-year-old man is believed to have worked for “a Jordanian intelligence agency” —most likely the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, or GID, which is a branch of the Jordanian Armed Forces— since at least 2016. He is accused of having infiltrated a Sunni mosque in the central German city of Hildesheim, located 20 miles southeast of Hanover in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. His mission, according to the BfV, was to keep tabs on mosque goers who expressed support for the ideology of the Islamic State, and might even consider traveling to the Middle East to join the radical group. The alleged Jordanian intelligence operative was also tasked with reporting on news reaching the mosque from those of its members who had already gone to the Middle East and joined the Islamic State.

Last year, German authorities closed down the Hildesheim mosque, known in German as Deutschsprachiger Islamkreis Hildesheim e. V. (DIK), and arrested its imam, Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., known as Abu Walaa. The Iraqi-born imam was charged with supporting a foreign terrorist organization by actively recruiting young Muslims on behalf of the Islamic State. The mosque has since remained closed, because authorities believe that it had become a beehive of fundamentalist activity. Jordan is one of the Middle East’s most liberal states and has been targeted repeatedly by the Islamic State, which views its leadership as pro-Western. However, it appears that Alexander B. was spying on the Hildesheim mosque —therefore on German soil— without having informed the host country of his activities. The government of Jordan has not commented on his arrest.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 August 2018 | Permalink