Israeli team spotted in Gaza was installing advanced surveillance system, says Hamas

IDF Gaza Strip HamasAn undercover Israeli team that clashed with Hamas in Gaza on November 11 —an incident that brought the region to the brink of war— was installing an advanced surveillance system, according to Palestinian sources. Local media reports said that the Israeli undercover team —believed to be members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)— killed seven members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas’ armed wing. The IDF troops eventually escaped into Israel with the help of air support, having lost one team member. The incident was followed by a barrage of nearly 500 rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The Israelis responded by firing more than 160 missiles that fell throughout the Palestinian enclave. Hostilities were halted on November 13, when Hamas declared a unilateral ceasefire brokered by Egypt. The incident prompted the resignation of Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, and may bring about early parliamentary elections in the Jewish state.

In the ensuing political crisis, little has been said about the reason for the Israeli undercover incursion into Gaza. The IDF has refused to comment on the team’s mission, admitting only that its troops “operated […] in the Gaza Strip”. It is believed that the members of the undercover team were dressed in civilian clothes and that at least two of them were disguised as women. After entering Gaza in a civilian Volkswagen vehicle, they drove to Khan Yunis, a city in the south of the Strip, near the Egyptian border. It was there that they were discovered by the al-Qassam Brigades, who stopped them at a checkpoint, asking for identification. The Israeli team killed at least one Palestinian at the checkpoint by shooting him with a silenced gun. Following a high-speed car chase, they left via helicopter after their pursuers were killed by Israeli tank and aircraft fire. Their abandoned Volkswagen car was then blown up by an Israeli fighter jet.

Speaking on Saturday at a media conference held in Gaza City, and aired live on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, Hamas’ Gaza City Deputy Chief Khalil al-Hayya claimed that the Israeli undercover incursion was significant. Had it been successful, said al-Hayya, the IDF would have “achieved a major security breakthrough” by installing a new, state-of-the-art surveillance system. Had it been able to “install the surveillance equipment”, the undercover team would have given Israel the ability “to kill, hack and abduct”, and it would have “possibly made it easy for [Israel] to discover tunnels and other” activities pursued by Hamas, according to the Palestinian side. Video footage aired by Al-Aqsa TV on Sunday showed what the television station said was remnants of “surveillance devices” left behind by the IDF undercover team. Al-Hayya finished his statement on Saturday with a warning, saying that “penetrating the security of the Gaza Strip will not be an easy task”.

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

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Australian police offer reward for information about murder of ex-KGB colonel

Gennadi BernovskiPolice in the Australian state of Queensland have offered a $250,000 (US $182,000) reward for information that can help solve the murder of a former Soviet KGB colonel 18 years ago. The victim, Gennadi Bernovski, worked in the domestic wing of the Soviet KGB, until his retirement, which coincided with the dissolution of the USSR. In 1996, he moved to Australia with his family and bought a house in Benowa Waters, a luxury suburb of Gold Coast, a city located south of Brisbane on the country’s east coast. But on the evening of July 24, 2000, Bernovski was shot to death outside his home by what witnesses said were two men in combat diver suits. They reportedly opened fire on Bernovski with a semi-automatic weapon, wounding him fatally in the stomach. He was dead within a few minutes. It is believed that the assailants sailed to Bernovski’s waterfront property on an inflatable boat, or swam there, having first sailed to the nearby seaside.

Since Bernovski’s murder, Australian authorities have refused to answer questions about how the former KGB colonel came to settle in the country, and whether he was given political asylum by the Australian government. They have also refused to answer questions relating to Bernovski’s citizenship at the time of his murder. Some reports have pointed out that he was an Australian citizen when he was murdered. Furthermore, little is known about his financial status or sources of income, though it is believed that he had access to “multiple bank accounts in Russia and Australia”. On Thursday, spokespersons for the Australian Federal Police and the Queensland Police Department refused to provide information on the investigators’ current working hypothesis about who might have been responsible for Bernovski’s murder. They were also asked whether some family members of the late former KGB officer continue to reside in Australia under assumed names, but declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Department of the Australian Attorney-General said that the new reward offer was aimed at “cracking a cold case”, which is a routine police practice for unsolved crimes. She did not comment, however, on media speculation that police sought to interview another Russian national, Oleg Kouzmine, who was living in Gold Coast during the time of Bernovski’s murder. According to reports, Kouzmine is now living in another country, which means that Australian authorities would need to seek the cooperation of a foreign law enforcement agency in order to gain access to him. However, the Attorney-General Department spokeswoman told reporters on Thursday that, “as a matter of longstanding practice, the Australian government does not confirm whether it has made a request for assistance to a foreign country in a criminal matter”.

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

ISIS fighters might declare new caliphate in Philippines, experts warn

Battle of MarawiThe number of foreign Islamic State fighters entering the Philippines is growing, and the momentum they generate among local Islamist groups may prompt them to declare a new caliphate, according to experts. British newspaper The Guardian cited “a high-ranking intelligence officer” who said that between 40 and 100 foreign fighters have joined the Islamic State in the southern Philippines in the past 12 months. Most of them come from neighboring countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. But there are also fighters from Pakistan, Bangladesh and several Middle Eastern countries, said the intelligence officer. One of them, a Moroccan militant, carried out a suicide bombing in Lamitan City, located on Basilan Island south of Mindanao, in July of this year, killing 11 other people. There are fears among experts that the Islamic State might declare a new caliphate there soon, as local support for militant Islamism is growing.

Such a declaration has been made before. Following the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, later renamed Islamic State) in 2014 in the Middle East, several Islamist groups in the Philippines declared allegiance to the Islamic State’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They included fighters from Abu Sayyaf, Ansar al-Khilafah, the Maute Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and other smaller factions active in the southern Philippines’ island of Mindanao. In May 2017, these fighters launched a joint attack on Marawi, the capital city of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province. Within 48 hours, they had occupied the entire city of 200,000 people and declared it the capital of the “East Asia Wilayah”, an overseas province of the Islamic State. Among them were an estimated 80 foreign fighters from dozens of countries. Upon the declaration of the caliphate, the insurgents issued several calls on social media for foreign Islamists to join them. Many dozens from the Muslim world and from Western Europe attempted to do so, according to Philippines police.

The violent takeover of Marawi prompted a counter-attack by the Philippine Armed Forces, which launched a large-scale urban-warfare operation on May 23, 2017. Hostilities ended on October 17, 2017, when the Philippine government declared victory against the Islamic State. The military operation became known as “the battle of Marawi” and is believed to have been the longest urban battle in the post-World War II 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.

According to The Guardian, intelligence gathered from local and foreign Islamist fighters in the country suggests that support for the Islamic State among local Muslims is growing, as a result of three factors: first, the arrival of dozens of battle-hardened foreign fighters who urge the locals to fight. Second, the disaffection of the local Muslim population as a result of the harsh economic conditions in the Philippines’ depressed southern regions. Third, widespread dissatisfaction with the increasing levels of corruption among government officials in the southern provinces. One expert, Zachary Abuza, south-east Asia analyst at the United States National War College, told The Guardian that southern Philippines is an important sanctuary for the Islamic State, because “there is enough ungoverned or very poorly governed space” there. In the next few months, another declaration of a caliphate may be issued, he added.

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

Islamic State’s online footprint declines drastically, experts say

Islamic State - IAThe online arm of the Islamic State, which was once one of the organization’s most noticeable trademarks, has declined markedly in 2018, according to expert observers in the United States and elsewhere. This is especially applicable to the militant group’s online propaganda and recruitment campaign, which appears to have effectively ceased, say experts.

According to The Washington Times newspaper, most information warfare experts at the United States Department of Defense believe that very little is left of the Islamic State’s once sizeable Web and social-media presence. The paper said that, according to the US Pentagon, the total media footprint of the group —which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)— has diminished by as much as 83 percent since its peak in 2015. Online activity measured by the US Pentagon includes posts on social media by Islamic State members and commanders, as well as professionally produced pro-ISIS images and videos aired on YouTube and other image- and video-based online platforms. It also includes material from the Islamic State’s press bureau, the Amaq News Agency, which in previous years produced hundreds of pro-ISIS videos.

Experts told The Washington Times that the Islamic State’s online footprint has shrunk as a result of the group’s loss of its territory. The loss of ISIS’ physical bases in the Middle East has resulted in the death of many of the group’s online propagandists. Those who survived are currently hiding or fleeing from the authorities, fearing arrest or death. This has “crushed [the militant Sunni group’s] ability to mount a coordinated Web-based strategy”, said The Washington Times. The military attacks against ISIS continue to take place alongside an “aggressive counterstrategy in cyberspace”, said the paper, which is being led by the US Pentagon and its allies. This has included the successful targeting of thousands of social media accounts belonging to ISIS members and supporters, as well as complex hacking operations. The US Pentagon also coordinates the delivery of online content that counters the Islamic State’s narrative and messages.

But some experts warned the paper that the Islamic State continues to recruit members online and that the group’s online recruitment efforts are not completely a thing of the past. In fact, new ISIS-sponsored content continues to appear online regularly, they said. In September of this year alone, the Islamic State released 12 different videos, mostly aimed at recruiting new members. Additionally, the militant group continues to use Facebook, YouTube, and other popular online social media platforms, experts warned.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 October 2018 | Permalink

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

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