Without explanation, US dismisses charges against Saudis caught spying on US soil

Twitter IAIn a surprising move, the United States government is seeking to dismiss espionage charges it filed last year against three men, including a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, who were caught spying on American soil. Last November, the Federal Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint in San Francisco, accusing the three men of “acting as unregistered agents” of Saudi Arabia. The phrase is used in legal settings to refer to espionage.

According to the FBI, the charges stemmed from an investigation that lasted several years and centered on efforts by the oil kingdom to identify and silence its critics on social media. In 2015, the Saudi government allegedly reached out to Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old network engineer working for Twitter, who lived in San Francisco. The complaint alleges that Ahmed Almutairi (also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), who worked as a “social media advisor” for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, arranged for Alzabarah to be flown from San Francisco to Washington to meet with an unidentified member of the Saudi dynasty.

Alzabarah, along with another Twitter employee, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, were allegedly given money and gifts by the Saudi government in return for supplying it with private information about specific Twitter users, according to the FBI complaint. The information provided by the two Twitter employees to the Saudi authorities allegedly 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. Special Agents from the FBI’s Settle field office arrested Abouammo at his Seattle home. However, Alzabarah managed to flee the United States along with his family before the FBI was able to arrest him, and is believed to be in Saudi Arabia. The FBI issued a warrant for his arrest.

In a surprising move, however, US government prosecutors have now filed a motion to drop the charges against the three men. The motion, filed on Tuesday in San Francisco, is asking for permission from the judge in the case to have all charges against the three men dismissed “without prejudice”, meaning that the US government could decide to file new charges against them in the future. The two-page filing does not offer a reason behind this sudden decision by the US government. The Bloomberg news service, which reported the news on Tuesday, said it inquired about this case by calling and emailing the Saudi Embassy in Washington, the San Francisco US Attorney’s office, and Twitter. It received no responses.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 29 July 2020 | Permalink

Britain to ‘modernize’ counterespionage laws following criticism from parliament

James BrokenshireSenior United Kingdom officials have said the country will seek to “modernize” its laws on counterespionage, after a long-awaited parliamentary report criticized the government for failing to stop Russian spy operations. Earlier this week saw the release of the report by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The report [.pdf] focuses on Russia. It concludes that British intelligence agencies remain incapable of combating espionage and psychological operations by Russian spy agencies, of which many aim to influence British politics on a mass scale.

On Wednesday Britain’s Minister of State for Security, James Brokenshire, pushed back against the report’s findings that the government had failed to manage the thread posed by Russian intelligence activities on British soil. Speaking during an extraordinary meeting of parliament to discuss the report, Brokenshire rejected claims that a succession of British conservative administrations went out of their way to avoid investigating Russian spy activities. He claimed that the activities of the Kremlin remained one of Britain’s “top national security priorities”. During the same meeting, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told members of parliament that “no country in the Western world is more vigilant in countering Russia” than the United Kingdom.

Some government officials said the government now plans to implement a new Espionage Bill, which is currently in the drafting stage, and is expected to provide the authorities with more powers to combat foreign espionage. Additionally, Whitehall is considering initiating a large-scale review of the Official Secrets Act and redrafting it so as to include a foreign agent registration clause. The proposed clause would resemble the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the United States, which requires those working or lobbying on behalf of a foreign government —except accredited diplomats— to register with the authorities.

This would allow British authorities to arrest, deport or imprison those found working on behalf of foreign powers, even if they are never caught committing espionage or transmitting classified information to a foreign entity.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 July 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: British report into Russian meddling leads to uncomfortable conclusions

British parliamentBritain is abuzz today with news of the long-awaited release of the Parliament’s report [.pdf] into Russian meddling in British politics. The report is the work of the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. Since 2013, the Committee has been appointed to oversee the work of Britain’s intelligence agencies. Almost all of its meetings are conducted behind closed doors, and its reports are vetted by the spy agencies prior to release. By law, the Committee cannot make its reports public without previously submitting them for approval to the Office of the Prime Minister.

In the past it has taken no more than 10 days for the Committee’s reports to be approved by the prime minister. This particular report, however, which concerns —among other things— Russian meddling into British politics, took considerably longer. It was given to the prime minister on October 17. But by November 6, when parliament was dissolved in preparation for the election that brought Boris Johnson to power, it had not been approved. It finally came out yesterday, after numerous and inexplicable delays. Many speculated that the government did not want to deal with the uncomfortable conclusions in the report.

Like all reports of its kind, this one will be politicized and used by Britain’s major parties against their rivals. But behind the politicking, the report makes for uncomfortable reading indeed. It shows that, not just British, but Western intelligence agencies as a whole, remain incapable of combating online psychological operations from foreign state actors —primarily Russia— aiming to influence Western politics on a mass scale.

This is ironic, because Western spy agencies used to be really good on Russia. In fact, during the Cold War that is all they did. Many years have passed since then, and many leading Western experts on Russia have either retired or died. Additionally, the attacks of September 11, 2001, turned the attention of Western spy agencies to terrorism by groups like al-Qaeda, and away from Russia. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, rebuilt the state and sought to reclaim Russia’s lost international prestige. This plan includes a page from the old KGB playbook: destabilizing Western nations through psychological operations that accentuate existing extremist tendencies from the left or right. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #911

HamasAnalysis: The outstanding issue of the Libyan intelligence services. The post of Chief of the Libyan Intelligence Service of Tripoli’s Government of National Accord (GNA) is still vacant. Therefore, this is an optimal situation for the Head of Tripoli’s government, who is currently pro tempore Director of the GNA agencies, while the struggle for the next Intelligence Service director is intensifying.

Hamas admits one of its number spied for Israel before defecting. Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk has confirmed Arabic media reports that Hamas commander Mohammad Abu Ajwa collaborated with and subsequently defected to Israel. The defection was first reported by Al-Arabiya, which said that Israel’s Mossad spy agency had recently facilitated the escape of senior commander Mohammad Abu Ajwa. According to Al-Arabiya, Abu Ajwa had previously led Hamas’s naval special forces.

Russia used US intelligence to target dissidents in Europe. Russia routinely exploited a US policy of increased information sharing to target Chechen dissidents, according to three law-enforcement and intelligence officials in Europe. The practice emerged after the Trump administration backed a policy of sharing more secret information with Russia, in hope of strengthening relations.

News you may have missed #910

Ajit DovalIn-fighting erupts between Syrian intelligence and army in Damascus. Violent clashes broke out between Syrian regime intelligence forces and local militias affiliated with the army’s 4th Division and national defense in Damascus’ countryside, local media sources reported. Sporadic fighting reportedlhy broke out for the third consecutive day in the Daf Al-Shouk region between militiamen affiliated with the 4th Division and the national defense on the one hand, and security formations from the Palestine Branch of the Syrian military intelligence on the other. This came after the 4th Division and the national defense refused to hand over their weapons and end the military tasks assigned to them in the region.

India gold smuggling case sparks political row. A political row has broken out in India after gold was found being smuggled into the country in diplomatic baggage. Customs officials at the international airport in the southern state of Kerala found more than 30kg (66lb) of gold hidden inside bathroom fittings. The package was addressed to the United Arab Emirates’ consulate in Thiruvananthapuram. The UAE has denied any knowledge of the package and said a former local employee had been arrested. Local reports suggest another person has also been detained.

The ex-spy who brought India and China back from the brink. It takes nerves of steel and a cool wit to negotiate a truce in the face of a grave provocation – such as the brutal killing of 20 soldiers – and getting two nuclear-armed rivals to pull back from the brink of a full-scale confrontation. But that’s what Ajit Doval (pictured), India’s national security adviser, managed to do as he walked a diplomatic tightrope in recent talks with Chinese officials.

NZ spy agency broke into foreign embassies on behalf of CIA and MI6, report claims

NZSIS New ZealandThe spy agency of New Zealand broke into at least three foreign embassies in Wellington at the request of the United States and Britain, according to an investigative report by the country’s public radio broadcaster. Radio New Zealand reported on Tuesday that the highly controversial break-ins targeted the Indian High Commission and the Iranian Embassy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A few years earlier, the New Zealand spy agency had allegedly broken into the Czechoslovakian embassy in Wellington.

Radio New Zealand podcast it confirmed the break-ins after “piecing together information gained after months of engaging with multiple sources in New Zealand, Britain and the United States”. According to the broadcaster, the operations were carried out by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) on behalf of its American and British counterparts, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

The New Zealand agency was also allegedly pressured to carry out the operations by Australia, with which it collaborates as part of the so-called Five-Eyes alliance. For over 75 years, New Zealand has been a member of the partnership, which is also known as the UK-USA Security Agreement. It provides a multilateral framework for intelligence cooperation between the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

According to Radio New Zealand, the break-in at the Indian High Commission in Wellington took place in the 1980s. It was codenamed Operation DUNNAGE and was jointly supported by MI6. After entering the building —which technically constitutes Indian soil— NZSIS spies allegedly took “thousands of photographs” of the contents of codebooks used by Indian diplomats to communicate in secret with their government in New Delhi. These were shared with MI6 and were used by the British to decipher the codes used in diplomatic communications between Indian officials. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #909 – Insurgency edition

Al-Hawl refugee campSouth African intelligence concerned about spread of insurgency in Mozambique. This is the first public expression of concern from the South African government that the violence in neighboring Mozambique could spread. Previously, the South African Parliament was informed the matter was only to be discussed behind closed doors. Earlier in June, the South African military reportedly participated in Operation COPPER, in support of the Mozambican Defense Force.

US intelligence says Russia offered Afghans Bounties to kill US troops. American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan — including targeting American troops — amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according to officials briefed on the matter. The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said.

Analysis: The security risk posed by ISIS women smuggling their way out of camp Hol. While a debate rages in Europe over whether or not ISIS women and their children can be repatriated to their European home countries, some women have been taking things into their own hands and returning via illegal smuggling networks, creating new and serious security issues with which European officials must now grapple.

News you may have missed #908

Sergei NaryshkinRussian spy chief in rare interview with the BBC. In an exclusive interview, Sergei Naryshkin (pictured), the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has told the BBC that America has been trying to “rule the world” and this could lead to “disaster”. Russia’s spy chief, who was talking to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, also said that Russia doesn’t trust what the British government says about the Salisbury poisonings.

India and Pakistan embassies to cut staff by half over spy row. India is expelling close to half of the staff at Pakistan’s embassy in New Delhi over espionage claims. Islamabad has reciprocated with the same orders for the Indian High Commission. Notably, both commissions do not have a permanent ambassador in place. Tensions have remained high since India scrapped Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status last year.

Israel moves to redeploy spy agency to track surging virus cases. Israel’s parliament gave initial approval Wednesday to a controversial bill enabling the government to use its domestic security agency to track cases of coronavirus, which are rising again. Cabinet mandated Shin Bet to use cell phone surveillance as an emergency measure to combat the virus in mid-March as mounting numbers of Israelis tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The specifics were kept secret, but security officials said the agency had tracked virus carriers’ movements through their phones. The measure was discontinued on June 10 as infection rates dropped. But following two weeks that have seen growing numbers of Israelis infected with the virus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to table the bill.

US soldier arrested for helping plan a neo-Nazi attack on his own unit

BoogalooAuthorities in the United States have formally charged an American soldier for helping a secretive neo-Nazi organization plan a terrorist attack on his own unit. Meanwhile, a government fusion center has warned law enforcement agencies that extremists may be planning violent acts in the Washington DC area.

On Monday the US Department of Justice charged Ethan Melzer of Louisville, Kentucky, with crimes including providing material support to terrorist groups. Melzer, 22, was reportedly arrested on June 10. He enlisted in the US Army in December 2018, and began his active service the following year. A few months later, he was assigned to a US military base in Europe.

It was there, according to the indictment, that Melzer was recruited by the Order of Nine Angels. This secretive group, known as O9A, ONA, or simply as The Order, is based mostly in the United Kingdom and is believed to have been around since the 1960s. Its ideology combines two themes, namely the occult and Nazism. US authorities describe The Order as “an occult-based neo-Nazi and racially motivated violent extremist group”, whose members espouse “neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Satanic beliefs”. It is widely known in neo-Nazi circles.

Members of The Order call for the overthrow of the Western way of life, which they dismiss as failed because it is associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. They view the Third Reich as a solution to the ills of Western society and are tactical supporters of Sunni Salafi Jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Order calls on its members to keep a small circle of friends and family, and support violent groups whose actions that can help spark a global race war.

In 2019 and the first half of 2020, Melzer allegedly gave secret US Army information to The Order, which included deployment information about his unit and technical data about its weaponry and personnel strength. According to the US government, he gave the information to The Order with the expectation that it would be used by Salafi Jihadists to carry out attacks against US Army personnel. The US government says Melzer confessed to Federal Bureau of Investigation agents that he helped plot a terrorist attack with the aim of killing American military personnel. He has been charged with providing support to terrorist groups and conspiring to murder American military service members, among other crimes.

Meanwhile, a federal fusion center in Washington DC has warned that the national capital could become a target for homegrown violent extremists, whose goal is to provoke racial tension in the country. In an assessment published on Monday, the National Capital Region Threat Intelligence Consortium warned that Washington is “likely an active target for violent adherents of the boogaloo ideology due to the significant presence of US law enforcement entities, and the wide range of First Amendment-Protected events hosted here”. Boogaloo is a term used to describe loosely affiliated groups of subscribers to the view that the US is heading toward inevitable collapse, which should be accelerated through acts of violence aimed at government targets.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 June 2020 | Permalink

News you may have missed #907

India External Affairs MinistryPakistan releases two Indian diplomats. Pakistan has released two employees of rival India’s embassy in Islamabad after briefly detaining them in connection with a hit-and-run road accident in the capital. A city police report noted the Indian officials were taken into custody on Monday morning after their “reckless driving” injured a pedestrian. The Indian External Affairs Ministry on Monday summoned the deputy chief of the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi to protest the detention of its officials and demanded their immediate release. Pakistani authorities familiar with the incident argued the detainees were released to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad within hours because they held diplomatic immunity.

As US intelligence community returns to work, employees confront new anxieties. More US federal employees and contractors in the intelligence community have been gradually returning to their office spaces in the past two weeks. But for IC leadership, “reopening” isn’t only about rearranging office spaces and cobbling together cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer, it’s also about easing the concerns of their employees and contractors who are uneasy or nervous to return to the physical workplace.

Belgian police officer convicted of spying for terrorist network. A police officer in Brussels has been jailed for four years after prosecutors found he had acted as an informant for the brother of a man seen as the mastermind of the Brussels and Paris attacks. The 53-year-old officer with the Brussels North police zone was sentenced to 50 months imprisonment, his lawyers confirmed on Friday.

News you may have missed #906

Gustavo ArribasTurkish court jails US consulate employee for terrorism offenses. A Turkish employee of the US consulate in Istanbul has been sentenced to almost nine years in prison, allegedly for aiding a terrorist organisation. Metin Topuz was arrested in 2017 and accused of having links to an “armed terror group” that Turkey blames for a failed coup the previous year. Topuz is reported to have spent decades working as a translator and fixer for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Istanbul. He denies the allegations. The US has said there is “no credible evidence” to support his conviction.

India arrests LeT female spy ring. India’s National Investigation Agency has busted an alleged female spy racket in the country and taken a 22-year-old Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) handler into 10-day custody. The female spy was allegedly in touch with many handlers in Pakistan, including 26/11 Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Mohammed Sayeed. Sources also claimed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence was honey-trapping Indian officials through the female spy, in order to gain sensitive information.

Illegal espionage claims put former Argentine president in spotlight. Argentina’s former president, Mauricio Macri, has found himself back in the national spotlight after the emergence of extraordinary claims alleging the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) –-headed at the time by his close ally Gustavo Arribas (pictured) during the former president’s 2015-2019 administration-– carried out illegal espionage more than 500 journalists, academics, politicians and business leaders. Prior to heading the federal intelligence agency, Arribas had no prior public service, having worked as a notary and a football agent. He is a close personal friend of Macri.

News you may have missed #905

Twitter IAFrench forces kill al-Qaeda head and capture ISIS leader in Mali. In the past few days, the French military successfully conducted two key operations in the Sahel, killing the emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), Abdelmalek Droukdal, and capturing Mohamed el Mrabat, a leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) group. The US military assisted the French special operations forces by providing intelligence that helped locate the target.

Isis operations increase in Iraq as coalition withdraws. The Islamic State staged at least 566 attacks in Iraq in the first three months of the year and 1,669 during 2019, a 13 per cent increase from the previous year, according to security analysts who track the group’s activities. The jihadists have exploited a partial drawdown of the international anti-Isis coalition, analysts said, while tensions between the US and Iran, disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and political paralysis in Baghdad, have also combined to provide an opportunity for the insurgents to regroup.

Twitter removes more than 170,000 pro-China accounts. Twitter has removed more than 170,000 accounts it says were tied to an operation to spread pro-China messages. Some of those posts were about the coronavirus outbreak, the social media platform has announced. The firm said the Chinese network, which was based in the People’s Republic of China, had links to an earlier state-backed operation it broke up alongside Facebook and YouTube last year.

News you may have missed #904

Al-Qaeda AfghanistanUN report says Afghan Taliban still maintain ties with al-Qaida. The Taliban in Afghanistan still maintain close ties with the al-Qaida terror network, despite signing a peace deal with the United States in which they committed to fight militant groups, a UN report said. The U.N. committee behind the report said several significant al-Qaida figures were killed over the past months but a number of prominent leaders of the group, once led by Osama bin Laden, remain in Afghanistan. The report said they maintain links with the feared Haqqani network, an ally of the Taliban, and still play a significant role in Taliban operations.

Britain’s SIGINT agency sees workload spike amid COVID-19 vaccine hunt. Britain is one of the leading countries developing a COVID-19 vaccine with Oxford University and Imperial College London at the forefront, along with Sinovac in China. Whoever develops it first will reap billions from global sales, making research information highly valuable. This is having a major impact on the workload of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), its director, Jeremy Fleming, said last week.

Indian IT firm spied on politicians and Investors around the world. New Delhi-based BellTroX InfoTech offered its hacking services to help clients spy on more than 10,000 email accounts over a period of seven years. During that time, the firm targeted government officials in Europe, gambling tycoons in the Bahamas, and well-known investors in the United States including private equity giant KKR and short seller Muddy Waters, according to three former employees, outside researchers, and a trail of online evidence.

European neo-Nazis attended paramilitary training camps in Russia, article claims

UkraineMembers of neo-Nazi groups in Germany attended paramilitary training camps in Russia, which were organized by a group that the United States has designated a global terrorist organization, but which the Russian government has not banned. If true, these claims add further credence to the view that Russian far-right groups are becoming increasingly central in the worldwide network of racially motivated radical organizations.

The report was published on Friday by the German magazine Focus, which cited German “intelligence sources”. It said that the training camp was known in far-right circles as “Camp Partizan”, and was organized by a group calling itself the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). As intelNews has reported previously, most RIM members are believed to be based in St. Petersburg, which is also the base of the group’s armed wing, the Imperial Legion. Most active members of the Imperial Legion are believed to have served in the Russian military.

Although it has been in existence since the early 2000s, the RIM drew considerable attention to its political platform after 2014, when it began to train groups of volunteers who then joined Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. In a surprising move last April, the United States added the RIM to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) groups. That designation marked the first time in history that the US Department of State formally applied the label of terrorist to a white supremacist organization. The Department of State said at the time that the RIM had “provided paramilitary-style training to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Europe”. The statement cited two members of the far-right Swedish Resistance Movement (SMR), who were later convicted of carrying out a string of bombings targeting immigrants in the Swedish city of Gothenburg.

Now, according to Focus, there is evidence that among Camp Partizan trainees were German rightwing extremists, who were members of two banned groups, the National Democratic Party and The Third Path. Members of these groups traveled to the outskirts of St. Petersburg, where they were allegedly trained in combat and were taught how to use makeshift weapons and explosives. Members of far-right groups from Scandinavia were also trained in the camp, and were able to use their skills as members of pro-Russian separatist militias in eastern Ukraine, according to Focus. The magazine said that the RIM’s armed wing , the aforementioned Imperial Legion, has a group of fighters in Ukraine.

Vice News reported last week that no Americans are believed to have received training in Camp Partizan. However, the website claimed that one of the organizers of the infamous 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is believed to have developed ties with the group, and even welcomed a RIM delegation to the US in 2017. Vice News spoke to intelligence experts from the Soufan Group who said that the RIM is emerging as “a critical node in the transnational white supremacy extremist movement” and that the Russian group is “going beyond networking and ideology, and is actually providing paramilitary training”.

The RIM’s relationship with the Kremlin can be described as complicated, and at times adversarial. The organization is openly critical of the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, which it accuses of being too liberal and too lenient on non-white immigration. However, the government in Moscow did not prevent —some argue it even facilitated— the group’s role in training Russian volunteers to join separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. The Russian government has criticized RIM views as extremist, and has at times arrested RIM members. However, it has not banned the group as a whole.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 June 2020 | Permalink

News you may have missed #903

Israel Lebanon borderState-level espionage on EU a ‘very high threat’ says report. The most successful attempts of espionage at a top EU institution are state sponsored, according to an internal document produced by a subcommittee of the European Council, which is composed of heads of state or government of all European Union member-states. The restricted document presents an analysis of threats to the security of information at the General Secretariat of the Council.
Man shot after crossing into Israel, apparently to spy, returned to Lebanon. A Syrian national who was shot after he crossed the border into Israel from Lebanon last month, apparently to perform reconnaissance for Hezbollah, was sent back to Lebanon on Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces said. According to the IDF, the International Red Cross transported him back to Lebanon through the rarely used Rosh Hanikra border crossing.
As virus toll preoccupies US, rivals test limits of American power. The coronavirus may have changed almost everything, but it did not change this: global challenges to the United States spin ahead, with America’s adversaries testing the limits and seeing what gains they can make with minimal pushback. A New York Times analysis claims that COVID-19 has not created a new reality as much as it has widened divisions that existed before the pandemic. And with the United States looking inward, preoccupied by the fear of more viral waves, unemployment soaring over 20% and nationwide protests ignited by deadly police brutality, its competitors are moving to fill the vacuum, and quickly.