Executive of Danish bank implicated in massive money laundering found dead

Danske BankThe former chief executive of Danske Bank’s subsidiary in Estonia, which is implicated in a massive money laundering scheme, has been found dead in an apparent suicide in Tallinn. Aivar Rehe, 56, headed the Estonian subsidiary of the Copenhagen-based Danske Bank, one of Northern Europe’s largest retail banks, which was founded in 1871. He belonged to a group of dynamic young entrepreneurs who spearheaded the privatization of the Estonian economy in the post-Soviet era.

But the reputation of the Estonian banking sector was tarnished last year, when a criminal investigation was launched into an alleged money laundering scandal. The investigation focused on customers from Russia and other Eastern European countries who allegedly used Danske Bank’s subsidiary in Estonia to launder billions of dollars in illicit funds. The probe prompted Danske Bank to pull out of the Baltic countries. Meanwhile, the probe extended to Sweden, Germany and the United States. Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, is currently being investigated for allegedly helping facilitate Danske Bank’s customers launder money by converting it into United States dollars. The criminal probe has damaged the previously spotless reputation of the Scandinavian banking sector and has made Central European banks hesitant to do business in the Baltics. Some financial observers have even warned that the Danske Bank scandal could drag the Baltic economies into a prolonged recession.

Rehe was not involved in the money laundering scandal. However, much of the money laundering took place between 2007 and 2015, when he was in charge of the Estonian subsidiary of Danske Bank. Under his leadership the bank’s operations were allegedly marred by “deficiencies in controls and governance”, which allowed for criminal activity to occur unnoticed, according to an internal Danske Bank investigation into the money laundering affair. Rehe had been missing from his home since Monday, having apparently left without taking his wallet and cellphone. His body was discovered on Wednesday in the garden of his home in the Estonian capital. Police have ruled his death an apparent suicide and believe that no foul play was involved.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

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Far-right terrorism a transnational threat backed by state actors, says US official

Slavic UnionThreats posed by white supremacist and other far-right groups are now global in nature and are increasingly backed by state actors, according to a Congressional testimony by an American former counterterrorism official. The testimony was delivered by Joshua Geltzer, former senior director for counterterrorism at the United States National Security Council. Geltzer, who now directs the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, testified on Friday before two subcommittees of the US House of Representatives. The Subcommittee on National Security and the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a joint hearing entitled “Confronting Violent White Supremacy”.

Geltzer said in his testimony [.pdf] that the type of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in America cannot any more be characterized as “domestic”, because it is quickly becoming transnational in character. White supremacist violence in America is part of a “global surge” that is “increasingly interlinked and internationalized”. In fact, the attackers themselves internationalize their role in this global movement by referencing white supremacist violence in other parts of the world to justify the use of violence in the US, said Geltzer. He added that the emerging center of this global surge of white supremacist violence appears to be located in Ukraine and Russia. It is there that funds provided by the Russian government are being used to train and educate white supremacist leaders in guerrilla warfare, social media propaganda and various forms of ideological training.

It is therefore imperative, said Geltzer, that the US Intelligence Community begins to examine white supremacist violence within this new transnational context. For instance, it would be helpful if the mission of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was changed to include a concentration in so-called “domestic terrorism”, including white supremacist violence, he argued.

Also on Friday, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled its new strategy report. The report views “domestic terrorism and mass attacks” as a growing threat to the United States that is equal in magnitude to the threat posed by Islamist terrorists. The report identifies what it describes as “a disturbing rise in attacks motivated by domestic terrorist ideologies”. One of the most powerful drivers of this new wave of domestic violence is “white supremacy”, according to the DHS.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 September 2019 | Permalink

Gas explosion reported at Russian research facility that houses Ebola and smallpox

Vector RussiaRussian authorities announced on Tuesday that a gas explosion had damaged a section of a medical facility in Siberia that houses live samples of viruses such as Ebola and smallpox, but added that there was no need to declare a biomedical emergency. The explosion reportedly took place on Monday at the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, known as Vector. The six-floor concrete and steel facility is located in the isolated Siberian town of Kotsovo, near the city of Novosibirsk, 600 miles from the Mongolian border.

Vector was founded in 1974 by the Soviet state to study mass infectious agents that could be used to build biological weapons. Today it remains as one of the world’s largest virology research centers, specializing in the treatment of some of the most lethal infectious diseases, such as Ebola, tularemia and swine flu. The Vector facility is believed to be one of two locations in the world that house live samples of the smallpox virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States city of Atlanta is also believed to house samples of the virus.

According to a statement issued on Tuesday by the Russian state-owned news agency TASS, the Vector facility sustained an explosion on Monday afternoon local time. The explosion was reportedly caused by a gas canister used by workers who were carrying out repairs at a sanitary inspection room located on the fifth floor of the Vector facility. An employee suffered unspecified injuries as a result of the explosion, according to the statement. However, “no work with biological agents was being carried out in the [Vector] building” at the time of the explosion, so there was no need for a state of emergency, according to the statement. Russian media reported on Tuesday that Vector personnel were present on the site and that no biological threat alerts had been issued.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 September 2019 | Permalink

Shia militia blames US and Israel for mystery explosions throughout Iraq

Popular Mobilization ForcesIraq’s largest Shia militia, which controls parts of Iraq’s territory that were aptured from the Islamic State, has accused the United States and Israel for a series of mystery explosions at its arms depots around the country. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 Shia militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces because they view them as American-supported.

In the past month, however, there have been at least three mystery explosions at arms depots controlled by the PMF throughout Iraq. On July 19, Arab media reported that a blast killed two Iranian military engineers at a PMF facility. Then on August 12 a massive explosion destroyed part of the al-Saqr military base in Baghdad, killing at least one person and injuring 30. The base reportedly housed an arms depot that was shared by the Shia-dominated Iraqi federal police and the PMF (the two are often indistinguishable in post-ISIS Iraq). On August 20 two more explosions were reported at a PMF arms depot located about 55 miles north of Baghdad. It is not known if anyone was killed or injured in the latest attack. Prior to the August 20 explosions, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi had banned all unauthorized flights over Iraq in an attempt to prevent further attacks on arms depots. But the move did not prevent yet another mystery attack.

In recent days, Iraq has been rife with rumors and conspiracy theories about who could be behind the attacks. Many are accusing the United States and Israel, while some are blaming ISIS or Iraqi militias who are competing against the PMF for control. A leaked Iraqi government report into the incidents claimed that they were caused by drone strikes. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the PMF said that the attacks had been carried out by Israeli drones with American intelligence support in order to weaken Shia influence in Iraq. When asked about the mystery explosions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran has no immunity anywhere […]. We will act and are currently acting against Iran wherever necessary”. Meanwhile, the PMF pledged to use “all means at its disposal to deter and prevent [future] attacks” on its facilities.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2019 | Permalink

New report details growing presence of Russian private security firms in Africa

Central African Republic RussiaA new report by the American news network CNN has shed new light into the little-researched subject of Russian-owned private military and security operations in Africa. CNN said the report took a month to complete. It claims that a Russian tycoon by the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin has been instrumental in the growth of Russian private security operations in the continent. Prigozhin is one of the closest confidantes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States accuses him of helping fund the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company based in Saint Petersburg, which allegedly participated in the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election. CNN claims that Prigozhin is also connected with PMC Wagner, a Russian security contractor with presence on the ground in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Western officials allege that firms like Wagner could not operate without permission from the Kremlin.

According to the CNN report Prigozhin turned to African countries like Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic in order to make up for his financial losses in Syria and Ukraine. He allegedly has a role in many of Russia’s 20 military agreements with African states where he provides security and weapons training on behalf of Moscow. In return, his group of companies, headed by a firm called Concord, receives exploration permits and the rights to exploit precious metals found throughout Africa, according to CNN. The network sent correspondents to the Central African Republic where they found that a radio station and a major military training base are run by a group of 250 Russian contractors. None of them will say who pays them, according to CNN, and at least one of them claims to be a “security adviser” for Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Most of the Russians operate out of Palais de Berengo, a dilapidated presidential palace located 30 miles south of the capital Bangui, which used to belong to the country’s late dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa. At a nearby mining site there are now hundreds of locals who work for the Russians, said CNN.

The CNN report also notes that last year three Russian journalists, Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal, were ambushed and executed near Sibut in the central region of the country, allegedly “by men wearing turbans and speaking Arabic after refusing to surrender their vehicle and equipment”. They were in the Central African Republic to research the presence of Russian private security firms. Their trip was funded by the Center for Investigation, a London-based foundation owned by the Russian exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. No one has been arrested or charged for the killings of the three Russian journalists. Central African Republic authorities told CNN that “investigations were continuing” into the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 August 2019 | Permalink

Spain’s second largest bank under investigation in massive espionage scandal

José Manuel VillarejoSpain’s second largest bank has been placed under investigation in connection with a probe into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years. The investigation centers on José Manuel Villarejo (pictured), a 67-year-old former police chief, who remains in pre-trial custody following his arrest in November of 2017 for carrying out illegal wiretaps. State prosecutors accuse Villarejo of running an illicit information-collection enterprise that violated the privacy of hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. Villarejo’s victims were targeted by corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. Many were eventually blackmailed by the recipients of the information that was collected by the former police chief and his network.

On Tuesday, Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, placed the country’s second-largest bank, the BBVA, under formal investigation in connection with the Villarejo case. Audiencia Nacional Judge Manuel García-Castellón took the decision to investigate the BBVA after government prosecutors argued that the bank was one of Villarejo’s main clients, as shown in documents seized from the former police chief in 2017. According to the prosecution, the bank made illicit payments to a company called Cenyt, which was owned by Villarejo. The payments lasted for over 13 years, during which Villarejo earned close to €10 million ($11.1 million) from BBVA. In return, Villarejo and his employees carried out surveillance operations on behalf of the bank. One of the operations targeted Sacyr, a large Spanish-based construction company, which had tried to purchase BBVA in 2004 and 2005. Spanish government prosecutors now accuse BBVA of bribery, disclosure of sensitive information, and corrupt business practices.

In January of 2018 five active police officers and an employee of the Agencia Tributaria, Spain’s tax revenue service, testified in court about having worked 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. The purpose of Operation KITCHEN was to wiretap Bárcenas’ communications without acquiring a court warrant, said the witnesses. Last year Bárcenas was jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case, the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, which brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of 2017. Villarejo’s trial continues.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 July 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Are US border security officials ignoring terrorism threat from Canada?

Canada borderSince the election of President Donald Trump, the issue of border security between the United States and Mexico has been a major topic of national debate. But is the incessant focus on America’s southern border by the news media and politicians ignoring security concerns emanating from the country’s northern neighbor, Canada? In a thought-provoking editorial in the English-language Emirati newspaper The National, Stephen Starr employs statistics to argue that the flow of extremism from Canada into the US may represent a greater security concern for Washington than immigration flows from Mexico.

According to US government sources, six foreigners whose names featured on the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) —the central terrorist watchlist maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center— attempted to enter the US from Mexico in the first half of 2018. Starr points out that during that same period no fewer than 41 foreigners who were on the TSDB tried to enter the US from Canada. In the past three and a half years, four Canadian residents have been charged with carrying out or conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on US soil. They include a Palestinian living in Toronto and a Tunisian living in Montreal, who planned to derail a passenger train making the journey from Ontario to New York. Both were jailed for life. Another resident of Canada, Abdulrahman el-Bahnasawy, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for trying to plant bombs in New York’s Times Square and on a New York subway train. El-Bahnasawy, who was 20 when he was sentenced, was directly guided by Islamic State handlers in the Philippines and Pakistan. Starr notes that nearly 200 Canadian citizens and residents are thought to have traveled abroad to fight for the Islamic State, and that around 60 of those are now back in Canada.

While all this is happening, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, America’s main border control organization, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, appears to be ignoring the country’s northern border. It is worth noting that the 5,525 mile-long border is the longest in the world, but is monitored by no more than about 2,000 CBP agents. In contrast, over 16,000 CBP agents keep tabs on America’s border with Mexico. Responding to political pressure from the White House, the CBP keeps stationing more agents to the southern border. In the meantime, requests by CBP supervisors along the Canadian border to increase their force by 200 agents remain unfulfilled. This is despite the fact that the number of people detained while trying to enter the US illegally from the Canadian province of Quebec has nearly trebled since 2015, notes Starr.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2019 | Permalink