Cold-War-era Soviet spy George Blake issues rare statement from Moscow

George BlakeOne of the Cold War’s most recognizable spy figures, George Blake, who escaped to the Soviet Union after betraying British intelligence, issued a rare statement last week, praising the successor agency to Soviet-era KGB. Blake was born George Behar in Rotterdam, Holland, to a Dutch mother and a British father. Having fought with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis, he escaped to Britain, where he joined the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, in 1944. He was serving in a British diplomatic post in Korea in 1950, when he was captured by advancing North Korean troops and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. He was eventually freed, but, unbeknownst to MI6, had become a communist and come in contact with the Soviet KGB while in captivity. Blake remained in the service of the KGB as a defector-in-place until 1961, when he was arrested and tried for espionage.

After a mostly closed-door trial, Blake was sentenced to 42 years in prison, which at that time was the longest prison sentence ever imposed in Britain. However, he managed to escape in 1966, with the help of Irish republican prisoners in London’s Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he was serving his sentence. With the help of Soviet intelligence, Blake made his way to France and from there to Germany and East Berlin, hiding inside a wooden box in the back of a delivery van. He eventually resurfaced in Moscow, where he has lived ever since, in a small, government-provided dacha (Russian cottage) located on the outskirts of the Russian capital.

Last Friday, Blake issued a statement on the eve of his 95th birthday. The statement was posted on the SVR’s official website and published by several Russian news agencies. The convicted spy said that he placed his hopes for the peace of mankind on the “men and women” of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service —the main institutional descendant of the Soviet KGB. Blake praised the SVR’s officers as “heroes” who are engaged in “a true battle between good and evil” at a time when “the danger of nuclear war and the resulting self-destruction of humankind” is a real threat. The spy added that the prospect of nuclear annihilation has been “put on the agenda by irresponsible politicians”, in what Russian news agencies interpreted as a comment that was directed against United States President Donald Trump.

The end of Blake’s statement is followed by a second statement, written by the Director of the SVR, Sergei Naryshkin. Naryshkin, who was appointed to his current post by Russian President Vladimir Putin a year ago, congratulates Blake on his 95th birthday and calls him a “reliable old comrade” and “a man of great wisdom”. Blake is “a proficient teacher”, says  Naryshkin, who has been a longtime role model for the officers of the SVR.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 November 2017 | Permalink

Advertisements

Political tension grows in Zimbabwe as army chief threatens coup

General Constantine ChiwengaPolitical affairs in Zimbabwe took an unprecedented turn on Monday, as the chief of the armed forces warned the country’s President, Robert Mugabe, that the military would “not hesitate to step in” to stop infighting within the ruling party. General Constantino Chiwenga, Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, took the extremely rare step of summoning reporters for a press conference at the military’s headquarters in Harare on Monday. A direct intervention of this kind is unprecedented in the politics of Zimbabwe, a country that is tightly ruled by its authoritarian President, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe is also President and First Secretary of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party that has dominated Zimbabwean politics since it assumed power in 1980.

General Chiwenga reportedly spoke in the presence of nearly 100 senior military officers, who were seated in the conference room and appeared to support his intervention. The press conference was called less than a week after President Mugabe fired his second-in-command in ZANU-PF, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. The 75-year-old longtime confidante of Mugabe was dismissed from his post after speaking out against Mugabe and his wife, Grace, 52. It is thought that Mugabe, the world’s oldest president at 93, is preparing to appoint his wife in his place, something that has angered some in his party, including Mnangagwa. Addressing Mugabe directly, Mnangagwa said that ZANU-PF is “not personal property for you and your wife to do as you please”. He was removed soon afterwards, on November 6, and is currently believed to have fled in exile in China, but has vowed to return to Zimbabwe.

Political observers in southern Africa warned that Mnangagwa’s firing was a risky move for Mugabe. The 75-year-old former ZANU-PF guerrilla previously served as Zimbabwe’s Minister for Security and Defence, and has powerful connections in the country’s armed forces. General Chiwenga’s intervention on Monday appeared aimed at sending a message to Mnangagwa that the troops will not accept his dismissal. The general warned that “the current purging” within ZANU-PF was “clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background” —referring to the so-called Bush War between the leftist ZANU-PF and the Rhodesian military in the 1970s. The purge, said Chiwenga, “must stop forthwith”, because “when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in”. The general went further, commenting on Zimbabwe’s political instability and economic woes: “There is distress, trepidation and despondence within the nation”, he said, which is caused by “squabbling” within the ruling party. Because of that, “there has been no meaningful development in the country for the past five years”, resulting in “cash shortages and rising commodity prices”, added the general.

The next party congress of ZANU-PF is scheduled for December in Harare. Until last week, it was expected that Grace Mugabe would be appointed vice president at that time, replacing Mnangagwa. But with General Chiwenga’s unprecedented intervention on Monday, it remains to be seen whether President Mugabe’s strategy will unfold as planned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 November 2017 | Permalink

Fire at top-secret Moscow facility highlights rapid growth of Russian spy headquarters

SVR MoscowA massive fire that broke out at a top-secret spy facility in Moscow on Wednesday brought to the foreground prior reports about the unprecedented growth of the headquarters of Russia’s foreign spy service. The fire was reported at a government compound in Yasenevo, a leafy district on the southern outskirts of the Russian capital. The compound serves as the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known by its initials, SVR. The SVR is one of the successor agencies to the Soviet-era KGB. During Soviet times, the present-day SVR was known as the First Chief Directorate or First Main Directorate of the KGB. Despite its name change, however, its mission remains the same, namely to collect secrets from targets outside the Russian Federation —often through the use of espionage— and to disseminate intelligence to the president.

The fire, which local news agencies described as “huge”, was reported early in the afternoon of Wednesday. Television images showed smoke coming out of one of the multistory towers that make up the SVR building complex. According to SVR spokesman Sergey Ivanov, the fire started in what he called “a technical installation” that houses “a cable gallery” and is located beneath the multistory building. The 21-story tower block is adjacent to a large Y-shaped building and is visible for several miles around. It became operational in the early 1970s, when the KGB’s First Chief Directorate began a decade-long process of moving to the new, state-of-the-art complex in the southern suburbs of the Russian capital. Today the complex houses the entire apparatus of the SVR, including its espionage wing, and is informally known as les (the forest) or kontora (the office). Approximately 15 fire crews arrived at the scene soon afterwards, and were able to coordinate their movements despite the fact that mobile communications are blocked at the site of the compound.

The SVR spokesman added that the fire is believed to have begun at a section of the facility that is undergoing extensive maintenance work. Three members of the crew that were initially missing during the early stage of the fire were later rescued, said Ivanov, and the fire was eventually extinguished without causing fatalities or injuries. But the incident highlighted the reportedly unprecedented growth of the SVR complex that observers have noted in recent years. As intelNews reported in 2016, satellite images show that the top-secret facility has doubled —and possibly tripled— in size in the past decade. The most recent images were compiled by Allen Thomson, an analyst who worked for the United States Central Intelligence Agency in the 1970s and 1980s. They were published by Steven Aftergood, who edits the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog. The images clearly show that at least three more large buildings have been erected alongside the landmark skyscraper and the adjoining Y-shaped office block. These additions, said Aftergood in 2016, appear to have increased the SVR headquarters’ floor space “by a factor of two or more”. Moreover, the nearby parking capacity at the complex “appears to have quadrupled”, he added. Observers often describe the compound as a constant construction site, with new buildings and facilities being built at an unprecedented speed.

On Wednesday evening, SVR officials told the Moscow-based TASS news agency that the agency would investigate the cause of the fire. It was “too early to give any comments” about it, they said, but the SVR had already initiated an official probe into the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2017 | Permalink

Despite retreat, ISIS still earns $50 million a year from oil, says expert

Oil field in SyriaDespite its ongoing territorial retreat, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is earning over $4 million a month from its involvement in the oil trade, according to a leading expert in the finances of the group. In the past, a sizeable portion of the Islamic State’s income came from oil revenues, as the group controlled several major oilfields in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. But the loss of its territory in the past year has delivered a sharp blow to the Islamic State’s finances. The group has lost virtually every oilfield that it used to control in northern Iraq, while two weeks ago it conceded Syria’s most lucrative oilfield, the Omar oilfield, which it controlled since July of 2013. In early October, the United States-led coalition estimated that the Islamic State’s oil revenues had fallen to approximately $4 million a month, down 90 percent from the group’s financial peak of $40 million a month in 2015.

But a leading expert in the Islamic State’s finances has warned that the group’s oil revenues remain formidable and should not be dismissed as insignificant. Dr. Patrick Johnston, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told The Cipher Brief last week that the Sunni militant group will continue to profit from the oil trade in the foreseeable future. Johnston said that Islamic State coffers will most likely receive nearly $50 million this year from oil profits alone, an amount that remains formidable for any militant group. Much of that will come from extortion, said the RAND Corporation scientist, as groups of Islamic State fighters force commercial enterprises —including oil installations— in eastern Syria to pay them for “protection”. Additionally, the group continues to tax energy consumption in the areas that it controls, while also taxing fuel trucks that transit through areas under its control. As the militant group’s expenses shrink due to its loss of territory, and as its financial obligations decrease, its oil-derived revenue will be more than sufficient to sustain its operations, according to Johnston.

Essentially, as the Islamic State continues to transform from a state-like structure into an insurgency, its financial model is morphing accordingly, says Johnston. It follows that the US-led coalition must alter its approach into disrupting the group’s financial operations. So far, says the RAND scientist, the Counter-ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), which coordinates efforts to counter the militant group’s finances between coalition partners, has been relatively successful. A parallel effort by the US military, known as Operation TIDAL WAVE II, has managed to limit the Islamic State’s oil-related activities. But the coalition should be careful while restoring the oil industry in areas previously held by the Islamic State. Otherwise, “without rigorous monitoring and evaluation, reconstruction assistance could end up inadvertently resuscitating [the Islamic State] rather than contributing to its demise in Iraq and Syria”, warns Johnston.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 November 2017 | Permalink

Western agencies warned Lebanese prime minister of assassination plot, say Saudis

Saad al-HaririWestern intelligence services warned Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri of an assassination plot against him, thus prompting him to resign on Sunday, according to Saudi news media. Hariri is a Saudi-born Lebanese politician, reputed to be one of the world’s wealthiest people. He is the second son of the late Rafiq Hariri, who ruled Lebanon for much of the 1990s but was assassinated in 2005. Saad al-Hariri spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, the United States and France, but returned to Lebanon in 2014 to lead the Future Movement, a center-right political party supported by Sunni Muslims and some Christians. He became prime minister in 2016.

On Friday, Hariri flew from Beirut to Riyadh for a scheduled high-level visit. But on Sunday he shocked the Arab world by announcing his resignation from the post of prime minister. He did so in a surprise television address from the Saudi capital, which was broadcast live in Lebanon. Hariri told stunned Lebanese audiences that he was resigning in order to protect himself from a plot that was underway to assassinate him. He added that the political climate in Lebanon was intolerably tense and reminded him of the conditions that led to the assassination of his father 12 years ago. He also accused Iran and Hezbollah of acting as the primary destabilizing factors in Lebanon and much of the Middle East. Hariri and his supporters believe that Hezbollah was behind his father’s assassination in 2005. There was intense speculation in Lebanon on Monday that Hariri would remain in Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future, fearing for his life if he returned to Lebanon.

On Sunday, the Saudi-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat claimed that Hariri decided to resign after he “received warnings from Western governments” that there would be an assassination plot against him. The newspaper did not name the Western governments, nor did it identify those who are allegedly trying to kill Hariri. Later on Sunday, Saudi television station al-Arabiya al-Hadath alleged that an assassination attempt against Hariri had been stopped at the last minute in the Lebanese capital Beirut earlier in the week. Both news media cited “sources close” to the Lebanese leader, but did not provide specific information, nor did they give details of the alleged plot or plots. It is worth noting, however, that Lebanese security officials denied these reports from Riyadh. Lebanese media quoted senior security official Major General Abbas Ibrahim as saying that no information about assassination plots had been uncovered. Major Ibrahim, who heads Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security, said that his agency had no information about attempts to kill Hariri or other Lebanese political figures.

This could mean that the information about a possible assassination plot against Hariri was given directly to him by Western intelligence agencies, probably because the latter fear that Lebanese security agencies are infiltrated by Hezbollah sympathizers. Or it could mean that the Saudi media reports are inaccurate. Lebanon is now awaiting further details by Hariri regarding the alleged assassination plot against him. In the meantime, the already fragile political life of Lebanon appears to be entering a period of prolonged uncertainty.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2017 | Permalink | Research Credit: B.M.

Analysis: Dozens of royals arrested in weekend raids throughout Saudi Arabia

King Salman with Crown Prince MohammedDozens of Saudi senior figures, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, have been fired or arrested, as the king and his son appeared to be removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the security services. The unprecedented arrests took place without warning less than two hours after state-run media announced the creation of a new “supreme committee to combat corruption”. A royal decree issued on the same day named the head of the committee as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne.

By Saturday night, nearly 50 senior officials, including at least 11 princes, had reportedly been fired or arrested. The substantial list features four current and at least 20 former ministers, most of them members of the Saudi royal family. Reports from Riyadh said that among those arrested were Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of the General Council for Islamic Banks, Arab media baron Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and one of the world’s wealthiest people. Prince Alwaleed is a major investor in technology companies such as Twitter and Apple, and is seen as a high-profile social reformer in the kingdom.

More importantly, Saturday saw the firing of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from the post of Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard Forces. He was replaced by Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, who until last week served as one of Prince Mutaib’s subordinates. The royal palace offered no precise explanation for the removal of Prince Mutaib and the three other government ministers. A statement released to the media said that the new effort against corruption was prompted by “the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds”. But there was no direct mention of Prince Mutaib in the statement, and no charges of corruption against him were made public. It is possible that the prince’s firing may not be directly related to the anticorruption drive.

However, few Saudi observers will believe that a genuine anticorruption crusade was behind last weekend’s arrests of senior officials. In a country were nepotism and corruption are not simply endemic, but serve as the driving engine of the economy, virtually nobody believes that the system can be reformed from within. Moreover, it cannot possibly be reformed by the royal family, which is the most prolific source of corruption in the oil-rich kingdom. So what exactly is going on?

Read more of this post

Netanyahu allegedly asked Trump to let spy Jonathan Pollard move to Israel

Jonathan PollardIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked the United States President Donald Trump to allow Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied on his country for Israel in the 1980s, to immigrate to Tel Aviv. Pollard, a former intelligence analyst for the US Navy, was released from an American prison in 2015, after serving 30 years for selling US government secrets to Israel. Throughout Pollard’s time in prison, the government of Israel lobbied for his release, claiming that the convicted spy did not harm American interests, but was simply trying to help Israel. But the US Intelligence Community has consistently rejected Israel’s claims, arguing that Pollard’s activities were severely detrimental to American interests. At the end, successive American presidents refused to pardon Pollard. He was released in November of 2015, after serving his entire 30-year sentence.

Pollard, who was given Israeli citizenship in recognition for his services to the Jewish state, has repeatedly stated his desire to renounce his American citizenship and immigrate to Israel. However, the conditions of his release prevent him from doing so. Since his release, he has been forced to wear a GPS monitoring device at all times and is not allowed to leave his New York apartment between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., nor is he allowed to leave the United States for any reason. It is speculated that this restriction is designed to prevent him from accessing close to $1 million in spy wages that his Israeli handlers are reputed to have deposited in a Swiss bank account.

But with a new administration now in Washington, the Israeli government believes that it may be able to press for the relaxation of some of the restrictions imposed on Pollard. According to the Israeli television station Channel 2, Prime Minister Netanyahu has personally lobbied President Trump to allow Pollard to leave America for Israel. According to the report, the Israeli prime minister told Mr. Trump that, if allowed to move to Israel, Pollard would abide by the same restrictions that he currently follows in New York. These reportedly include a strict daily curfew and limitations on foreign travel. Channel 2 said that Israeli is seeking to get custody of Pollard in return for its alleged efforts to re-enter negotiations with Fatah, the Palestinian group that governs the Occupied Territories. The television station said that American officials appear hesitant to allow Pollard to go to Israel. Even if Israel’s request is granted, the American side does not want to link Pollard’s case to the Arab-Israeli peace process, it said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 November 2017 | Permalink