US arrests Mexican man for spying for Russia in mystery case involving informant

FBI MiamiThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested a Mexican man, who is accused of spying in the city of Miami on behalf of the Russian government. Local media reports suggest that the target of the man’s spying was a Russian defector who gave American authorities information about Russian espionage activities on US soil.

In a news release issued on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice identified the man as Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, a Mexican citizen residing in Singapore. The statement said that Fuentes was arrested on Monday and was charged with “conspiracy” and “acting within the United States on behalf of a foreign government”.

According to the statement, Fuentes was recruited in April of 2019 by an unnamed Russian government official. His first assignment was to rent an apartment in Miami-Dade County using fake identification. One he carried out the assignment, Fuentes allegedly traveled to Russia, where he briefed his handler. He was then asked to return to Miami and drive to an apartment complex, where he was to observe a vehicle belonging to an individual that the Department of Justice statement describes as a “US government source”. Fuentes was tasked with providing his Russian handler with the vehicle’s license plate number.

Having been given a detailed physical description of the vehicle by his Russian handler, Fuentes drove to the apartment complex in Miami, but was stopped at the entrance to the complex by a security guard. While Fuentes was speaking with the security guard, Fuentes’ wife allegedly exited the car and took a photograph of the vehicle in question. According to the FBI, she later shared the photograph with Fuentes’ Russian handler on the mobile phone application WhatsApp. The photograph was discovered by US Customs and Border Protection agents on the smartphone of Fuentes’ wife on Sunday, as the pair tried to board a flight to Mexico City.

The US Department of Justice news release does not identify Fuentes’ alleged espionage target. But an article in The Miami Herald claims that the target is an FBI informant who has provided the Bureau’s counterintelligence division with critical information about Russian espionage operations in the Miami area. Fuentes is scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial detention hearing this coming Friday. His arraignment has been scheduled for March 3. The press release does not explain why Fuentes’ wife was not arrested.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2020 | Permalink

Swiss neutrality ‘shattered’ as leading cryptologic firm revealed to be CIA front

Crypto AGSwitzerland is reeling from the shock caused by revelations last week that Crypto AG, the world’s leading manufacturer or cryptologic equipment during the Cold War, whose clients included over 120 governments around the world, was a front company owned by the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

The revelation, published last Tuesday by The Washington Post and the German public broadcaster ZDF, confirmed rumors that had been circulating since the early 1980s, that Crypto AG had made a secret deal with the US government. It was believed that the Swiss-based company had allowed the US National Security Agency to read the classified messages of dozens of nations that purchased Crypto AG’s encoding equipment. These rumors were further-substantiated in 2015, when a BBC investigation unearthed evidence of a “gentleman’s agreement”, dating to 1955, between a leading NSA official and Boris Hagelin, the Norwegian-born founder and owner of Crypto AG.

But the reality of this alleged secret pact appears to have been even more controversial. According to last week’s revelations, the CIA and West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) secretly purchased the Swiss company and paid off most of its senior executives in order to buy their silence. The secret deal allegedly allowed the US and West Germany to spy on the classified government communications of several of their adversaries —and even allies, including Italy, Spain and Greece, as well as Austria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

What is more, the secret CIA/BND partnership with Crypto AG was known to senior British and Israeli officials, and information derived from it was routinely shared with them. Government officials in Switzerland and even Sweden were aware that Crypto AG had been compromised, but remained silent.

American and German authorities have not commented on the revelations. But the story has monopolized Swiss media headlines for several days. Some news outlets have opined that the traditional Swiss concept of political neutrality has been “shattered”. Meanwhile, a Swiss federal judge has opened an investigation into the revelations, as the Swiss parliament is preparing to launch an official inquiry. Switzerland’s Prime Minister, Simonetta Sommaruga, said on Sunday that the government would discuss the issue “when we have the facts”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 February 2020 | Permalink

Pakistani Taliban leaders found dead in Kabul hotel, culprits unknown

Inter-Continental Hotel KabulTwo senior members of the Pakistani Taliban, who were carrying fake identification documents, were reportedly assassinated earlier this month in the vicinity of a luxury hotel in the Afghan capital Kabul. The culprits remain unknown, although the leadership of the Pakistani Taliban has blamed the United States for their death.

According to the BBC, which reported on the incident on Friday, the bodies of the two men were found in or near the Inter-Continental, a five-star hotel located in western Kabul. According to Afghan government sources, the two men were carrying forged identification papers. In a statement issued on Thursday, the Pakistani Taliban identified the dead men as Sheikh Khalid Haqqani and Qari Saif Younis. Sheikh Haqqani had served as the group’s deputy leader, and was a member of its leadership council. Younis was among the group’s most powerful military commanders.

The Pakistani Taliban said that the two men had secretly traveled to Kabul from Paktika, a Taliban stronghold in the east-central region of Afghanistan, in order to attend a high-level meeting. The group did not say who the two men were meeting and why. But it is rare for leading figures of the Pakistani Taliban to leave the areas that the group controls, and even rarer for them to travel to Kabul or any other big city in the region.

The statement from the Pakistani Taliban claimed that the two men were killed “in a clash with American forces”. But the BBC quoted an unnamed “source within the group” who said that they could also have been targeted by militant groups linked to the Pakistani government, which is a sworn enemy of the Pakistani Taliban. United States officials have yet to comment on this developing story.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 February 2020 | Permalink

US threatens to de-fund Africa disease control program over Chinese influence

African UnionThe United States has threatened to pull its funding for an Africa-wide disease control program if the African Union decides to accept an offer from China to build the program’s new headquarters. The dispute accentuates a growing competition between Washington and Beijing to exert political control in Africa and places the African Union at the center of a difficult dilemma.

The quarrel concerns the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or Africa CDC, a network of five biomedical research hubs that are located in Zambia, Kenya, Gabon, Nigeria and Egypt. The network was established in 2017 in response to the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in western Africa. Its mission is to gather data that can help monitor and contain disease outbreaks and other health crises throughout the continent. The network’s central hub is located at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Africa CDC is an initiative of the African Union, but it is partly funded by outside countries and bodies, including China, the United States, and the World Bank. Washington supported the establishment of Africa CDC with a donation of $14 million, and an offer to pay the project director’s salary, as well as assign scientists to work there from the US CDC. But the United States has expressed concerns about a recent offer by China to double its funding of Africa CDC and to build a the organization’s new headquarters, at the cost of $80 million. Foreign affairs ministers from the African Union’s 55 states began discussing Beijing’s offer on Thursday during a meeting in Ethiopia.

There are some among them who question China’s intentions. They refer to news reports that surfaced in the French press in 2018, according to which the Chinese-built headquarters of the African Union was comprehensively ‘bugged’ by Beijing. According to the reports, the $200 million, 19-storey skyscraper in the Ethiopian capital was hardwired with computer servers that secretly communicate with Chinese government computers, without the consent of African Union network managers.

On Thursday The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous United States government official, who said that “if the Chinese build the headquarters [of Africa CDC], the US will have nothing to do with” the organization. The African Union has not commented on The Journal’s article.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 February 2020 | Permalink

 

United States quietly scraps joint anti-terrorist intelligence project with Turkey

Incirlik TurkeyThe United States has indefinitely suspended a longstanding military intelligence-sharing program with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey. The program, which targets a Kurdish separatist group, is believed to have been in place since 2007. According to the Reuters news agency, which published the story on Wednesday, it has never before been reported on by news media.

The joint intelligence-sharing program targets the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that campaigns for a separate homeland for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Washington and Ankara have both designated the group a terrorist organization, and have been working jointly to combat it since at least 1997. According to Reuters, the United States military has been carrying out surveillance on the PKK using unmanned surveillance drones that fly out of Turkey’s Incirlik air base. Much of the surveillance focuses on the regions of Turkey that border with Iraq and Syria, where the PKK has a strong grassroots presence.

But Washington decided to suspend the program indefinitely last October, said Reuters. The decision was allegedly taken after Turkish troops invaded Syria in order to push back Kurdish rebels and establish a Kurdish-free buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The news agency cited four American officials, who did not wish to identify themselves, “due to the sensitivity of the matter”. It also cited an unnamed Turkish official, who confirmed that the intelligence-collection program had been terminated.

The American officials told Reuters that the suspension of the program would place strains on the ability of the Turkish military to respond to the challenges of its ongoing guerrilla war against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, as well as within Turkey. It will also make “the anti-PKK campaign more […] costly for Turkey”, one of the officials told the news agency.

Reuters said it contacted the United States Department of Defense, but was told by a spokeswoman that the Pentagon would “not provide details on operational matters”. A spokesperson from the United States Department of State told Reuters that its representatives could “not comment on intelligence matters”. The Turkish Ministry of Defense did not return requests for comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 February 2020 | Permalink

Denmark arrests three Iranian separatists for spying for Saudi Arabia

Finn Borch AndersenAuthorities in Denmark have announced the arrests of three Iranian Arab separatists, who are charged with carrying out espionage on behalf of the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia. The arrests were announced on Monday by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, known as PET.

According to the PET, the three Iranians are members of a group calling itself the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA). Known also as Al-Ahwaziya, the group was established in 1980. It calls for a separate state for ethnic Arabs who live the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, in Iran’s southwest.

PET director Finn Borch Andersen told reporters on Monday that the three Iranians were recruited in 2012 by the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), Saudi Arabia’s primary intelligence agency. They allegedly spied on pro-Iranian groups and individuals in Denmark and other countries northern Europe on behalf of the GID. They reported regularly to their handler, who was an undercover intelligence officer at the Saudi embassy in Copenhagen, according to the PET.

In October 2018, one of the three Iranian men was targeted for assassination by Iranian intelligence, but Danish authorities managed to prevent it with an elaborate security operation. A Norwegian man of Iranian background was arrested during the operation and remains in detention in Denmark. Throughout that time, the PET continued to monitor the three Iranian separatists, and proceeded to arrest them this week.

Late on Monday, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Saudi ambassador to Copenhagen in order to file an official complaint about Saudi espionage activities on Danish soil. According to the Danish media, the ambassador of Denmark to Saudi Arabia contacted the oil kingdom’s government to protest about the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 February 2020 | Permalink

ISIS is tenacious, well-funded and quickly reasserting itself, new UN report warns

Islamic State ISISThe Islamic State remains committed to its goals and continues to utilize ample funding sources, according to a new report by the United Nations. The report warns that the militant Sunni group, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is quickly reasserting itself in the Middle East.

The report (.pdf) was authored by a committee of the UN’s Security Council that monitors the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions designed to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and groups aligned with them. It was completed on January 20 and submitted to the UN Security Council last week. Its authors state that the information used to compile it came from intelligence shared with the UN by its member states.

The report recognizes that the Islamic State has suffered significant defeats in the field of battle, which have shattered its once formidable military and logistical power. Despite these setbacks, however, the militant group remains “tenacious and well-funded”, with much of its financial income stemming from sound investing practices in business opportunities throughout the Middle East, says the report. Meanwhile, its armed units in Syria continue to sell protection and carry out extortion, now even during daylight hours, it adds. The group’s steady funding even allows it to continue to provide monthly pensions to close family members of its dead fighters.

Additionally, says the report, the Islamic State has learned to take advantage of the deficiencies of Syrian and Iraqi security forces, and is now carrying out progressively brazen armed attacks against a variety of military and civilian targets. Although it is operationally weak, it continues to aspire to launch attacks in Europe in the future. Additionally, its leaders continue to seek ways of freeing thousands of the group’s supporters from detention camps in Syria and Iraq.

The report concludes that the death of the group’s leader, Abu Bark al-Baghdadi, and his replacement by Amir al-Salbi (also known as Abdullah Qardash) is not expected to signal drastic changes in the Islamic State’s strategic direction. However, Qardash is not an Arab and may not stay at the group’s helm for long, as an Arab Emir would be more likely to be met with acceptance by the group’s wilayats, or provinces, the report adds.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 February 2020 | Permalink