Britain warns its citizens following detention of alleged Russian spies in Switzerland

Davos SwitzerlandA Swiss newspaper has revealed a previously unreported detention of two Russian diplomats in the luxury Swiss Alpine resort of Davos, which is currently hosting the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The development prompted British authorities to warn some British citizens participating in the WEF meeting that they may be in physical danger.

The brief detention of the two Russians allegedly occurred in August of last year in Davos, a mountain resort in the canton of Graubünden, which is located in Switzerland’s eastern Alps region. According to the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, local police detained two Russians during the period between August 8 and 28 of last year. Citing anonymous sources from the police and security services, the paper said that the authorities were alerted about the two Russians by employees at a local resort. The employees reportedly found it strange that the Russians had booked hotel rooms for over three weeks, which is unusually long for Davos’ ultra-luxury resort setting.

When police officers approached the two men and inquired about their background, one of them said he worked as a plumber. However, when asked to provide identification papers, both men reportedly produced Russian diplomatic passports. However, none had received accreditation by the Swiss government, which means they had not been formally registered as diplomats in the Alpine nation. When Swiss police officials contacted the Russian embassy in Bern to inquire about the two men, Russian officials “threatened diplomatic consequences if the men were arrested” said Tages-Anzeiger.

The two Russians were eventually released, as Swiss police “could not ascertain any reason to detain them”, said the paper. However, Swiss officials said that the two Russians “obviously […] had their sights on the WEF” and were probably planning to install surveillance equipment around the Swiss resort town. Soon after the Tages-Anzeiger report was published, British counterterrorism police reportedly warned a number of British citizens attending the WEF meeting that they might be in physical danger.

But the Russian embassy in Switzerland dismissed the Tages-Anzeiger report as “one more attempt to undermine Swiss-Russian relations”. Russian officials at the embassy accused Western countries of trying to “whip out a scandal out of nothing”, adding that Russian authorities had not been officially notified of the incident and that there was “no evidence of espionage” by the two men.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2020 | Permalink

Western intelligence agencies see non-Arab as new head of ISIS

Abdullah QardashWestern intelligence agencies have reportedly confirmed that a non-Arab is now leading the Islamic State for the first time in the organization’s history. Rumors of a new leader of the group began to circulate just hours after American forces killed its self-styled Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On October 27, 2019, Newsweek magazine reported that the militant group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had appointed a man known as Abdullah Qardash (pictured) at its helm. According to the magazine, Qardash’s name was sometimes spelled in English as Karshesh. Additionally, he was sometimes referred to by his ISIS moniker, Hajji Abdullah al-Afari.

However, the names reported by Newsweek were not immediately recognizable to Western intelligence officials and other experts who monitor the Islamic State. But now British newspaper The Guardian reports that Western intelligence services have concluded that the man referred to as “Abdullah Qardash” in October is indeed the new leader of ISIS. The paper said on Monday that the new ISIS leader’s birth name is Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi. He is allegedly not an Arab, but rather an Iraqi Turkman whose family comes from Tal Afar, a northwestern Iraqi city that is close to the borders of Syria and Turkey. In fact, al-Salbi is reported to have a brother in Turkey, who is a prominent member of an ethic political grouping called the Turkmen Iraqi Front.

Al-Salbi, who was allegedly appointed as leader of ISIS just hours after al-Baghdadi’s demise, is believed to be the first non-Arab to ever lead the militant group. Like most of ISIS’ original founders, al-Salbi is believed to have met Baghdadi in 2004 in Camp Bucca, an American-administered prison in Umm Qasr. Similarly to al-Baghadi, al-Salbi’s background is in Islamic education —something that enabled him to quickly rise in the ranks of ISIS ideologues and command significant influence. By 2018, al-Salbi had become a central decision-maker within the group, and was able to shape its activities and policies within its territory in the Middle East and beyond. The Guardian article concludes that al-Salbi is “a hardened veteran in the same vein as al-Baghdadi”, which implies that no major changes in the Islamic State’s strategy are expected to take place under his leadership.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2020 | Permalink

Iran threatens to retaliate against Greece if US uses military bases to launch attack

Iran embassy GreeceIran has issued a warning against Greece, saying that it will retaliate if the United States attacks the Islamic Republic using its military bases on Greek soil. It is the first time that Iran has threatened to launch attacks against a member of the European Union in connection with the recent rise in tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Iranian officials issued the warning against Greece in response to comments made by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during his recent visit to the White House, which coincided with the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by the US. Speaking about Soleimani’s killing, Mitsotakis said that “we [Greeks] are allies with the US, so we stand by our allies through difficult times”. And he continued: “I understand this particular decision was taken by taking into consideration what is the US national interest, and we stand by that decision”.

Iran’s response to the Greek prime minister’s comments came in a letter that was sent by the Iranian embassy in Athens to one of Greece’s leading broadsheets, Kathimerini. The letter pointed out that Greece and Iran enjoyed “friendly, traditional and historical relations”. Given “the absence of any differences or tension between [the two countries] in recent centuries”, said the letter, “we believe that [Mr. Mitsotakis’] statement cannot be the official position of the Greek government”. It went on to warn that “The Islamic Republic of Iran has made it very clear that in the event of a US-led war against the country, the concession of [military] bases by any country to the American invader will be considered a hostile act and Iran reserves the right to respond in a clear and decisive manner”.

Last weekend, Greece’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Nikos Dendias, revealed that the Iranian government had delivered a statement to his office, protesting Mitsotakis’ comments. But he added that he had not had a chance to read it. He also said that his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had asked to speak with him about Greece’s stance in the US-Iran dispute.

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

Chaos in Sudan as spy agency staff stage armed uprising against government

Sudan civil unrestThere was chaos in the Sudanese capital Khartoum yesterday, as hundreds of members of Sudan’s intelligence agency staged an armed uprising against the country’s new government. At least five people —including two soldiers— are believed to have died in the uprising, while several dozen intelligence officers were reportedly arrested.

The uprising comes nine months after a student-led revolution toppled Sudan’s long-time dictator, Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese military eventually stepped in and took power, promising to stabilize the country and hold democratic elections. Since coming to power, the new government has been trying to disarm and disempower Sudan’s feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). Its employees have been offered retirement packages in return for surrendering their weapons. The government’s plan is to replace them with a non-militarized intelligence force.

But NISS officers have rejected the proposed retirement packages and seek higher compensation amounts for themselves and their subordinates. It appears that several hundred NISS officers staged a coordinated uprising in the early hours of Wednesday, in Khartoum and other locations around the country. According to reports, the mutineers took over two oil fields in Sudan’s East Darfur state, and threatened to take over the Khartoum International Airport.

At a press conference held on Wednesday morning, Sudan’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Osman Mohamed al-Hassan, told reporters that the mutineers were confronted by soldiers who “stormed their bases”. The airport and the two oil fields had been secured by Wednesday afternoon, but reports stated that at least five people, including three civilians, died in the process. Late on Wednesday, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who chairs Sudan’s transitional governing council, announced on television that NISS Director General Abu Bakr Mustafa had tendered his resignation. He also said that over 40 NISS officers had been arrested.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 January 2020 | Permalink

In surprise move, Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs meet in Moscow

Turkey SyriaIn a move that surprised observers, the intelligence chiefs of Turkey and Syria —two bitter rivals in the ongoing Syrian civil war— met in Russia on Monday. The meeting was held in Moscow and was acknowledged by officials from both sides, making it the first explicit contact between Turkish and Syrian intelligence in over a decade.

The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly called for the toppling of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. The Turkish strongman regularly refers to al-Assad as a “terrorist” and blames him for clandestinely supporting Kurdish paramilitaries, who have waged a war of secession against Ankara for several decades.

Regional dynamics shifted radically since early 2017, however, when the United States began withdrawing from the conflict. In the following months, Washington lifted its support for a collection of rebels fighting against the Syrian president. Last year, the US military left northern Syria and allowed Turkish troops to invade the region, with the aim of repelling armed Kurdish units from the Syrian-Turkish border.

Throughout this time, there have been rumors of intelligence coordination between Ankara and Damascus, but no official acknowledgement was ever issued. On Monday, however, Syria’s government-owned news agency, SANA, said that a meeting had taken place in Moscow between the heads of intelligence of Syria and Turkey. Shortly afterwards, a number of anonymous Turkish officials confirmed these reports to the Reuters news agency.

Reuters reported that the two sides discussed the state of the ceasefire in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, and future steps aimed at coordinating against the presence of armed Kurdish separatists in northern Syrian regions. It quoted one Turkish official who said that the two intelligence agencies were exploring “the possibility of working together” against separatist Kurdish groups on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 January 2020 | Permalink

MI5 director plays down US threat to end intelligence sharing over Huawei

Sir Andrew ParkerThe director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency has dismissed warnings by the United States that intelligence sharing between the two allies will be impeded if London decides to use Chinese-made telecommunications hardware. The British government has come under relentless pressure by Washington to bar Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, from competing for contracts to build the United Kingdom’s 5th generation cellular communications infrastructure.

In recent years, Huawei has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an worldwide campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with some if its allies, notably Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies. Last year, Washington warned two of its main European allies, Britain and Germany, that it would stop sharing intelligence with them if they allowed Huawei to compete for 5G contracts.

But in an interview with The Financial Times, Sir Andrew Parker, head of the Security Service (MI5), said on Sunday that he didn’t believe Britain’s intelligence-sharing relationship with America would be impacted by the decision. When asked whether Washington would stop sharing intelligence with London if the British government allowed a bid by Huawei, Sir Andrew said he had “no reason today to think that”. He added that Britain’s intelligence relations with the US, and with other close allies, such as Canada and Australia, were “the strongest they’ve ever been”. Britain’s intelligence partnership with America “is, of course, of great importance to us”, said Sir Andrew, and went on: “I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It is a two-way street”.

Meanwhile was reported over the weekend that a high-level delegation from the National Security Agency —America’s largest intelligence agency— and the US National Economic Council would be in London today, in what appears to be a final effort to persuade London not to cooperate with Huawei. Prior to her resignation last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May had reportedly decided to allow the Chinese firm to compete for 5G contracts. Her successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is reputed to be in agreement with that decision. Last April, German intelligence official also dismissed American warnings that intelligence sharing with Berlin would end if Huawei built any part of the German 5G network.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 January 2020 | Permalink

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post