Far-right spy row continues to rock Germany’s ruling coalition

Hans-Georg MaassenThe successor to Angela Merkel in the leadership of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) urged the removal from the party of the country’s former spy chief for expressing far-right views. But she later appeared to retract her comments. Hans-Georg Maassen led Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) from August 2012 until his removal last September. His BfV career was abruptly terminated following the so-called Chemnitz protests, a series of anti-immigrant rallies, pogroms and riots that shook the eastern German city of Chemnitz in August of last year. Maassen gave an interview at the time in which he seemed to question the authenticity of videos that surfaced on social media, which showed protesters throwing Nazi salutes and singing Nazi-era songs. The BfV director said that the videos may have been faked as part of a disinformation campaign aimed at stirring racial tensions in Germany. He was promptly dismissed from his post.

Following his dismissal from the BfV, Maassen joined the Werteunion (Values Union), an ultra-conservative group within the CDU, which campaigns for strict anti-immigration laws. Its leader, CDU politician Alexander Mitsch, argues that the CDU should not rule out a governing alliance with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD is a coalition of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi groups that has gained prominence since its establishment in 2013 and currently polls at around 12 percent nationwide. Mitsch’s view goes against the CDU’s recent decision at its annual conference to rule out any collaboration with the AfD and Die Linke, Germany’s main far-left party. Maassen has also given media interviews in which he has criticized the CDU for “moving far to the left” under the leadership of Angela Merkel.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Angela Merkel to the leadership of the CDU, and is tipped to become Germany’s next chancellor, gave an interview on Saturday, in which she dismissed Maassen’s views as nonsense. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is currently serving as minister of defense, told the Funke Medien media agency she was pleased that Maassen had been dismissed from the directorship of the BfV. She added that she could not see anything in Maassen’s political views that connected him to the CDU. Kramp-Karrenbauer went on to say that she would not allow the CDU to be “radicalized from the inside” like the United States Republican Party had been radicalized by the Tea Party. This was widely interpreted as a call for Maassen and other Werteunion supporters to either resign or be expelled from the party.

On Sunday, however, Kramp-Karrenbauer spoke to the media again, this time to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) news agency, saying that “neither during the [Funke Medien] interview nor elsewhere did I call for a party expulsion procedure” of Maassen and other Werteunion members. She continued by saying that “the CDU is a party with more than 400,000 members. The fact that each one has different opinions is what makes us interesting”. Meanwhile, Maassen told DPA, “it is a mystery to me who advised her to conjure up such thoughts”, referring to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s Saturday interview.

In September and October the CDU will be facing the AfD and several other parties in regional elections that will be taking place in three eastern German states, where the AfD is particularly strong. Many fear that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s party will see its electoral power shrink with many of its voters flocking to the anti-immigration AfD.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 August 2019 | Permalink

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Security official confirms ‘unprecedented’ anti-corruption campaign in Iran’s judiciary

Ebrahim RaeesiA senior Iranian intelligence official has confirmed widespread rumors that an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign is taking place at the top echelons of Iran’s all-powerful judiciary, with some senior figures already in prison. The Iranian judiciary is one of the most powerful and secretive institutions in the Islamic Republic. It is nominally supervised by the Iranian Justice Ministry, but its senior officials, including the chief justice (the head of the judiciary), are appointed directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It follows that the judiciary has been a deeply conservative institution throughout the country’s existence, and especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Until earlier this year, the judiciary was headed by Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, a protégé of Khamenei, who named him chief justice in August of 2009. Throughout Larijani’s decade-long tenure, there were rumors of rampant corruption in the judiciary, but Khamenei never seemed to intervene. However, in March of this year Larijani was suddenly removed from his position and replaced with Ebrahim Raeesi (pictured), a conservative former attorney general with middle-to-low-rank clerical credentials. Almost as soon as he took charge of the judiciary, Raeesi announced a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. In July, rumors began to circulate in the media that Iran’s Deputy Chief Justice, Akbar Tabari, had been arrested.

On Wednesday, Ali Abdollahi, head of the judiciary’s intelligence and security wing, said during a speech that Tabari had indeed been imprisoned for “exerting influence on some legal cases” and “having unlawful and unethical relationships”. He added that a number of other members of the judiciary had been placed under arrest in connection with the investigation on Tabari. On Thursday, Abdollahi said that the arrests had taken place under the direction of Supreme Leader Khamenei and that they would continue both inside and outside the judiciary. There would be “no delay in cleansing the inside and outside of the judiciary”, said Abdollahi. Raeesi and Khamenei have not made any public comments. But observers now believe that the unprecedented wave of arrests would never have reached the upper levels of the judiciary unless the supreme leader had personally given the anti-corruption campaign the green light.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2019 | Permalink

Spies are known to use journalistic cover, claims Australian intelligence agency

ASIO AustraliaForeign spies are known to pose as journalists, which is why journalists should not be exempted from national security investigations, according to testimony by a senior Australian counterintelligence official. The testimony was given on Wednesday at a public hearing held in the Australian parliament to address a series of raids of journalists’ homes and offices by Australian Federal Police in June. The raids were carried out to assist in the investigation of a leak of classified documents in April of last year. According to the leaked documents, Australian government officials have been considering the possibility of authorizing the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) to collect information on Australians for the first time in the country’s history. The ASD is Australia’s signals intelligence agency, and is equivalent to the Government Communications Headquarters in Britain and the National Security Agency in the United States. It is currently not allowed to collect information on Australian citizens.

At the parliamentary inquiry that started on Monday, members of the media have argued that journalists should have the right to scrutinize the government’s actions and that journalism in the public interest is not harmful to the national security of Australia. But this argument was refuted yesterday by Heather Cook, deputy director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Australia’s primary counterintelligence agency. Cook warned that if Australia exempted journalists from national security investigations, hostile foreign powers would exploit journalism to spy on the country. She added that the journalistic profession was being “used nefariously” by foreign intelligence agencies to spy on Australia. “In Australia today, journalism is being used as a cover by foreign intelligence actors”, said Cook, and went on to note that “there is a long history of this worldwide”. She said that journalism offers a convenient cover for spies because it provides “access to senior people and sensitive information” held by those in power.

Journalistic covers are therefore used by “foreign intelligence actors” who seek to “exploit vulnerabilities” and harm the security of Australia, said Cook. She went on to claim that members of foreign intelligence agencies regularly attempt to recruit Australian journalists for purposes of espionage. “In light of this”, said Cook, “ASIO has concern about the concept of exemptions for particular classes of people in the community, such as journalists. Broad exemptions for the media and journalists would invite exploitation by foreign intelligence actors and may increase the intelligence threat faced by Australian journalists”, she concluded. Also on Wednesday, the Australian Federal Police said that it would not rule out further raids on journalists’ offices and homes.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Iran’s energy sector is now a high-stakes espionage target

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryThe state-owned energy sector of Iran, one of the world’s most lucrative, has become a major target of international espionage since the imposition of new sanctions by the United States this year. The purpose of Washington’s sanctions is to limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to export energy, and by doing so end the country’s reliance on its primary source of income. It is estimated that Tehran’s energy exports have fallen by about 80 percent during the past year, and may continue to fall if the US has its way. This means that American and Iranian intelligence agencies are currently engaged in an intense war of espionage that concentrates on what remains of Iran’s oil exports. Iran continues to entice international buyers by selling energy at below-market prices, while sales are facilitated through the use of throwaway bank accounts that are difficult to trace. Exports are then carefully smuggled into overseas destinations through a variety of means.

In an article published last week, The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi explains that every snippet of information about Iran’s oil industry has now become “a prized geopolitical weapon” in a “a high-stakes global game of espionage and counterespionage”. Fassihi quotes a recent statement by Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh that “information about Iran’s oil exports is war information”. That includes information on how Iran manages to deliver its exports abroad and how it gets paid for doing so. Once the US tightened its sanctions on Tehran, Iranian energy officials began to suspect that most inquiries to purchase oil were from foreign spies in search of information on the methods of transaction, writes Fassihi. So the Ministry of Petroleum stopped allowing thousands of freelance energy brokers to mediate between it and buyers. It proceeded to concentrate all transactions into the hands of fewer than five vetted individuals with prior tenure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other vetted government agencies. It also began to train Ministry officials on security and counterespionage protocols.

When the Iranians made it difficult to access information through the Ministry of Petroleum, foreign spy agencies changed their tactics, writes Fassihi. They used foreign academic researchers, including PhD students, who offered payments in hard cash for information on Iranian oil export methods that would help them in their research. Others descended on Tehran offering visas to the US, alcohol, prostitutes, and cash payments ranging from $100,000 to over $1 million in exchange for intelligence on the Iranian energy export sector. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the Iranian capital, writes Fassihi, and the process of purchasing oil from Iran resembles a Hollywood spy thriller. Representatives of foreign buyers are asked to come to Tehran in person and are regularly required to switch hotels in the middle of the night. Additionally, once a transaction is agreed upon, the buyer’s representative is required to stay at a Petroleum Ministry safe house until the funds are transferred into Iranian government coffers. After that, the representative is allowed to leave, writes Fassihi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2019 | Permalink

French intelligence made secret deal with Palestinian militants, ex-spy chief claims

Goldenberg RestaurantFrance allowed Palestinian militants to operate freely on its soil in exchange for not carrying out terrorist attacks there, according to the former director of France’s domestic security service. The alleged deal was struck between the French government and a die-hard Palestinian militant group known as the Abu Nidal Organization, or ANO. The group’s official name was Fatah – The Revolutionary Council, but it was usually referred to by the name of its founder and leader, Abu Nidal. The group was formed in 1974 after a split in Fatah, the Palestinian armed group led by Yasser Arafat. Abu Nidal (real name Sabri Khalil al-Banna) accused Arafat and other senior officials of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of being conciliatory toward Israel. Eventually Abu Nidal moved to Iraq and declared war on Fatah and the PLO, accusing them of betraying the Palestinian cause.

Over the next 20 years, ANO carried out dozens of violent attacks that killed over 1500 people around the world, in countries such as Britain, Austria, Italy, Tunisia, Sudan, Turkey, Pakistan and India. The main targets of the ANO were Israel, the United States, and other Palestinian groups, which the group saw as deserters from the struggle for an independent Palestine. On August 9, 1982, ANO guerillas used grenades and machine guns to attack the Goldenberg Restaurant in Paris, France, killing six and wounding 22 people (pictured above). The attackers fled the scene of the crime and were never captured. It was only in 2015 that some former ANO members provided evidence about the terrorist attack to French magistrates, after having been granted immunity from prosecution. Based on these testimonies, the French government issued arrest warrants for three of the attackers who today live in Europe and Palestine. None, however, have been extradited to France to face justice.

The plot thickened last Thursday, however, when France’s Le Parisien newspaper reported excerpts of testimonies given to the magistrates who are investigating the Goldenberg Restaurant attack. One of the testimonies was allegedly provided by former spy Yves Bonnet, who directed the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) in the 1980s. Until 2008 the DST operated as the counterintelligence and counterterrorism wing of the French National Police. According to Le Parisien, Bonnet, now 83, said in his testimony that the DST struck a deal with Abu Nidal after 1982, which allowed them to continue to operate in France on the understanding that they would not carry out further terrorist attacks on French soil. “We made something of an oral agreement”, Bonnet is quoted as having told the magistrates. “I want no further attacks on French soil, and in return I will allow you to enter France and promise that you will face no harm”. The former spy added that the DST informed the chief of staff of France’s president at the time, François Mitterrand, about the secret deal. However, nothing about the agreement was ever recorded in official meeting minutes, he said. The agreement between the DST and Abu Nidal “was successful”, said Bonnet, as the group carried no more attacks on French soil after the attack on the Goldenberg Restaurant.

As can be expected, the allegations by Le Parisien angered France’s Jewish community. A committee representing the victims and affected families of the Goldenberg Restaurant attack said through its lawyer that, if true, Bonnet’s admission was “disgraceful”. The committee called on the French government to declassify all documents relating to exchanges between the French state and the Abu Nidal Organization.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 August 2019 | Permalink

Despite imminent US-Taliban deal, CIA plans to keep proxy units in Afghanistan

Armed guerillas Khost AfghanistanThe United States Central Intelligence Agency plans to retain a strong presence on the ground in Afghanistan, despite reports that American troops may soon be leaving the country following a deal with the Taliban. Several news outlets reported this week that Washington has resolved its differences with the Taliban about withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, after receiving assurances by the Taliban that they will not cooperate with other militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. An announcement of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban may thus be imminent. But in an article for Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinski points out that the CIA is not planning to leave the Central Asian country any time soon.

The American intelligence agency is known to support, arm and train several proxy forces throughout Afghanistan. Langley plans to keep those proxy forces operating in the country for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether US troops pull out, says Glinski. She gives the example of the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a 6,500-strong unit of Afghan soldiers who are “trained, equipped and funded by the CIA”. The KPF is the most active and visible of an extensive network of CIA-sponsored paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. It operates almost exclusively along the Afghan-Pakistani border and has a strong presence in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, Paktia and Khost. The roots of the KPF go back to the days immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which prompted the US military invasion of Afghanistan. It therefore precedes the Afghan National Army, Afghanistan’s state-run military apparatus, and does not operate under its command. Instead, it is solely directed by the CIA, which uses it to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border and disrupt the activities of Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters in the Afghan borderlands.

Members of the KPF claim that they are “better trained than the Afghan National Army”. They are also paid much better, over $1000.00 per month, which is an enormous sum for Afghanistan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Glinski reports that most KPF fighters joined the group for the money and the ability to eventually seek permanent resettlement in the United States. But alongside the group’s elite image, KPF members have acquired notoriety and are often seen as trigger-happy and unaccountable. Several reports in Western media have said that the KPF’s tactical accomplishments have come at a high price, with countless reports of civilian deaths and, some claim, even war crimes. These risk “alienating the Afghan population”, said a New York Times report last year. Glinski says it is possible the KPF’s aggressive tactics may be “radicalizing portions of the very population it intends to pacify or frighten into submission”. In April of this year, a United Nations report alleged that more Afghan civilians died as a result of attacks by Afghan government and American military attacks than at the hands of the Taliban and other guerilla groups. The CIA did not respond to several requests for comment from Foreign Policy, says Glinski.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Tension grows between Iraqi state and Shiite militias that helped fight ISIS

Popular Mobilization ForcesA powerful alliance of about 50 Shiite militias, who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, is resisting calls by the Iraqi government to surrender its weapons and join civilian life, according to observers on the ground. 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 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of ISIS. 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 of the latter’s proximity to the United States.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, northern Iraqi cities like Mosul, Bashiqa and Nineveh are largely under the command of the PMF today, a full 18 months after they were recaptured from ISIS. All political and economic activity in the region is controlled by PMF fighters operating under the command of the 30th Brigade, which is one of the most hardline pro-Iranian militias in the PMF. It is alleged that the militias receive economic kickbacks from Shiite-owned Iraqi firms who are awarded multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post and other news media have reported, PMF militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families. There are also allegations, made by Deutsche Welle and other Western media, that the PMF has conducted mass executions of Iraqi Sunnis as part of its goal to rid Iraq of Sunni Islam.

Last month, Iraqi Armed Forces tried to dismantle PMF-controlled checkpoints into Mosul, but was confronted by armed PMF forces who refused to cede contro. Following the failed attempt to recapture the checkpoints, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned the PMF that it had until July 31 to disband. Its members were called to join a newly established gendarmerie under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Failure to do so would mean that the militias would be considered outlaws and would be treated as such by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister warned. But the PMF has requested more time to lay down its weapons, as some of its more moderate commanders are trying to convince the Iran-aligned militias to declare allegiance to a state army that they consider to be pro-American. The future will show how likely that is to happen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2019 | Permalink