Emirati royal seeks asylum in rival Qatar in unprecedented move

Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-SharqiA member of one of the United Arab Emirates’ seven royal families has defected to Qatar and asked for political asylum, in what appears to be the first time that an Emirati royal has publicly turned against the oil-rich kingdom. In May of last year, the UAE joined an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which broke off all diplomatic relations with Qatar. The coalition accuses the tiny oil kingdom of clandestinely supporting Iran and funding Iranian-backed militant groups in the region. The UAE also participates in an ongoing large-scale commercial embargo against Qatar, which observers say is part of the regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

But on the morning of May 16, 2018, security officers in the Qatari capital Doha were stunned when an Emirati royal appeared before them and asked for political asylum and protection from the UAE. The royal was Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad al-Sharqi, the second son of the emir of Fujairah, one of the seven kingdoms that form the UAE. As a son of Fujairah’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sharqi, Sheikh Rashid, 31, had been placed in charge of the kingdom’s state-owned media arm. But in a stunning development, which appears to be a first in the 47-year history of the UAE, the prince has now defected to the UAE’s rival Qatar, and is publicly airing criticism of the UAE’s secretive rulers. In an interview with The New York Times last weekend, the prince provided what the paper described as “a rare glimpse into tensions among the rulers of the UAE” —especially between the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, which dominates the UAE, and the other six kingdoms.

Sheikh Rashid told The Times that Emirati officials were displeased with the country’s military intervention in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling against Iranian-backed rebels. The increasingly bloody war is now in its third year without a clear end in sight. According to the prince, the rulers of Abu Dhabi have repeatedly failed to consult the country’s six remaining kingdoms before making major decisions about the war in Yemen. The sheikh also accused the leadership of the UAE of money laundering, and claimed that it was routine for UAE royals like himself to be asked by the country’s rulers to make secret payments “to people he did not know in other countries”, in direct violation of international money-laundering laws. Prince Rashid also alleged that the UAE government had tried to blackmail him by threatening to reveal audiovisual material that would discredit his reputation.

The Times said it reached out to the government of the Emirate of Fujairah, but its messages were not returned. The paper also contacted the UAE’s embassy in Washington, DC, but officials there declined to comment. For the time being, Sheikh Rashid remains at an unspecified location in Qatar, but the Qatari government will not comment as to his whereabouts.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 July 2018 | Permalink

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Greece expels Russian diplomats who ‘tried to bribe Greek officials’

Greece RussiaIn a rare moment of downturn in relations between Athens and Moscow, Greece has expelled two Russian diplomats and refused to accredit two more, reportedly for “undermining Greek national security”. Greece was not among nearly 30 countries that expelled or refused to accredit over 150 Russian diplomats in March, in an act of solidarity with the United Kingdom. The expulsions came in response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former intelligence officer who had been living in England since 2010. Britain accused the Kremlin of having sponsored the attack on Skripal. But the Greek government, which has enjoyed warm relations with Moscow for decades, warned against unduly aggressive measures against the Kremlin.

Things changed swiftly on Wednesday, however, when Athens announced the surprise expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the Greek capital. One of the two diplomats has been named as Victor Yakovlev, third secretary of the Russian embassy in Athens, who some say is in fact an intelligence officer. Two more Russian diplomats, who have not been publicly named, were barred from entering Greece —a move that effectively amounts to a refusal by the Greek government to accredit them. According to an official statement from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the expulsions were meant to prevent the “undermining of [Greek] national security”. However, a report in the Greek daily Kathimerini said that the move was taken in response to attempts by Russian spies to bribe Greek state officials. Other reports claim that the Russians were caught trying to blackmail Greek lawmakers over the possible expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Greece is a member.

Some of the allegations in the Greek press refer to the country’s three-decade long dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which Athens accuses of harboring territorial ambitions against its neighbors. Greece —the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Balkans— has barred the entry of its northern neighbor into the European Union and NATO until it complies with a list of Greek demands. Chief among those is the drawing of a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia —once an ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great— and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which encompasses a small portion of Alexander’s former empire. Last month, the decades-long dispute between the two neighboring countries appeared to draw to a close with the proposed adoption of “Northern Macedonia” as the official name of the former Yugoslav republic. The agreement would open the way for the tiny landlocked country to enter into negotiations for eventual entry into NATO. However, nationalists in both countries have staged public rallies to protest against the proposed agreement.

It appears that Russian diplomats may have tried to convince Greek lawmakers —through extortion, bribing or both— to vote against the proposed agreement. There are also reports that Russian diplomats assisted in the organization of nationwide rallies against the proposed agreement in Greece, possibly by funding them or by spreading information about them on social media. The Russian government said on Wednesday that it would protest the expulsion of its diplomats from Athens. It also said that it reserved the right to respond to Greece’s move in kind, possibly by expelling an equal number of Greek diplomats from Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2018 | Research credit: SF | Permalink

North Korea asked Israel for $1 billion to stop giving missile technology to Iran

Thae Yong-HoNorth Korea offered to stop selling missile technology to Iran and other enemies of Israel in exchange for $1 billion in cash from the Jewish state, according to former senior North Korean diplomat who has now defected. The account of the offer can be read in Password from the Third Floor, a book published earlier this year by Thae Yong Ho. Thae, a member of a prominent North Korean family, defected with his wife and children in 2016, while he was serving as a senior member of the diplomatic staff of the North Korean embassy in London. News of Thae’s defection emerged on August 16, 2016, when a South Korean newspaper reported that he had disappeared from London after having escaped with his family “to a third country”. Thae later emerged in Seoul, from where he publicly denounced the North Korean regime.

Now Thae has written a book about his experiences as a North Korean diplomat from a family that is close to the country’s ruling Kim dynasty. In his memoir, Thae claims that he acted as a translator during a series of meetings between Son Mu Sin and Gideon Ben Ami, respectively North Korea’s and Israel’s ambassadors to Sweden. The alleged meetings took place in secret in the winter of 1999 in Stockholm, says Thae. During the first meeting, Son allegedly told Ben Ami that Pyongyang had a series of agreements to sell ballistic missile technology and know-how to Israel’s adversaries, such as Syria, Pakistan and Iran. However, the North Korean government would be willing to scrap the agreements in exchange for $1 billion in cash from Israel, said Son. Ben Ami reportedly told his North Korean counterpart that he would pass along his offer to the Israeli government. Three days later, says Thae, the two men held another secret meeting, during which the North Korean ambassador was told that Israel was not willing to pay Pyongyang $1 billion in cash. However, it could offer humanitarian aid of equal value. But according to Thae the North Koreans refused and “the talks ended without an agreement”.

It is believed that North Korea then went ahead and supplied both Syria and Iran with missile and nuclear technology. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that it contacted the government of Israel with several questions stemming from Thae’s account of the alleged diplomatic exchange of 1999. However, it received no response. The paper also tried to elicit responses from Ben Ami and Son, but had no success. According to The Journal, Ben Ami said during a television interview last week that he held three meetings with a group of North Korean officials in 1999. But he did not name the diplomats, nor did he discuss the subject of his conversations with them.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 July 2018 | Permalink

Holland expels two Iranian diplomats, but stays silent on reasons

Iran embassy HagueHolland has expelled two Iranian diplomats without saying why, leading to speculation that the expulsions may be related to the arrests of members of an alleged Iranian sleeper cell in Belgium, Germany and France last week. On Friday, a spokesperson from Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) told reporters that “two persons accredited to the Iranian embassy” in the Hague “were expelled from the Netherlands on June 7”. The spokesperson continued saying that, although the AIVD was able to confirm that the two unnamed persons had been expelled from the country, they would “not provide any further information”. When journalists contacted Holland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they were told that there would be no comment on the matter from the Dutch government.

Late on Friday, the Reuters news agency cited an unnamed “European government official and a Western intelligence source” who said that the two Iranian embassy personnel were expelled from Holland “up to two months ago”. But Holland’s state-owned Dutch Broadcast Foundation (NOS) reported that the expulsions took place on June 7. No further information appears to be publicly available. However, assuming that the expulsions took place last week, and not two months ago, they appear to have coincided with the arrests of members of an alleged Iranian sleeper cell on June 30 and July 1. As intelNews reported last week, the arrests began on June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a Marxist militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Until a few years ago, the MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, but has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington. There is also speculation that last week’s expulsions in Holland may be related to the assassinations of dissident Iranian expatriates in Holland in 2015 and 2017, which have been blamed on the government in Tehran.

On Saturday, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Dutch ambassador to protest against the expulsions of its diplomats, while a ministry spokesperson warned that “the Islamic Republic reserves the right to retaliate”. Reuters quoted an unnamed “senior Iranian official” who said that “all these arrests and expulsions are part of our enemies’ attempts to harm efforts to salvage the nuclear deal”, a reference to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 July 2018 | Research credit: M.K. | Permalink

Iran sleeper cell agents, including diplomat, arrested in three European countries

National Council of Resistance of IranAn Iranian diplomat and members of what authorities described as an “Iranian sleeper cell” were arrested this week in Belgium, Germany and France, as they were allegedly planning to a bomb a high-level meeting in Paris. The arrests came after a complex investigation by several European intelligence agencies and were announced by Belgium’s Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon.

The operation against the alleged sleeper cell began on Saturday, June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group stopped a Mercedes car in Brussels. The car was carrying a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, named in media reports as Amir S., 38, and Nasimeh N., 33. According to the Belgian Ministry of the Interior, Nasimeh N. was found to be carrying 500 grams of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive and a detonator inside a toiletries bag. On the following day, Sunday, July 1, German police arrested Assadollah A., an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. According to reports, the diplomat was driving a rental car in the southeastern German state of Bavaria, heading to Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the other three arrests.

The four detainees were in contact with each other and were allegedly working for the Iranian government. All four have been charged with an alleged foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place last Saturday, June 30, in a Paris suburb. The National Council of Resistance of Iran is a France-based umbrella group of Iranian dissidents, led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations from exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups.

Until 2009, the European Union and the United States officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred of the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US. According to Belgian authorities, the four members of the Iranian sleeper cell were planning to bomb the MEK-sponsored NCRI meeting in Paris under instructions by the Iranian government. Conference participants included over 30 senior US officials, including US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Belgium’s Interior Minister Jambon praised the country’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies for foiling the alleged bomb plot in Paris. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, dismissed claims of an Iranian sleeper cell as “fake news” and described reports of a foiled bomb attack as “a sinister false flag plot”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 July 2018 | Permalink

Trump’s Twitter feed is ‘gold mine’ for foreign spies, says ex-CIA analyst

Trump 2016With nearly 53 million Twitter followers, United States President Donald Trump could easily be described as the most social-media-friendly American leader in our century. It is clear that Trump uses Twitter to communicate directly with his followers while circumventing mainstream media, which he views as adversarial to his policies. However, according to former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Nada Bakos, foreign intelligence agencies are among those paying close attention to the president’s tweets. Bakos spent 20 years in the CIA, notably as the Chief Targeter of the unit that tracked down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In a June 23 editorial in The Washington Post, Bakos argues that President Trump’s “Twitter feed is a gold mine for every foreign intelligence agency”.

All intelligence agencies, explains Bakos, build psychological profiles of foreign leaders. These profiles typically rely on information collected through intelligence operations that are “methodical, painstaking and often covert”. The final product can be crucial in enabling countries to devise strategies that counter their adversaries, says Bakos. But with Trump, covert intelligence-collection operations are not needed in order to see what is on his mind, since “the president’s unfiltered thoughts are available night and day”, she claims. The former CIA analyst points out that President Trump’s tweets are posted “without much obvious mediation” by his aides and advisors, something that can be seen by the frequency with which he deletes and reposts tweets due to spelling and grammatical errors. These unfiltered thoughts on Twitter offer a “real-time glimpse of a major world leader’s preoccupations, personality quirks and habits of mind”, says Bakos.

Undoubtedly, she argues, foreign intelligence agencies are utilizing President Trump’s tweets in numerous ways while building his personality profile. The most obvious ways are by performing content analysis of his tweets, which could then be matched against information collected from other sources about major US policy decisions. Additionally, foreign intelligence agencies could identify media sources that the US president seems to prefer, and then try to feed information to these sources that might sway his views. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia may have done so already, claims Bakos. The US president’s views, as expressed through Twitter, could also be compared and contrasted with the expressed views of his aides or senior cabinet officials, in order to discern who he agrees with the least. It is equally useful to analyze the issues or events that the US president does not tweet about, or tweets about with considerable delay. One could even derive useful information about Trump’s sleeping patterns based on his tweets, says the former CIA analyst.

Bakos does not go as far as to suggest that the US president should abstain from social media. But she clearly thinks that the US leader’s use of social media is too impulsive and potentially dangerous from a national-security perspective. She also laments that, throughout her career in the CIA, her she and her team “never had such a rich source of raw intelligence about a world leader, and we certainly never had the opportunity that our adversaries (and our allies) have now”, thanks to Trump’s incessant social media presence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 July 2018 | Permalink

Nazi official Heinrich Himmler’s daughter worked for West German intelligence

Heinrich Himmler Gudrun BurwitzThe daughter of Heinrich Himmler, who was second in command in the German Nazi Party until the end of World War II, worked for West German intelligence in the 1960s, it has been confirmed. Gudrun Burwitz was born Gudrun Himmler in 1929. During the reign of Adolf Hitler, her father, Heinrich Himmler, commanded the feared Schutzstaffel, known more commonly as the SS. Under his command, the SS played a central part in administering the Holocaust, and carried out a systematic campaign of extermination of millions of civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe. But the Nazi regime collapsed under the weight of the Allied military advance, and on May 20, 1945, Himmler was captured alive by Soviet troops. Shortly thereafter he was transferred to a British-administered prison, where, just days later, he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule that he had with him. Gudrun, who by that time was nearly 16 years old, managed to escape to Italy with her mother, where she was captured by American forces. She testified in the Nuremberg Trials and was eventually released in 1948. She settled with her mother in northern West Germany and lived away from the limelight of publicity until her death on May 24 of this year, aged 88.

Late last Thursday, an article in the German tabloid newspaper Bild revealed for the first time that Burwitz worked for West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in the early 1960s. The BND continues to operate today as reunited Germany’s main external intelligence agency. According to Bild, Himmler’s daughter had a secretarial post at the BND’s headquarters in Pullach, where the spy agency was headquartered for most of its existence. The paper said that Burwitz managed to be hired by the BND by using an assumed name. In a rare public statement, the BND’s chief archivist, Bodo Hechelhammer, confirmed Bild’s allegations. The archivist, who serves as one of the BND’s official historians, told the newspaper that Burwitz “was an employee of the BND for a number of years, until 1963”, working “under an assumed name”. She was dismissed once the BND began to purge former Nazis from its staff, toward the end of the tenure of its first director, Reinhard Gehlen. Gehlen was a former general and military intelligence officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht, who had considerable experience in anti-Soviet and anti-communist operations. In 1956, in the context of the Cold War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which acted as the BND’s parent organization, appointed him as head of the organization, a post which he held from until 1968.

It is believed that Burwitz remained a committed Nazi until the end of her life. She doggedly defended her father’s name and insisted that the Holocaust was an Allied propaganda ploy. It is also believed that she was a prominent member of Stille Hilfe (Silent Help), an underground group of leading former Nazis, which was established in 1945 to help SS officers and other Nazi officials escape prosecution for war crimes. Several German experts on neo-Nazi groups have alleged that Burwitz continued to attend neo-Nazi events and SS reunions throughout Europe, some as recently as 2014. Burwitz is believed to have died in Munich.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 July 2018 | Permalink