Germany convicts married couple of spying for Indian intelligence service

Manmohan S. Kanwal Jit K.A court in Frankfurt has found a married couple guilty of spying in Germany on behalf of India’s external intelligence service. Due to Germany’s strict privacy laws, the couple have been identified only as 50-year-old Manmohan S. and his wife, Kanwal Jit K., who is 51.

According to the prosecution, Manmohan S. was recruited by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in January of 2015. His wife joined his intelligence-collection activities in July 2017. Following their arrest, the couple told German authorities that they held regular meetings with a RAW case officer who was serving as a diplomat in the Indian consulate in Frankfurt. They also said they were paid nearly $8,000 for their services.

The two convicted spies said at their trial that they were tasked to spy on adherents of the Sikh religion and members of the Kashmiri expatriate community in Germany. The central European country is believed to host as many as 20,000 Indian Sikhs, many of whom openly proclaim secessionist aspirations. Many Sikhs in India and abroad campaign for the creation of a Sikh state in parts of northwestern India and Pakistan, which they call Khalistan. India is also concerned about the secessionist aspirations of Kashmiris, a predominantly Muslim population of 10 million that lives in the region of Jammu and Kashmir. Delhi has long claimed that expatriate groups living in Europe and the United States provide funding for secessionist groups that operate in the region.

On Thursday, Frankfurt’s Higher Regional Court found the couple guilty of conducting illegal espionage activities on German soil. It handed Manmohan S. a one-and-a-half-year suspended jail sentence, while Kanwal Jit K. was given a fine that equates to 180 days of income.

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

Turkey offers to send troops to Libya as tensions rise with Greece, Egypt

Turkey LibyaTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said his country is prepared to deploy troops to Libya, just days after Ankara surprised analysts by announcing an agreement with the embattled Libyan government in Tripoli. The Turkish-Libyan agreement has spurred angry reactions from Israel, Greece and Egypt, all of which are competing with Turkey for control of newly discovered gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean seabed.

The Turkish-Libyan agreement merges the two countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and ostensibly prevents other players in the area, including Greece, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus, from drilling for natural gas without the consent of Ankara and Tripoli. However, according to Greece, the agreement disregards the presence of several Greek islands —including the largest one, Crete— in the Turkish-Libyan EEZ. Athens says that it views the Turkish-Libyan agreement as a direct claim against its territory. Last week the Greek government summarily expelled the Libyan ambassador from the country, marking a dramatic deterioration in the historically close relationship between Athens and Tripoli.

To further-complicate matters, several European countries, as well as Russia and the United States, do not support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), with which Turkey has signed its agreement. Instead, they support the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. Haftar lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011. The LNA, which is based in eastern Libya, is also supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other American allies in the Persian Gulf.

It follows that, if Turkey deploys troops to Libya, it may be entering a collision course with several of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Ankara’s move will also be confronted by Russia, which is purported to have troops in eastern Libya. On Tuesday, however, Turkish President Erdoğan seemed determined to proceed with his plan. In a speech at a university in Ankara, the Turkish leader proclaimed that, “if Libya were to make a request, we would send a sufficient number of troops”, adding that “there is no hurdle” to doing so “after the signing of the security agreement” between Ankara and Tripoli.

This is the first time that Turkey has secured an agreement with a regional ally in the matter of energy exploration rights. Previously, Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus struck a deal to coordinate their gas exploration activities, and eventually supply Europe with Israeli and Cypriot natural gas via a projected gas pipeline that would pass through Greece. But the Turkish move raises doubts about the prospects of such a project, with some analysts even speculating whether centuries-old rivals Greece and Turkey may be getting closer to war.

In a speech on Monday, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos warned Ankara that “Greece will defend its borders [and] territory”. Meanwhile European Union leaders met on Monday behind closed doors to discuss the imposition of sanctions on Turkey as punishment for disputing the maritime territorial boundaries of Cyprus, a European Union member.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2019 | Permalink

Victor Sheymov, among Cold War’s most important KGB defectors, dies at 73

Victor SheymovVictor Ivanovich Sheymov, who is often referred to as one of the most important intelligence defectors of the Cold War, has reportedly died in the American state of Virginia. He was one of the most senior officials in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB) to ever defect to the West, and revealed important KGB secrets to the United States.

Sheymov was born in 1946 to a family of elite Soviet scientists. His father was an engineer and his mother a doctor specializing in cardiology. A gifted mathematician and student-athlete, Sheymov was recruited into the KGB almost as soon as he graduated from the elite Bauman Moscow State Technical University, where he majored in engineering. By his early 30s, Sheymov had risen to the rank of major under the KGB’s Eighth Chief Directorate, which handled secret communications systems. He oversaw a large unit that monitored the flow of information between the KGB’s headquarters and the agency’s operatives around the world. In later years, Sheymov was assigned code-breaking and counter-espionage tasks, and oversaw the preparation of daily classified briefings for the Politburo —the Communist Party’s highest policy-making body.

But in the 1970s Sheymov grew disillusioned with Soviet politics, and began to feel slighted by the infighting and incompetence inside the KGB. While visiting Poland on KGB business, he volunteered his services to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by walking into the US embassy in Warsaw. The CIA eventually gave him the cryptonym CKUTOPIA and, after verifying his senior status inside the KGB, exfiltrated him to the United States along with his wife and 5-year-old daughter. His was the first known instance of a successful CIA exfiltration of a defector from Soviet territory.

After spending several months being debriefed and polygraphed at a CIA safe house, Sheymov and his family were given new identities and US citizenship. But the defector decided to emerge from hiding in 1990, as the USSR was dissolving. In his book about his espionage work and defection, titled Tower of Secrets, Sheymov said he informed the CIA about the KGB’s unsuccessful plots to assassinate Pope John Paul II and about the successful operation to assassinate Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in 1979. His insights were also instrumental in the decision of the US State Department to demolish the US embassy in Moscow, due to fears about the presence of listening devices planted inside the building’s walls by Soviet builders. The building was eventually replaced with another structure built by vetted American workers.

Sheymov was awarded the US Intelligence Medal and lived the rest of his life in America, where he headed a computer security company. He died on October 18 in Vienna, Virginia, but his death was not publicly reported until this week. Sheymov’s wife told reporters that he died from health complications arising from chronic pulmonary disease.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2019 | Permalink

Elite Russian spy unit used French Alps region as logistical base

Chamonix FranceAn elite group Russian military intelligence officers, who have participated in assassinations across Europe, have been using resorts in the French Alps as logistical and supply bases, according to a new report. The report concerns Unit 29155 of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, commonly known as GRU. According to The New York Times, which revealed its existence of 29155 in October, the unit has been operating for at least 10 years. However, Western intelligence agencies only began to focus on it in 2016, after it was alleged that an elite group of Russian spies tried to stage a coup in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro.

Unit 29155 is believed to consist of a tightly knit group of intelligence officers led by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, a hardened veteran of Russia’s Chechen wars. The existence of the unit is reportedly so secret that even other GRU operatives are unlikely to have heard of it. Members of the unit frequently travel to Europe to carry out sabotage and disinformation campaigns, kill targets, or conduct other forms of what some experts describe as the Kremlin’s hybrid war. They are believed to be responsible for the attempt on the life of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU intelligence officer who defected to Britain. He almost died in March 2018, when two Russian members of Unit 29155 poisoned him in the English town of Salisbury.

On Wednesday, a new report in the French newspaper Le Monde claimed that Unit 29155 used the French Alps as a “rear base” to carry out operations throughout Europe. According to the paper, the information about the unit’s activities in France emerged following forensic investigations of the activities of its members by British, Swiss, French and American intelligence agencies. In the same article, Le Monde published the names of 15 members of Unit 29155, which allegedly stayed in various French alpine towns and cities between 2014 and 2018. The paper said that they traveled to France from various countries in Europe, such as Spain, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, or directly for Russia.

The alleged Russian spies stayed in France’s Haute-Savoie, which borders Switzerland, and is among Europe’s most popular wintertime tourist destinations. The area includes the world-famous Mont Blanc mountain range and the picturesque alpine towns of Annemasse, Evian and Chamonix. Several members of the unit visited the region repeatedly, said Le Monde, while others entered France once or twice, in connection with specific spy missions. It is believed that the reasoning behind their trips to the French Alps was to blend in with the large numbers of international tourists that travel to the region throughout the year. However, the unit also utilized several other areas in Eastern Europe as rear bases, including cities and towns in Moldova, Montenegro and Bulgaria, said Le Monde.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 December 2019 | Permalink

Switzerland claims embassy worker was abducted by Sri Lankan security officers

Swiss embassy Sri LankaSwitzerland has filed a formal complaint after an employee of the Swiss embassy in Sri Lanka was allegedly abducted by men who forced her to divulge sensitive information about the embassy and its activities. The Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that the embassy employee was kidnapped by four men while walking in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, on November 25. The men took her to what appeared to be a safe house and interrogated her for several hours.

The men eventually forced the Swiss embassy employee, who is a Sri Lankan national, to unlock her personal cell phone. According to Swiss government officials, they appeared to be looking for information about a senior Sri Lankan police detective who recently fled to Switzerland with his family and was granted political asylum. Some Sri Lankan media identified the man as Nishantha Silva, a police detective who until recently headed the Sri Lankan Criminal Intelligence Division’s Organized Crime Investigation Unit.

Silva is one of hundreds of members of Sri Lanka’s public sector who have fled abroad following the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last month. The Rajapaksa family is one of the most powerful in the country, and has a long history of influencing Sri Lankan politics. Hours after assuming power, the ultra-nationalist Rajapaksa pledged to “hunt down” the leadership of the police and security services who investigated his family after 2015, when the Rajapaksas were ousted from the government. Hundreds of police and security officers have since been arrested or summarily fired.

On Tuesday, a Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman told The New York Times that the Swiss government had verified the details of the abduction of its embassy worker. The spokesman added that the employee was forced to disclose “embassy-related information” after she was “threatened at length” by the men. The latter released her after warning her that she would be killed if she spoke to anyone about her ordeal.

On Monday, a spokesman for President Rajapaksa told reporters in Colombo that the Sri Lankan government questioned the accuracy of the Swiss embassy worker’s account of her abduction. Later, however, the Sri Lankan government announced that it had launched an investigation into the allegations. It now appears that the Sri Lankan government is preventing the embassy worker from leaving the country while the investigation into her claims is underway.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 December 2019 | Permalink

FBI examining FaceApp over potential counterintelligence concerns

FBIThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is examining possible counterintelligence threats in connection with the popular online application FaceApp, which is headquartered in Russia. The application first made its appearance in January of 2017 and quickly became popular among smartphone users around the world. It allows users to upload a photograph of their face and then edit it with the help of artificial-intelligence software. The software can change the user’s photograph to make it look younger or older, or make it look as if it is from the opposite gender. The result can be impressively realistic and life-like.

The St. Petersburgh-based company behind FaceApp, Wireless Lab, claims that the photos of users are uploaded to cloud servers situated in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. They are then deleted within two days from the moment they are uploaded by users, without ever being transferred to servers located in the territory of Russia. But the FBI does not seem to believe these assurances. In a letter sent late last month to the Minority Leader of the US Senate, Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Bureau said it was examining FaceApp as part of its counterintelligence mission.

In the letter, which was published on Monday, Jill Tyson, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, said the fact that Wireless Lab is based in Russia raised a number of counterintelligence concerns. These relate to the types of data Wireless Lab collects on its customers and the privacy policies that apply to Russian Internet companies. According to Tyson, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has the right to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request” to network providers. He added that, if the FBI found that FaceApp was involved in activities meant to interfere with upcoming elections in the United States, the Bureau would investigate the matter further, and possibly involve the Foreign Influence Task Force, an FBI-led body that was established after the 2016 US presidential elections.

The FBI’s letter was written in response to an earlier letter sent to the Bureau by Senator Schumer in July, which expressed concerns about potential threats posed by FaceApp to the privacy of American Internet users and to the nations’ security as a whole.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2019 | Permalink

Airbus fires employees for accessing classified German military documents

AirbusThe European multinational aerospace corporation Airbus has fired 16 of its employees for illegally possessing classified documents belonging to the German military. The Netherlands-registered aviation company, one of the world’s largest, has been cooperating with an investigation into the incident. The probe has been led by German authorities since September of 2018.

The incident, which German authorities have termed as industrial espionage, concerns two Airbus cybersecurity projects for weapons systems used by the German military. The projects are led by Airbus scientists at the company’s Communications, Intelligence and Security (CIS) program line, which is based in the German city of Munich. In September of last year, German media reported that a number of Airbus employees at the CIS facility had been found to possess classified files belonging to the German military, which they should not have been able to access.

An Airbus official said at the time that the classified documents related “to two future German [military] procurement projects”, and that the company had “self-reported […] potential wrongdoings by several employees […] to German authorities”. The official added that “[s]ome of our employees had documents that they shouldn’t have had”. It later emerged that the documents related to plans by the German Armed Forces to acquire a communication system from one of Airbus’ rival companies.

Following the September 2018 announcement, Airbus said that it had suspended 20 of its employees while it conducted an “ongoing internal review with the support of an external law firm”. At the same time it said that it was “fully cooperating with relevant authorities [in Germany] to resolve the matter”. It was also reported at the time that the German military had taken disciplinary action against one of its employees, but no further information was disclosed.

It has now emerged that Airbus has fired 16 of its CIS employees who were suspended last year. The news was first announced on Sunday by Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA), Germany’s largest news agency. Airbus subsequently confirmed the DPA’s report, but provided no further details about the case. It is not currently known whether the case has been closed.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2019 | Permalink