Analysis: Women becoming growing force inside Islamic State, says expert

Islamic State womenThe role of women inside the Islamic State is growing, as the Sunni militant group is transmuting into an underground organization, according to a Harvard University terrorism expert. Since its meteoric rise in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been known for advocating for strict segregation between men and women. In the early stages of the group’s emergence, combat roles were exclusively performed by men, while women’s roles were limited to childbearing and housework. But according to Vera Mironova, Visiting Scholar in the Economics Department at Harvard University, and former Associate of the International Security Program at Harvard’s Belfer Center, the Islamic State’s policy on gender roles is shifting rapidly.

Mironova, who has carried out research in Iraq while embedded with the country’s Special Operations Forces, argues that the Islamic State has been “quietly shifting its insistence of strict gender hierarchy” and is now “allowing, even celebrating, female participation in military roles”. In an article published earlier this week in The New York Times, Mironova states that early indications of this shift were visible as early as 2017. In October of that year, ISIS publications issued calls for “women to prepare for battle”. Within a year, the group was publicly praising its women fighters and even published a video showing veiled Islamic State female fighters firing AK-47 assault rifles. The video praised women fighters for “seeking revenge for [their] religion and for the honor of [their] sisters”.

In her article, the Harvard terrorism expert says that it is not possible to estimate with accuracy the number of women who have picked up arms on behalf of the Islamic State. But she adds that interviews with Iraqi military and police officials suggest that female Islamic State fighters are now “a regular presence that no longer surprises, as it did a few years ago”. There is a tradition of fervent women supporters of the militant group that dates from its very beginning, claims Mironova. She gives the example of female radicals who insisted that their husbands or sons join the Islamic State, or who sought to marry Islamic State combatants in order to be part of “mujahedeen families”. Recently, however, the relative scarcity of male fighters in the ranks of the militant group has led to calls for females to take their place in the front lines. As the Islamic State is transmuting into an underground organization, women are also becoming more useful as covert operatives because they attract less attention by Iraqi or Syrian government troops.

In many cases, women supporters of the Islamic State who lost male family members in the ongoing war pick up arms or put on suicide vests in order to extract revenge. In other cases they do in order to secure protection, favors or money for their families from the insurgents. The fact is, says Mironova, that women fighters are becoming more prominent in the Islamic State’s combat lines and are even participating in the group’s suicide bombing campaign. The latter continues unabated in Iraq and Syria, despite the near-complete loss of the Islamic State’s territorial control, says Mironova.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 February 2019 | Permalink

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Lithuania widens espionage probe, several now in custody for spying for Russia

Algirdas PaleckisA growing number of individuals are in custody in Lithuania, as the Baltic state continues a probe into an alleged Russian espionage ring whose members reportedly included a former diplomat and member of one of the country’s most revered political families. On Tuesday, government prosecutors asked for an eight-year prison sentence for Roman Sheshel, who stands accused for giving Moscow classified information on Lithuania’s naval forces. Sheshel, a Russian-born Lithuanian citizen, is also believed to have given his Russian handlers intelligence regarding warships belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Lithuania is a member. He is accused of having worked for the Russians from early 2015 until his capture by Lithuanian authorities in December of 2017. His trial has been taking place behind closed doors in order to protect state secrets.

Government prosecutors allege that Sheshel was part of a sizeable spy network of Lithuanians who were recruited by Russia in the past five years and whose “activities threatened Lithuanian national security”. Among them is allegedly Alģirds Paleckis, a former parliamentarian and diplomat, Paleckis was born in 1971 in Switzerland, where his father, Justas Vincas, served as a Soviet diplomat. His grandfather, Justas Paleckis, was a towering figure in the Communist Party of Lithuania, which in 1940 spearheaded Lithuania’s amalgamation into the Soviet Union. But his son, Paleckis’ father, broke ranks with the family’s communist past and became a leading nationalist parliamentarian in 1990, when the country seceded from the USSR. Paleckis followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the diplomatic service before entering parliament. But in 2008, after a successful career as a pro-Western reformist politician, Paleckis began to veer to the left, eventually founding the Lithuanian Socialist People’s Front, a small leftist party that is often accused of being too close to Moscow. The party is a vocal opponent of Lithuania’s membership in the European Union and NATO. Paleckis’ critics also note that he is married to a Russian woman whose father is reportedly a Russian intelligence officer.

The German news agency Deutsche Welle reported last week that Paleckis attracted the attention of Lithuanian counterintelligence investigators after he “fully paid back the mortgage on a house too quickly”. He is now accused of giving his Russian handlers information about a Lithuanian government investigation into Soviet-era informant networks in the small Baltic country. He has been in custody since last October, along with an undisclosed number of other alleged members of a purported Russian spy ring. Earlier this week, Lithuanian authorities said that evidence collected from the unnamed detainees are helping them broaden their probe into alleged Russian espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2019 | Permalink

Senior Belgian counterintelligence officer arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia

NATO HQ BrusselsA senior counterintelligence official in Belgium’s external intelligence service is under house arrest on suspicion of sharing classified documents with Russian spies, according to a Belgian newspaper. Additionally, the chief of the agency’s counterintelligence directorate has been barred from his office while an internal investigation is underway on allegations that he illegally destroyed government documents. These allegations surfaced last Thursday in a leading article in De Morgen, a Flemish-language daily based in Brussels.

Citing anonymous sources from the General Information and Security Service —Belgium’s military intelligence agency— the paper said that the arrestee has the equivalent rank of major in the General Intelligence and Security Service. Known as GISS, the agency operates as the Belgian equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency or Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service —better known as MI6. GISS officers collect information abroad and are not permitted to operate within Belgium’s borders. The man, a career counterintelligence official, is suspected of having passed secrets to Russia with the help of a woman who claims to be Serbian, but who is in fact believed to be an operative for Russian intelligence. It is not known whether the compromised information included secrets involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Belgium is a founding member. In the same article, De Morgen also said that Clement Vandenborre, who serves as chief of GISS’s counterintelligence directorate, has been barred from his office while an investigation is taking place into allegations of mismanagement. He is also accused of having shredded classified government documents without permission. It is not believed that this case is connected with the alleged Russian penetration.

De Morgen quoted a spokesperson for Belgium’s Ministry of Defense, who confirmed that an investigation into alleged foreign espionage targeting a GISS employee was underway, but added that “no comment” would be made on the subject so as “not to hinder” the probe. Ironically, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported last week that the European Union’s diplomatic agency warned officials in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, including from Russia and China. The warning, issued by the European Union’s diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), said that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” were operating in Brussels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 February 2019 | Permalink

Alleged third suspect in Skripal poison attack identified by investigative website

Diplomatic Academy of RussiaAn investigative website has linked a graduate of an elite intelligence academy in Moscow with the attempted assassination of a Russian former double spy in Britain last year. Reports last year identified Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin (cover name ‘Alexander Petrov’) and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga (cover name ‘Ruslan Boshirov’) as the two men that tried to kill Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in March 2018. Skripal, a former officer in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, was resettled in Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying on behalf of Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died last March, after they were poisoned with a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The Kremlin denies that Mishkin and Chepiga —believed to be GRU officers— had any role in the attack.

Last week, the Russian investigative news site Bellingcat alleged that a third man may have been involved in the attempt to assassinate Skripal. The man used the name Sergey Fedotov, said Bellingcat, but added that the name was probably a cover that was concocted by Russia’s intelligence services. On Thursday, the website said it was able to identify the so-called third man as Denis Vyacheslavovich Sergeev, a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Diplomatic Academy is one of the most prominent educational institutions in the country and its graduates enter the Foreign Service. However, many of its graduates are elite members of Russian intelligence, said Bellingcat. Earlier this month, the investigative website said that Sergeev traveled extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Europe between 2010 and 2015, using the operational name Sergey Fedotov. It also claimed that Sergeev/Fedotov was in Bulgaria in late April 2015, when Emilian Gebrev, a wealthy local defense industry entrepreneur, fell violently ill. Gebrev was hospitalized for signs of poisoning along with his son and one of his company’s executives for several days. All three made a full recovery.

Bellingcat added that it was able to name the alleged Russian intelligence operative following a four-month investigation that was aided by another Russian news website known as The Russia Insider, Czech newspaper Respekt, and Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat daily. But it also acknowledged that Fedotov’s alleged role in the Skripal assassination remained “unclear” and that authorities in the United Kingdom had not publicly identified a third suspect in the attempted murder. Meanwhile, British newspaper The Guardian said yesterday that it was told by Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov that a team of British investigators were “on the ground” in Sofia to investigate possible links between the Skripal and Gebrev cases.

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

FBI seeks arrest of US counterintelligence officer who defected to Iran

Monica WittAn American intelligence officer, who held the highest level of security clearance for over a decade, defected to Iran in 2012 and has been spying against the United States ever since, it was revealed yesterday. Monica Witt, 39, was a counterintelligence officer for the United States Air Force from 1997 until 2008, specializing in the Middle East. Throughout her career, she was deployed by the US military to the Middle East on several occasions, in order to carry out counterintelligence missions the details of which remain classified to this day.

According to the US government, one of these missions involved her attendance of an international conference organized by New Horizon Organization. The group is believed to operate as a public relations arm of the Quds Force —the intelligence and paramilitary wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, whose mission is to spread the ideals of the Islamic Revolution around the world. Witt’s mission was allegedly to monitor the conference proceedings and collect information on attendees. It was while attending that conference that, according to US government documents, Witt started to become attracted to the Iranian government’s world view. She left the US Air Force in 2008 and moved to Central Asia, initially teaching English in Afghanistan and later in Tajikistan. A year later, she vanished. She allegedly reemerged in Iran in 2013, where she appeared on several television programs in which she renounced United States policy on the Middle East and publicly espoused Shi’a Islam. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, soon after she defected to Iran, Witt used social media to identify and then compile lists of the whereabouts of several of her colleagues in US Air Force counterintelligence. She then gave this information to the Iranian intelligence services, which used it to launch a series of operations targeting current and former US intelligence personnel.

At a press conference held yesterday in Washington, DC, officials from the FBI, the Department of State and the Department of Treasury announced criminal charges against Witt and New Horizon Organization, which they accused of conducting espionage against the US. They also announced charges against employees of the Iranian-registered Net Peygard Samavat Company, which they said used Witt’s information to launch targeted information operations against American government personnel. Witt remains at large and is believed to reside in Iran.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 February 2019 | Permalink

Reports allege third man was involved in poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Sergei SkripalNew reports from Russian investigative sites claim that a third man using a fake name was involved in the attempted assassination of former double spy Sergei Skripal in England last year. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying on behalf of Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March 2018, after they were poisoned with a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies it had any role in it. Two assailants have so far been identified by British intelligence. They have been named as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin —cover name ‘Alexander Petrov’— and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga —cover name ‘Ruslan Boshirov’. Both are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. The two men spoke on Russian television last year, denying any involvement in the attack on the Skripals. Their whereabouts since their television interview remain unknown. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack.

In October of last year, the Russian investigative news site Fontanka claimed that a third man under the name of Sergey Fedotov, may have been involved in the attack on Skripal. Last Thursday, another Russian investigative news site, Bellingcat, said that the name Sergey Fedotov appears to have been created out of thin air for operational purposes by Russia’s intelligence services. According to Bellingcat, Fedotov appears to have no past prior to 2010, when his identity was invented using the same techniques that the fake identities of ‘Petrov’ and ‘Boshirov’ were concocted by the GRU. Moreover, Fedotov’s records show that he traveled extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Europe between 2010 and 2015. The Russian news site claims that he was in Bulgaria in late April 2015, when Emilian Gebrev, a wealthy local defense industry entrepreneur, fell violently ill. Gebrev was hospitalized for signs of poisoning along with his son and one of his company’s executives for several days, eventually making a full recovery. As the Bulgarian businessman was being taken to hospital, Fedotov skipped his return flight out of Sofia and instead drove to Istanbul, Turkey, where he bought a one-way airline ticket to Moscow, says Bellingcat.

The BBC’s Gordon Corera said he contacted the Russian embassy in London and the Kremlin in Moscow. Both sources strongly refuted the Bellingcat report. A Kremlin spokesman cautioned the BBC to be skeptical about Bellingcat’s report, since “we don’t know what [its] authors based their work on [or] how competent they are”. British Police told Corera that they were “still investigating whether further suspects were involved” in the attack on Skripal and were “not prepared to discuss” details pertaining to “an ongoing investigation”.

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

US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda-linked groups

Shabwani EliteWeapons supplied to the Saudi and Emirati governments by the United States and other Western nations are ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militias in Yemen, according to two separate investigations. The weapons are being supplied to the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen. The war has been going on since 2015, when a alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities formed the Houthi movement, which quickly seized control of much of the country. The Houthis effectively toppled the government, prompting a reaction by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, which see the Shiite movement as an Iranian front. In an effort to restore Yemen’s Sunni-dominated government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry.

However, a report published this week by Amnesty International alleges that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen. Among them are three militias that are known to be supported by the government of the Emirates, namely the Giants, the Security Belt and the Shabwani Elite. These groups, says Amnesty, have been seen using Western-supplied weaponry in the field of battle and in their compounds throughout Yemen. In its report, the human-rights group says that these groups are not accountable to any government and have been linked to serious war crimes against civilians. Meanwhile, a separate investigation aired this week by CNN claims that American-manufactured weaponry and materiel given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries is ending up in the hand of Salafist militias in Yemen. The report names the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The CNN report also claims that some of the American weaponry has fallen in the hands of Houthi fighters.

On Wednesday the BBC quoted a senior American general who said that the Pentagon plans to investigate whether American and other Western-supplied weapons are being illegally diverted into the hands of non-state Sunni militias in Yemen. The government of the United Arab Emirates has not commented on the reports. As intelNews reported last August, an investigative report published by the Associated Press claimed that senior AQAP commanders were on the payroll of US-backed Sunni militias in Yemen and that its fighters were being recruited to fight against the Houthis. The report also argued that Washington was privy to the secret agreements between Yemen’s Sunni militias and AQAP.

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