As Australia launches probe, skeptics cast doubts on Chinese defector’s spy claims

Wang LiqiangAs the Australian government has launched an official investigation into the claims made by a self-styled Chinese intelligence defector, some skeptics have begun to cast doubts about his revelations. The claims of Wang “William” Liqiang have dominated news headlines in Australia for over a week. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

The Australian spy agency confirmed last week that Mr. Wang had provided a 17-page sworn statement, in which he detailed his work as an undercover intelligence officer for Chinese military intelligence. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they plan to carry out espionage operations on behalf of Bejing. Some media reports claimed that Mr. Wang had shared details about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia. The Australian government said on Tuesday that an official investigation had been launched into Mr. Wang’s claims.

But some skeptics in Australia and elsewhere have begun to raise doubts about the Chinese defector’s claims, suggesting that he has given little —if any information— that is genuinely new. Some argue that Mr. Wang is much too young to have been entrusted with senior-level responsibilities in the intelligence agency of a country that rarely promotes twenty-somethings in high-ranking positions. Additionally, Mr. Wang appears to have no military background —he claims to have been recruited while studying fine art— which is not typical of a Chinese military intelligence operative.

Furthermore, Mr. Wang episode interviewers from Australian television’s 60 Minutes program that he began feeling tormented by moral dilemmas when his staff officers supplied him with a fake passport bearing a different name, in preparation for an operation in Taiwan. However, by his own admission, Mr. Wang had been supplied with fake passports for previous operations, so it is not clear why he lost his nerve at the time he did. In fact, case officers usually covet the opportunity to go undercover and feel a sense of exhilaration when they receive fake identification documents for an undercover mission.

Is Mr. Wang not sharing the entire background to his decision to defect to Australia? Or could he be deliberately amplifying his role in Chinese intelligence, in an effort to appear useful to the Australian government and thus secure political protection by Canberra? In the words of Alex Joske, an analyst at the  International Cyber Policy Centre of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the details in some of Mr. Wang’s claims mean that “government investigations should uncover the facts eventually. But we don’t know the full story and we probably never will”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Europol culls thousands of Islamic State online accounts in ‘day of action’

Telegram AppThe law enforcement agency of the European Union, in cooperation with the popular online messaging service Telegram, has culled thousands of Islamic State online accounts in what it described as “a day of action”. The operation was coordinated by the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, better known as Europol. The agency coordinated its activities with the popular instant-messaging service Telegram, which the Islamic State has used as its main platform of mass communication since 2014.

In a press release that appeared on its website on Friday, Europol said that it had managed to locate “a significant portion of key actors within the Islamic State network on Telegram” and “push [them] away from the platform”. The messaging app confirmed the joint “day of action” with Europol and said it took down over 5,000 “terrorist accounts and bots” from its network on November 22 and 23. The company said this was nearly 10 times higher than the usual number of user accounts taken down daily for violating its user agreement.

The BBC said that the removal of the accounts appeared to affect heavily the activities of the Nashir News Agency, an Islamic State propaganda outlet that uses the Telegram app to publicize press releases from the Islamic State. Dozens of online channels and community groups that were moderated by Nashir News Agency editors were also impacted, as their moderators had disappeared from the network. On Saturday, some Telegram users began posting information about replacement accounts for Nashir News Agency press releases, but these too were taken down within hours.

This was the second major “day of action” against online terrorist propaganda that Europol coordinated, with the first one being in April of last year. But critics argue that such efforts are unlikely to have a long-term impact on the ability of terrorist groups to spread online propaganda, unless they are constant and systematic. Meanwhile, Islamic State sympathizers criticized the Telegram service on other social media platforms and warned that moves to silence the group would result in its membership going deeper underground.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Chinese defector reveals identities of Chinese undercover spies in Asia and Australia

Wang LiqiangA Chinese intelligence defector has reportedly given the Australian government information about entire networks of Chinese undercover spies in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, according to reports. The story of Wang “William” Liqiang, made headlines all over Australia during the weekend, culminating in an entire episode of 60 Minutes Australia about him airing on Sunday. The 26-year-old from China’s eastern Fujian province reportedly defected to Australia in October, while visiting his wife and newborn son, who live in Sydney. He is currently reported to be in a safe house belonging to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

Police in the Chinese city of Shanghai claim that Mr. Wang is a small-time criminal who has been found guilty of using fraudulent documents and has a 15-month suspended prison sentence on his record. In a statement issued on Sunday, China’s embassy in Canberra described Mr. Wang as a “convicted fraudster” who was “wanted by police after fleeing [China] on a fake passport”. But according to reports in the Australian media, Mr. Wang has provided the ASIO with a 17-page sworn statement, in which he details his work as an undercover intelligence officer. He is also said to have shared the identities of senior Chinese intelligence officers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and to have explained how they organize and implement espionage operations on behalf of Bejing.

In a leading article published on Saturday, The Sydney Morning Herald referred to Mr. Wang as “the first Chinese operative to ever blow his cover” and claimed that he had given the ASIO “a trove of unprecedented inside intelligence” about Chinese espionage operations in Southeast Asia. The newspaper said that the defector had revealed details about entire networks of Chinese intelligence operatives in Taiwan and Hong Kong. He also reportedly provided identifying information about deep-cover Chinese intelligence networks in Australia.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated development, Australian media said yesterday that the ASIO was examining allegations that a Chinese espionage ring tried to recruit an Australian businessman of Chinese background and convince him to run for parliament. According to reports, the spy ring approached Nick Zhao, a successful luxury car dealer, and offered to fund his political campaign with nearly $700,000 (AUS$1 million) if he run as a candidate for the Liberal Party of Australia. Zhao reportedly told the ASIO about the incident last year, shortly before he was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room. His death remains under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 November 2019 | Permalink

South Korea rejects US pressure to maintain intelligence agreement with Japan

South Korea JapanSouth Korea appears determined to reject calls from the United States to maintain an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, as relations between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington continue to experience tensions. The South Korean government has been issuing warnings since August that it will not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which is scheduled to lapse on Saturday. The agreement dates to 2016; it facilitates the sharing of intelligence between South Korea and Japan about North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

The agreement has fallen victim to an escalating tit-for-tat row between the two Asian countries, which is rooted in the use of forced Korean labor by Japan in World War II. South Korea is demanding financial compensation for the use of slave labor, including sex slaves, by Japanese occupation troops during Korea’s annexation by Japan from 1910 until 1945. In July, Tokyo responded to a mass boycott of Japanese goods by South Korean consumers by limiting the export of electronics to be used in South Korea’s ship-building industry. It also removed South Korea from the list of countries with the ability to fast-track their exports to Japan. South Korea responded last summer by threatening to effectively abandon GSOMIA.

Since that time, Washington has been pressuring Seoul to remain in the treaty. The United States is widely seen as the architect of GSOMIA, as it worked closely with Japan and South Korea for over 6 years to convince them to agree to exchange intelligence, despite their deep-rooted mutual animosity. The White House has traditionally viewed GSOMIA as a significant parameter in security cooperation between its allies in the Far East. Back in August, American officials warned that terminating GSOMIA would threaten its ability to monitor North Korean nuclear activity.

But Seoul is not willing to back down. On Thursday, the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kang Kyung-wha, said that unless there was “a change in Japan’s attitude, our position is we won’t reconsider”. Kang Gi-jung, Political Affairs Secretary to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, added that Seoul would “not wave a white flag”. Japan’s Minister of Defense, Taro Kono, urged South Korea to “make a sensible decision” and warned that Seoul, not Tokyo, would be the biggest victim of the termination of GSOMIA. Most observers expect that GSOMIA will simply expire come Saturday.

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

Turkey arrests German embassy lawyer on espionage charges

Germany Embassy TurkeyTurkish authorities have charged a lawyer working for the German embassy in Ankara with espionage, further-straining the already tense relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which reported on the arrest, did not name the lawyer, but said he is a Turkish citizen and was arrested in September.

The newsmagazine said the lawyer had been hired by the German embassy to obtain information about Turkish citizens who had applied for political asylum in Germany. German authorities would regularly give the lawyer identifying information about asylum applicants. The lawyer would then verify with Turkish police that the applicants had a blank criminal record and were not wanted for participation in criminal activity. The German embassy would then forward the information collected by the lawyer to the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (known in Germany as BAMF), which would subsequently approve or reject the asylum applications.

Following the lawyer’s arrest by the Turkish National Intelligence Service (MİT), German authorities are concerned that the Turkish government has seized identifying information on at least 50 Turkish applicants for political asylum in Germany. Some of these applicants are reportedly members of Turkey’s persecuted Kurdish minority. Others are alleged supporters of Fethullah Gülen a United States-based former political ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who Turkey accuses of having orchestrated the failed 2016 military coup against Erdoğan.

The German Foreign Office has described the lawyer’s arrest as “incomprehensible” and has reportedly warned those asylum seekers affected by it that their safety may be endangered. Meanwhile, German diplomats are engaged in high-level talks with the Turkish government to secure the lawyer’s release, according to Spiegel. The effort is being led by no other than Martin Erdmann, a veteran diplomat who is serving as Germany’s ambassador to Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 November 2019 | Permalink

Iraqi spy chief warns of impeding ‘catastrophe’ as ISIS rebuilds Middle East network

Saad Mozher Al-AllaqIn a rare interview, the head of Iraq’s military intelligence has warned of an impending “catastrophe” as the Islamic State continues to edge ever-closer to rebuilding its networks of fighters and supporters in the Middle East. Lieutenant General Saad Mozher Al-Allaq, head of Iraq’s Military Intelligence Directorate, gave a rare interview to the American news network CNN, which was aired on Monday.

In his interview, General Al-Allaq claimed that his agency was able to intercept recent communications from senior operatives of the Islamic State —also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The communications allegedly refer to “Operation BREAK DOWN THE FENCES”, which he said is a plan by ISIS to storm numerous prisoner of war camps that are located across northwestern Iraq and Kurdish- or Turkish-controlled northern Syria. These camps hold as many as 10,000 men, many of whom are believed to be ISIS fighters. Other camps hold nearly 100,000 women and children who are connected to male ISIS fighters. According to General Al-Allaq, ISIS seeks to rebuild its powerbase in the region by freeing and re-arming these prisoners.

In addition to guarding against the possibility of a mass exodus of alleged ISIS prisoners and their families, the Iraqi spy chief said that his force has been working with Turkish authorities to neutralize networks of ISIS operatives in Turkey. Several senior ISIS “emirs” —senior members of the organization, with significant political influence and funding power— were able to bribe smugglers to take them to Turkey, where they are currently reorganizing the militant group’s illicit networks. The Iraqi government recently notified Ankara of the whereabouts of nine such ISIS “emirs”, said Al-Allaq.

The Iraqi spy chief concluded his interview by warning of an impending “catastrophe”, should ISIS be able to implement Operation BREAK DOWN THE FENCES and rebuild its support base in the region. Representatives of the Turkish government told CNN that Ankara was looking into the Iraqis’ allegations of ISIS “emirs” operating inside Turkey.

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

Russia, Lithuania and Norway exchange prisoners in rare three-way spy-swap

Frode BergA rare three-way spy-swap has reportedly taken place between Russia and two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, Lithuania and Norway. Rumors of a possible exchange of imprisoned spies between the three countries first emerged in mid-October. However, all three governments had either denied the rumors or refused to comment at the time. It now turns out that the spy-swap, which international news agencies described as “carefully coordinated” was the result of painstaking negotiations between the three countries, which lasted several months.

A major part of the process that led to last week’s spy swap was the decision of the Lithuanian parliament to approve altering the country’s criminal code. The new code allows the president of Lithuania to pardon foreign nationals who have been convicted of espionage, if doing so promotes Lithuania’s national interest. The new amendment also outlines the process by which the government can swap pardoned foreign spies with its own spies —or alleged spies— who may have been convicted of espionage abroad. On Friday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced he had pardoned two Russian nationals who had been convicted of espionage against Lithuania, in accordance with the new criminal code. The president’s move was approved by the country’s multi-agency State Defense Council during a secret meeting.

Shortly after President Nausėda’s announcement, Sergei Naryshkin, Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said that Moscow would immediately proceed with “reciprocal steps”. The Kremlin soon released from prison two Lithuanian nationals, Yevgeny Mataitis and Aristidas Tamosaitis. Tamosaitis was serving a 12-year prison sentence, allegedly for carrying out espionage for the Lithuanian Defense Ministry in 2015. Mataitis, a dual Lithuanian-Russian citizen, was serving 13 years in prison, allegedly for supplying Lithuanian intelligence with classified documents belonging to the Russian government.

The two Lithuanians were exchanged for two Russians, Nikolai Filipchenko and Sergei Moisejenko. Filipchenko is believed to be an officer in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who was arrested by Lithuanian counterintelligence agents in 2015. He had been given a 10-year prison sentence for trying to recruit double agents inside Lithuania, allegedly in order to install listening bugs inside the office of the then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite. Moisejenko was serving a 10½ year sentence for conducting espionage and for illegally possessing firearms. Lithuania alleges that Moisejenko had been tasked by Moscow with spying on the armed forces of Lithuania and NATO. Along with the two Lithuanians, Russia freed Frode Berg (pictured), a Norwegian citizen who was serving a prison sentence in Russia, allegedly for acting as a courier for the Norwegian Intelligence Service.

On Saturday, Darius Jauniškis, Director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, told reporters in Vilnius that the spy swap had taken place in a remote part of the Russian-Lithuanian border. He gave no further information about the details exchange, or about who was present at the site during the spy-swap.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 November 2019 | Research credit: E.G. | Permalink