French police officer charged in complex spy case involving Morocco, Algeria

Paris Orly AirportA French police officer has been charged with illegally sharing secret government documents in an espionage case involving France’s border police and diplomats from Morocco and Algeria. According to information published by the French daily Libération, the police officer supplied Moroccan intelligence with classified information about France’s border-control policies and procedures. He also gave the Moroccans information about the movements in France of Moroccan nationals and senior Algerian government officials.

According to the report by Libération, the police officer, identified only as “Charles D.”, was charged on May 31 of this year with corruption and violating secrecy rules. Court documents state that Charles D. gave away classified documents belonging to the Direction centrale de la police aux frontières (DCPAF), a directorate of the French National Police that is in charge of immigration control and border protection across France. He reportedly gave the documents to another man, identified in court documents as “Driss A.”, who worked at Paris’ Orly Airport. It is believed that Driss A. worked as director of the Orly branch of ICTS International, a Dutch-based company that provides security services in several European airports. It is also believed that Driss A. —a Moroccan-born French citizen— was secretly employed by the Deuxième Bureau, Morocco’s military intelligence service. It appears that the Moroccans compensated Charles D with free holidays in Morocco in exchange for his services.

Interestingly, when French counterintelligence officers raided Driss A.’s home in Paris, they found documents detailing the activities of senior Algerian government ministers during their official trips to France. The officials are identified in the documents as Algeria’s former Deputy Prime Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, Higher Education Minister Tahar Hadjar, and Telecommunications Minister Hamid Grine. The documents appear to have been produced by Algerian intelligence and given initially to the embassy of Algeria in France. No explanation has been given about how these documents fell in Driss A.’s possession. Some observers assume that Driss A., acting as a Moroccan intelligence operative, must have acquired them from a source inside the Algerian embassy in Paris.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2017 | Permalink

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Probe uncovers massive $3 billion secret bribe fund in Azerbaijan

Ilham AliyevAn investigation by a consortium of European newspapers has uncovered details of a massive slush fund worth nearly $3 billion, which was allegedly used by Azerbaijan’s governing elite to bribe officials, business leaders and journalists at home and abroad. The fund was operated out of Baku, the capital of the former Soviet state, which is routinely accused of human-rights abuses. Western countries, including the United States, censure the government of the oil-rich state for its role in systematic abuses. These involve high levels of public- and private-sector corruption, vote-rigging, politically motivated disappearances, and wide curtailment of basic civil liberties. This new information is bound to add to Azerbaijan’s image as a secretive oil-rich state ruled by corrupt elite connected to the country’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and his family.

The existence of the slush fund was revealed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative consortium. The OCCRP’s report was published in Tuesday, following a lengthy investigation by members of 17 European news media, including publications in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium. The report states that the fund, which it nicknames “the Azerbaijani Laundromat”, was operational for over two years, from 2012 to 2014. During that time, it participated in “over 13,000 transactions”, many of which were carried out through companies based in the United Kingdom but registered in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and the Seychelles. Payments were processed by the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, a major European banking institution.

According to the OCCRP report, most of the fund’s recipients were politicians, business executives, reporters and other influential people in Western Europe, as well as Turkey and Central Asia. Other recipients included wealthy families in Azerbaijan, who used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle, according to the report. Some foreign recipients of the funds were politicians, journalists or lobbyists who have been vocal in supporting Azerbaijan’s government and its policies. Most of the funds are believed to have originated from Azerbaijani-based companies, primarily Baktelecom MMC. But Russian-based companies, including Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-operated exporter and importer of defense-related technologies, also contributed over $30 million to the slush fund.

Perhaps most controversially, the OCCRP report alleges that some of the secret slash funds originated from senior cabinet members in Azerbaijan, as well as some intelligence officials. It also states that investigators uncovered “ample evidence of [the fund’s] connection to the family of [Azerbaijan’s longtime] President Ilham Aliyev”. Late on Tuesday, a statement issued by President Aliyev’s office rejected the report as “baseless, malicious and […] provocative in nature”. More reactions to the OCCRP report are expected in the coming days.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 September 2017 | Permalink

More facts revealed about mystery sonic attacks on US embassy in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAmerican officials have revealed more information about a mysterious sonic device that is believed to have caused numerous diplomats to suffer hearing loss and other serious ailments. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the first hearing-loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. The news agency said that at least five embassy personnel reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”, according to the Associated Press.

Now new information has been disclosed by the United States Department of State. It suggests that, although diplomats began reporting hearing-loss symptoms in as early as fall 2016, the incidents continued until mid-August of this year. In a report published on Saturday, the BBC said that the bizarre incidents had not ended “several months ago” as was initially believed. Instead, they continued even after the last week of May, when the US deported two Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC. The move was in response to what Washington believes was a deliberate attempt to sabotage its diplomatic mission in Havana. The American embassy in the Cuban capital reopened in 2015, 54 years after it was closed down following a series of diplomatic rifts between Cuba and the US during the height of the Cold War.

Additionally, the Department of State said on Friday that the number of American diplomats and other US embassy personnel who have reported sonic-related symptoms has increased to 19. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington that doctors were still evaluating the health of those serving at the US embassy in Havana. She added that new cases of people suffering from sonic-related medical symptoms could not be ruled out. A report from the American Foreign Service Association, which represents members of the United States Foreign Service, said on Friday that its representatives had spoken to 10 people who had received various treatments for ailments related to the alleged sonic attacks in Cuba. It said that many had suffered “permanent hearing loss”, while others were diagnosed with mild brain injuries.

According to media reports, Washington has concluded that the American diplomats were exposed to “an advanced device that was deployed either inside or outside their residences”. But the Cuban government denied that it had anything to do with the American diplomats’ symptoms, and some believe that the alleged “covert sonic device” may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of Cuban authorities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2017 | Permalink

US troops in Syria battle anti-Assad rebels once funded by the CIA

US troops in SyriaAmerican troops deployed in Syria have exchanged fire with rebels that were until recently supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In 2013, soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. Acting on the president’s directive, the CIA promptly joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles. But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. It soon became apparent that many Free Syrian Army soldiers approached Turkey, seeking financial income and protection. By early August, there were reports from Syria that large groups of former Free Syrian Army troops were conducting raids in northern Syria in coordination with the Turkish military.

Early on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve told reporters that US troops in Syria had come under fire by Turkish-commanded former Free Syrian Army units. The spokesman told reporters in Kuwait City that the rebels shot at US troops in the outskirts of Manbij, a northern Syrian city of about 70,000, located a few miles from the Turkish border. The American soldiers reportedly returned fire before seeking shelter from the assault. According to the US Pentagon, the Turkish government was promptly contacted by Inherent Resolve commanders, who described the incident as “not acceptable”. Washington alleges that its troops have come under fire “multiple times” in the past month. Some of the culprits are believed to be Turkish-controlled Syrian insurgents, including former members of the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey and the US are member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the two countries do not follow a common policy on Syria. The US Pentagon supports Kurdish insurgents in Syria, which Turkey claims are connected with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Washington’s official position on Kurdish separatists is that they engage in terrorism against the Turkish state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2017 | Permalink

Ukraine releases rare footage showing arrests of North Korean nuclear spies

North Korean SpiesUkrainian authorities have released rare surveillance footage filmed during a sting operation that ended with the capture of three North Korean spies. The North Koreans, two of whom are now serving prison sentences in Ukraine, had traveled there in 2011 believing they would be given missile technology secrets. Last July, North Korea surprised missile technology experts by successfully testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Government-controlled media in Pyongyang claimed that North Korean ICBMs were capable of reaching the United States’ mainland.

On August 14, a report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) suggested that North Korea’s technological leap had been achieved with assistance from abroad. The report claimed that one possible source of North Korea’s technical advancement was the Yuzhnoye Design Office, a corporation that specializes in the design of rockets and satellites. Based in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Yuzhnoye has its roots in the Soviet space and weapons program of the early 1950s. Following the publication of the IISS report, some experts claimed that North Korean spies may have illicitly purchased or stolen missile designs from Yuzhnoye. Ukrainian authorities strongly denied these allegations, and argued that Russia was a far more likely source of North Korea’s technical knowledge —something that Moscow refutes. In an effort to strengthen their claims, Ukrainian officials were authorized to release details of counterespionage operations against North Korean spies in recent years. They told the US-based news network CNN that several North Korean spies had been caught spying in Ukraine in recent years, and that Ukraine responded in 2016 by barring all North Koreans from entering the country.

The Ukrainians also released to CNN surveillance footage filed during a sting operation in 2011, in which three North Korean diplomats were caught photographing classified documents in Ukraine. The documents, which contained technical blueprints of missiles, were fake, and the operation had been planned by the Ukrainians several years prior. The three North Koreans had traveled to Ukraine from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s embassy in Moscow. One of the men, who had been tasked with transporting stolen hardware missile parts out of Ukraine, was deported following his arrest. His two accomplices are currently serving eight-year prison sentences in a Ukrainian prison located nearly 90 miles west of Kiev. Reporters from CNN were also granted access to the two North Korean prisoners, known only as “X5” and “X32”. The younger prisoner, who goes by X32, declined to be interviewed. But X5, who is in his mid-50s, told CNN that he was born in Pyongyang and that at the time of his arrest he was serving as a trade representative in the DPRK’s embassy in Belarus.

Ukrainian officials told CNN that the two men were visited in jail once by officials in the DPRK’s embassy in Moscow, but that was their only contact —face-to-face or otherwise— with North Korean citizens since their arrest. The officials argued that this information about Ukraine’s counterespionage operations against North Korean spies should help dispel all allegations that Pyongyang may have acquired its missile knowhow from Ukrainian sources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2017 | Permalink

Russia jailed senior intelligence officers for helping CIA nab notorious hackers

FSB - JFTwo senior officers in the Russian intelligence services were charged with treason after they were found to have helped the United States catch two notorious Russian hackers, according to reports in the Russian media. Sergey Mikhailov was a career officer in the Federal Security Service —a descendant of the domestic section of the Soviet-era KGB— which is often referred to as Russia’s equivalent of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mikhailov had risen through the ranks of the FSB to eventually head the agency’s Center for Information Security. Known in Russia as CIB, the Center is tasked with investigating electronic crime in the Russian Federation.

But in December 2016, Mikhailov and one of his trusted deputies in the CIB, Dmitry Dokuchaev, were suddenly removed from their posts and arrested. The arrests marked some of the highest-profile detentions of intelligence officers in Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union. Russian authorities refused to reveal the reasons for the arrests, but confirmed that the two men had been charged with treason. Reports soon surfaced in the Russian media, claiming that Mikhailov and Dokuchaev were arrested for their involvement in a Russian criminal hacker gang. Some Western media, including The New York Times, speculated that the two men may have been arrested for helping US intelligence investigate Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

But now a new report alleges that Mikhailov and Dokuchaev were charged with treason after helping the US Central Intelligence Agency catch two prolific Russian hackers. The report was aired on Russian television station TV Dozhd, also known as TV Rain, a privately owned channel based in Moscow, which broadcasts in Russia and several other former Soviet Republics. One of the hackers, Roman Seleznev, known in hacker circles as Track2, reached worldwide notoriety for defrauding major credit card companies of tens of millions of dollars. He was arrested in 2014 in the South Asian island country of Maldives and eventually extradited to the US to stand trial. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison, which he is currently serving. The other hacker, Yevgeniy Nikulin, was arrested in the Czech Republic in 2016, pursuant to a US-issued international arrest warrant. He is now awaiting extradition to the US, where he is expected to be tried for hacking several high-profile companies, including DropBox and LinkedIn.

TV Dozhd said that Russian authorities are also suspecting the men of being members of hacker gangs, but that their main charges relate to their close cooperation with American intelligence agencies, reportedly in exchange for cash.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 August 2017 | Permalink

CIA warned Barcelona police two months ago about possible Islamist attack

BarcelonaThe United States Central Intelligence Agency recently warned Spanish authorities that the Islamic State planned to attack Barcelona, according to Spanish media. The disclosure follows Thursday’s dramatic events in the Catalan capital, where a white van deliberately drove into a crowd in the pedestrian mall of La Rambla, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 100. The attack was followed by reports early on Friday that Catalan police had shot dead four suspects who were planning a second strike.

In the hours following the attack, several observers noted that Barcelona was always an obvious target for the Islamic State, given that the group had already perpetrated terrorist attacks in Berlin, London, Paris and Brussels. They also raised questions about the low level of police presence and the absence of anti-vehicle barrier systems in Barcelona —one of Europe’s busiest tourist destinations. Late on Thursday, the Catalan newspaper El Periódico reported that, two months ago, the CIA alerted the Mossos d’Esquadra, the autonomous police and security service of Catalonia, of a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State. According to the Barcelona-based daily, the CIA even mentioned La Rambla as the main target of Islamist militants.

Even before the CIA issued its warning, the Islamic State had directed several threats against Spain since 2014, when the group first appeared in Syria. As El Periódico said, the group’s followers “consider themselves obligated to re-establish Islam” in areas that were ruled by Muslim leaders in the past. For much of the medieval period, Spain and Portugal were known as Al-Andalus, and were ruled by a succession of Muslim caliphs. The Spanish daily also reported that a Twitter account associated with the Islamic State issued several warnings against Spain two weeks ago. Specifically, on July 30, the account twitted a series of messages that read: “We will implement the caliphate in Spain and will recover our land. Impending attack on Al-Andalus, God willing”. Similar threats had been issued a year ago on social media, but were later disregarded after they failed to materialize, said El Periódico.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 August 2017 | Permalink