Firm founded by ex-Blackwater boss to operate in China’s Xinjiang province

Erik PrinceA security firm founded by Erik Prince, the former boss of the private military company Blackwater, has announced a deal with the Chinese state to operate a training facility in China’s largely Muslim Xinjiang province. In the months following the United States invasion of Iraq, Blackwater was hired by the Department of State to provide diplomatic security at several locations throughout the Middle Eastern country. By 2010, when the company was abruptly sold to a group of private investors, its tactics in Iraq had prompted international controversy. Prince went on to help found Frontier Services Group (FSG), another private security firm registered in Hong Kong. The company provides security training to personnel working for Chinese companies. Its specialization is training personnel of Chinese firms based abroad, mainly in regions of Africa.

The announcement of the new training center was posted on the FSG’s Chinese-language website. It said that one of FSG’s subsidiaries had struck an agreement to build and operate a “training center” at the Kashgar Caohu industrial park in the city of Kashgar, one of China’s westernmost cities, situated near the country’s border with Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The city of 1 million people is located in the province of Xinjiang. In recent months, Beijing has been heavily criticized by several Western countries for allegedly carrying out mass detentions of Uighur Muslims, which make up about half of Xinjiang’s population. Uighurs are ethnically related to the peoples of Central Asia and speak a Turkic dialect. Some see the Chinese state as an occupier and advocate secession, often combined with calls to create an Islamic caliphate. China denies the allegations of mass detentions and claims that Uighurs are voluntarily enrolled in “educational and training facilities”, where they are de-radicalized through political and cultural instruction. Up to a million Uighurs are believed to have been enrolled in these facilities in the past year.

It is worth noting that the initial announcement of the Kashgar Caohu training center agreement between FSG and its Chinese client was eventually deleted from the company’s website. Late last week, an FSG spokesperson told several news agencies, including Reuters, that Prince was not involved in what was described in a statement as a “preliminary agreement” for a training center in Xinjiang. The spokesperson added that Prince probably had “no involvement whatsoever” in the agreement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 5 February 2019 | Permalink

Advertisements

Pakistan dismantled ‘major international spy network’, say media reports [updated]

Pakistan Federal Investigation AgencyMedia reports in Pakistan claimed yesterday that “an international spying network” had been dismantled in the country following the arrests of at least five intelligence officials who were working for foreign interests. According to The News International, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, the arrests were carried out earlier this week by the Federal Investigation Agency, the country’s primary counterintelligence agency. Those arrested were allegedly members of Pakistan’s intelligence and security forces, it said. They reportedly include a Pakistani official with diplomatic credentials who was serving in a Pakistani embassy “in a European capital”. [Update: by 1700 EST on Friday, the article on The News International website had been taken down; but an English-language summary of the article can still be found on this website].

The report did not specify the foreign intelligence agency for which the Pakistani officials were allegedly working. But it said that it belonged to one of “the world’s most powerful countries”. It added that the network had been “completely dismantled” following a counterintelligence operation that an unnamed source described to the paper as “remarkable”. As a result, the adversary spy network in Pakistan had been “crippled […] completely”, added The News International.

The conservative-leaning paper, which supports Pakistan’s new center-right Prime Minister Imran Khan, hinted that the alleged spy network may have been working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency. It said that the agency that was involved in running the spy ring had been allowed by the government of Pakistan to “roam free” inside Pakistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Its case officers had been allowed to recruit agents in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region in the northwest of the country that is seen as a Taliban stronghold. The paper also protested against prior arrangements that permitted the foreign agency’s case officers to enter and leave Pakistan “with no scrutiny of their luggage”. It added that the government of Prime Minister Khan decided to move against this and other spy networks run by the foreign intelligence agency after it determined that these networks were “working for the interests of that agency in Pakistan and not for Pakistan’s national interests”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 February 2019 | Permalink

Morton Sobell, convicted of conspiracy in the Rosenberg espionage case, dies at 101

Morton SobellMorton Sobell, an American radar engineer who in 1951 was convicted of conspiracy alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in one of the Cold War’s most prominent espionage cases, has died at 101 years old. His death was announced yesterday by his son, Mark, who also said that his father died on December 26 last year at a nursing home, but that the family had not alerted the media.

Sobell was born in New York’s Manhattan Island in 1917 and worked on radar tracking systems for defense contractors. During college, he and several of his friends, including fellow-engineer Julius Rosenberg, joined the United States Communist Party, partly in reaction to the Great Depression. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to arrest members of what the United States government claimed was a Soviet atomic spy ring led by Rosenberg, Sobell escaped with his family to Mexico, where he used a fake identity to evade the authorities. But he was dramatically abducted by a paramilitary force and surrendered to the FBI.

He was then tried alongside Rosenberg and his wife Ethel for conspiracy to commit acts of espionage. The Rosenbergs refused to cooperate with the FBI and were sentenced to death. Both were executed in 1953 and remain to this day the only American citizens to have been executed for espionage after the Civil War. Sobel was found guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy and no evidence was presented in court that connected him to atomic espionage. He was therefore sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 18 of those, following a successful public-relations campaign organized by his wife, Hellen. He was released from prison in 1969 and continued to insist that he had never been a spy and had been wrongly convicted of conspiracy.

But in 2008, at the age of 91, Sobell spoke to The New York Times and publicly admitted for the first time that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union. He said that he had worked systematically to provide Moscow with information on weapons systems and other classified technologies. However, he had “never thought of it” as spying, he said. He also told The Times that he had developed a favorable impression of Soviet communism during the Great Depression, when he and many others saw the Soviet economic system as an antidote to crisis-ridden capitalism. “Now I know it was an illusion”, he told the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2019 | Permalink

Hundreds of MI5 officers prepare for Brexit violence in Northern Ireland

New IRAThe British Security Service (MI5) has over 700 officers —more than 20 percent of its entire force— stationed in Northern Ireland, due to fears that the Brexit process might reignite the centuries-long sectarian conflict there. In 1922, nationalist rebels managed to dislodge Ireland from the British Empire. But six counties in Ireland’s north remained under British dominion, and today form the British territory of Northern Ireland. Irish nationalists have for decades engaged in an unsuccessful campaign —at times peaceful and at times violent— to unite these counties with the Republic of Ireland. Following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, nationalist and British loyalist groups in Northern Ireland terminated their armed operations and entered the political arena, effectively sharing power in the British territory. The integration of Ireland and Britain into the European Union helped in that process by effectively bringing to an end border checks between the two countries. Thus, pro-British loyalists continued to live under British rule, while nationalists have been able to cross from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic and back without restrictions, as if the two states were effectively unified.

But this open-border regime is about to change once Britain leaves the European Union in March. Many fear that the reinstated border will remind nationalist communities in the North that the island of Ireland remains partitioned and will thus reignite secessionist sentiments. A few days ago, the London-based newspaper The Daily Mail cited an unnamed “counterterrorism source” who said that MI5, Britain’s primary counterterrorism agency, had stationed a fifth of its force in Northern Ireland. The agency is allegedly monitoring a number of dissident republican groups —a term used to describe armed groups of Irish nationalists who continue to reject the nationalist community’s majority view to endorse the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998. One such group —which is commonly seen as the most formidable in existence today— is the self-described New Irish Republican Army. The New IRA was formed in 2012 when dissident republican cells joined another dissident nationalist group, known as the Real IRA. The new formation is particularly strong in Northern Ireland’s extreme northwest, which includes urban centers like Derry. British security officials believe that the New IRA consists of about 40 hardcore members who are committed to an armed campaign against British rule in the North.

Nearly 50 New IRA militants are currently serving sentences in the British and Irish prison systems, while several raids of New IRA members’ residences and other properties have unearthed weaponry —including fully automatic weapons— and explosives. But the group managed to detonate a car bomb in Derry on January 19 of this year. The bomb employed gas canisters and went off nearly 30 minutes after an unidentified man called a charity shop located nearby and issued a bomb warning. Police officers rushed to the scene and were there when the bomb exploded. There were no injuries, according to reports in local media.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 January 2019 | Permalink

South African probe into murder of Rwandan ex-spy chief unearths new evidence

Patrick KaregeyaA public inquest into the 2014 killing of a Rwandan dissident and former spy chief, who had been given political asylum in South Africa, has unearthed evidence showing that South African authorities believed the killers had close links to the government of Rwanda. It also appears that the South Africans chose not to prosecute the killers in order to protect their diplomatic ties with the Rwandan government. Patrick Karegeya was a leading member of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was founded in 1987 in Uganda by Rwandan Tutsi refugees. In 1994, the RPA, led by Paul Kagame, took control of Rwanda, thus putting an end to the genocide of up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Soon afterwards Karegeya was named Director General of External Intelligence in the RPA, which was renamed to Rwandan Defense Forces.

In 2004 however, after falling out with Kagame, who had become President of Rwanda in 2000, Karegeya was arrested, stripped of his rank of colonel, and served 18 months in prison for “insubordination and desertion”. He fled the country in 2007 and received political asylum in South Africa. In 2011, the Rwandan government issued an international arrest warrant for Karegeya, but South Africa refused to extradite him. His body was discovered on December 31, 2014, in a room at the Michelangelo Towers Hotel in Sandton, an affluent suburb of Johannesburg. He was 53.

Earlier this month, in response to pressures from Karegeya’s family and human rights groups, the government of South Africa began a formal inquest into the murder, in anticipation of launching a possible court case. Earlier this week, the magistrate in charge of the inquest, Mashiane Mathopa, made public a previously secret letter from the South African prosecutor’s office about Karegeya’s murder. In the letter, dated June 5, 2018, explains the prosecutor’s decision to “decline at this stage” to prosecute the murder. The decision rests on two arguments. The first argument is that the four men who were believed to have killed Karegeya had already “left South Africa and returned to Rwanda”. The second argument is that there were “close links […] between the suspects and the current Rwandan government”.

On Monday, Mathopa suggested that the South African authorities may have decided not to investigate Karegeya’s murder in order to “help repair” South Africa’s bilateral relations with Rwanda. He then halted the inquest and gave police officials two weeks to “explain their failure to prosecute” Karegeya’s alleged murderers. He also requested detailed information about the “steps, if any, [that] have been taken to arrest the four suspects […], since their whereabouts and their identity are known” to the authorities. Supporters of the inquest said earlier this week that Mathopa could potentially order a trial of the case, which might lead to a formal request made by South Africa for Rwanda to extradite the four men implicated in the case.

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

CIA has maintained secret communication with North Korea for 10 years

Mike Pompeo North KoreaWith presidential approval, the United States Central Intelligence Agency has maintained a secret channel of communication with North Korea since at least 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal. Many were surprised in 2018, when the then CIA director Mike Pompeo made a sudden visit to Pyongyang to speak with senior North Korean officials. But according to The Wall Street Journal, the CIA channel with the North Koreans had been there since at least 2009 and Pompeo simply “re-energized it” after being instructed to do so by the White House.

The United States and North Korea have never had official diplomatic relations, nor have they ever maintained embassies at each other’s capitals. In rare instances, the North Korean Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York has been utilized to pass messages from the White House to the communist country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No other systematic diplomatic activity between the two sides has ever been reported.

But an article published in The Wall Street Journal on Monday claims that an intelligence channel between the CIA and unspecified North Korean intelligence officials has been active —with some periods of dormancy— for at least a decade. The previously unreported channel has led to a number of public meetings, such as the 2014 visit to Pyongyang by James Clapper, the then US Director of National Intelligence, as well as an earlier visit to the North Korean capital by former US President Bill Clinton in 2009. But, says the paper citing “current and former US officials”, most of the contacts have been secret. They include several visits to North Korea by CIA official Joseph DeTrani before and after Clinton’s visit, as well as two trips to Pyongyang by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, in 2012 and 2013. His successor, Avril Haines, also visited North Korea, says The Journal, but notes that the channel went “dormant late in the Obama administration”.

Upon becoming CIA director following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, Mike Pompeo was briefed about the secret channel’s existence and decided to resume it, with Trump’s agreement. That led to his eventual visit to North Korea along with Andrew Kim, who at the time headed the CIA’s Korea Mission Center. Eventually, this channel of communication facilitated the high-level summit between President Trump and Supreme leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore. The Wall Street Journal said it reached out to the CIA, the Department of State and the White House about this story, but received no responses. The North Korean mission in the United Nations in New York also declined to comment.

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

‘Illusion of safety’ blamed for deaths of four US service members in Syria

Manbij SyriaThe “illusion of safety” has been blamed for the death of four American service members in northern Syria last week, after a suicide bomber attacked a restaurant, killing at least 19 people and wounding countless others. The deadly attack happened in Manbij, a small Kurdish-majority town near the Syrian-Turkish border, which American forces previously viewed as an oasis of security in the war-torn country. American troops fought alongside a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters who in 2016 took control of Manbij from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since then, American forces have remained in the area —mostly to prevent a military invasion by Washington’s ally Turkey, which views the Kurds as terrorists and has threatened to destroy their armed forces.

The relative stability of Manbij was violently disrupted last Wednesday, when a man detonated a suicide vest inside the Palace of the Princes restaurant in downtown Manbij. Until that moment, United States forces had lost just two members during the Syrian Civil War. Four more Americans died in Wednesday’s blast, including two service members, a military contractor and a civilian intelligence officer working for the Pentagon. Three other Americans were wounded and were airlifted out of the country. In an insightful article published last week, The New York Times quoted a US Special Forces member who wondered whether the US troops in northern Syria have “developed a false sense of security” in what remains a dangerous conflict zone. “The illusion of safety”, said the anonymous commentator, had caused the behavior of American service members in Manbij to fall into predictable routines. That became a vulnerability that the Islamic State was able to exploit, he said.

The Sunni militant group targeted the Palace of the Princes, one of the most popular eateries for Americans in Manbij. The Times quoted locals who said that American troops appeared to eat there nearly every time they patrolled the city, “often many times a week”. They would even park their military vehicles outside the restaurant while dining there, they said. The paper commented that many US troops had “grown complacent and should have varied their […] routes or increased their operational security” while on patrol. Unfortunately, however, their presence —and lack of adequate security— was noticed by the Islamic State, which targeted them on Wednesday.

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