Concerns about mass breakouts of jailed ISIS fighters if Turkey invades northern Syria

Turkey ISISOfficials in the United States, Europe and the Middle East have warned that thousands of jailed members of the Islamic State could escape from Kurdish-controlled prisons in northern Syria if Turkey invades the region. For more than two years, the area has been controlled by American-supported Kurdish militias, who were instrumental in helping Washington defeat the Islamic State —also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. But the growing strength of the Kurdish forces has alarmed Turkey, which views Kurdish nationalism in the region as a bigger threat than Salafi jihadism. Ankara has repeatedly threatened to invade northern Syria and disarm the Kurdish groups, which it sees as terrorist.

The continuous presence of American troops in northern Syria has served to dissuade Turkey from invading. Yesterday, however, the White House surprised observers by announcing its sudden decision to pull its troops from northern Syria. Washington’s unexpected move drew criticism from Kurdish commanders who spoke of betrayal, as well as by members of both political parties in Congress. Security officials also expressed fears that Turkey’s focus on the Kurds could allow ISIS to regroup in northern Syria. A statement issued by the White House on Monday said that Turkey would assume control of over 10,000 captured ISIS fighters who are currently being held in Kurdish-administered prison camps in northern Syria. But experts said that the wider Kurdish-controlled region of northern Syria, which Turkey intends to capture, is home to dozens of prisons with over 60,000 captured ISIS supporters in them. What will be the fate of these prisoners under Turkish control?

Security observers have repeatedly accused Turkey in the past of turning a blind eye to ISIS, whose members fought a prolonged and bloody war against Iraqi and Syrian Kurds from 2016 to 2018. There are no guarantees that the Turks will not utilize a resurgent ISIS to suppress Kurdish nationalism in the region. In fact, some experts, including retired American generals, warned on Monday that a Turkish invasion of northern Syria would give ISIS “a golden chance to regroup”. There are concerns of mass breakouts of ISIS members from Kurdish-controlled prisons in Syria, amidst the widespread chaos caused by a Turkish military onslaught. Such breakouts have been encouraged by ISIS leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself. Escaped prisoners would most likely join the nearly 20,000 estimated ISIS fighters who are still at large in Iraq and Syria, thus contributing to a potentially catastrophic regeneration of the militant Sunni group, according to experts.

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

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Iran arrests Russian journalist for espionage in rare spat with key ally Moscow

Yulia YuzikIn a surprising move last week, Iranian authorities arrested a Russian journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, whom they accused of spying for Israel. They later agreed to release her following significant diplomatic pressure from Russia. But the move surprised observers, because Iran rarely acts in ways that have the potential to damage its close relations with Moscow.

The journalist in question is Yulia Yuzik, a 38-year-old reporter with considerable expertise on Russia’s Caucasus region. Her articles on the security situation in the Caucasus have been published in several Russian and Western outlets, including Foreign Policy and GQ. She has also authored a number of books on Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, which have been translated into several foreign languages, such as German, Italian and French.

In 2017, Yuzik spent several months in Iran while working on a number of stories. She returned to Russia before returning to Iran on September 29 of this year, reportedly “on a private trip”. Media reports stated that Yuzik intending to meet a number of Iranian journalists that she worked with back in 2017. However, upon landing at Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Yuzik had her passport confiscated without explanation, and was forced to enter the country without identity and travel documents. Then, last Thursday she was arrested at her hotel in downtown Tehran by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who apparently broke down the door of her hotel room before arresting her.

There were no news of Yuzik’s whereabouts until the following day, when staff at the Russian embassy in the Iranian capital were contacted by her family. Yuzik’s family said that the IRGC had charged her with collecting intelligence for the Mossad, Israel’s spy service. Russian media reports said that the accusations against Yuzik took Russian diplomats by the surprise, given that Yuzik has no apparent connection to Israel, nor does she have a travel visa to enter that country. She reportedly spent a few days there in 2004 while writing a story about the Israel Defense Forces for Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Yuzik’s family told the Russian embassy that she had been scheduled to appear in a Tehran court on Saturday. The Russian embassy gave a press briefing to reporters on Friday, saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador to Moscow to complain about Yuzik’s arrest. Then early on Saturday, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, announced that Yuzik would be released soon and would be allowed to return home to Russia.

The incident has surprised observers, because Russia is one of Iran’s closest international allies. It is therefore highly unusual for Tehran to take any action that might potentially provoke Moscow or otherwise damage its diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 October 2019 | Permalink

Espionage scandal prompts resignations of top Swiss banking executives

Credit SuisseTwo senior executives of Credit Suisse, one of the world’s most powerful banking firms, have resigned amidst a high-stakes espionage scandal that may have prompted a suicide and has shocked Switzerland. The alleged target of the espionage is Iqbal Khan, the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Credit Suisse’s wealth-management division. The 43-year-old Khan moved to Switzerland from his native Pakistan at the age of 12. In 2013, after working for more than a decade as an auditor at Ernst & Young, he joined Credit Suisse. He quickly rose to head the institution’s wealth-management division and was credited with having nearly doubled its profits between 2016 and 2018.

Khan’s meteoric success brought him immense financial wealth. He soon bought a piece of property that is adjacent to the home of Tidjane Thiam, the 57-year-old CEO of Credit Suisse. Khan and his wife had the house on their property demolished and began a two-year project to build a new house. But the disruption caused by the large-scale construction project gave rise to a dispute between Thiam and Khan. Their rivalry escalated quickly and prompted the intervention of Credit Suisse board chairman Urs Rohner. However, the dispute between the two men was not resolved, and on July 1 of this year Khan left Credit Suisse. On August 29, Credit Suisse’s rival UBS announced that Khan would co-lead its global wealth management division.

It appears that some Credit Suisse executives were concerned that Khan might try to attract their firm’s customers to his new UBS portfolio. These concerns allegedly prompted Credit Suisse’s Chief Operating Officer (COO), Pierre-Olivier Bouee, to instruct the bank’s security department to keep tabs on Khan. The bank reportedly hired a private investigation firm, Investigo, to monitor Khan’s movements. There was an unexpected turn on September 17, when Khan noticed that he was being followed and promptly confronted an Investigo employee in downtown Zurich. On the same day, the former Credit Suisse star manager filed a complaint with the Zurich office of the Swiss Public Prosecutor.

On September 18, Credit Suisse gave orders to Investigo to stop keeping tabs on Khan. It also launched an internal investigation to evaluate the merits of the decision to spy on Khan. Meanwhile, the Swiss Public Prosecutor’s office announced that it had opened a criminal case on Investigo and had arrested three individuals in connection with the case. On September 24, a private investigator, who is believed to have been involved in Khan’s case, committed suicide. Media reports said the unidentified man was “an external security expert” who mediated between Credit Suisse and Investigo.

On Tuesday, Credit Suisse COO Bouee announced his resignation. Swiss media said the head of the bank’s global security division also resigned. Also on Tuesday, Credit Suisse’s internal investigation found that CEO Thiam had not been involved in the decision to spy on Khan.

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

FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

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

Head of Saudi king’s security detail shot dead in mysterious circumstances

Abdulaziz al-FaghamThe head of the security detail of Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been shot dead in mysterious circumstances. Abdulaziz al-Fagham was a Major General in Saudi Arabia’s Royal Guard Corps, whose mission is to protect the senior members of the oil kingdom’s royal family. Al-Fagham served two kings, king Salman and his predecessor, king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and was constantly seen alongside the in official functions. Since much current-affairs coverage in Saudi Arabia’s state-owned media revolves around the activities of the royal family, al-Fagham’s figure was familiar to most Saudis. They were reportedly shocked by the murder of such a familiar figure who was very close to the Saudi royal family.

But details of al-Fagham’s killing remain sparse. Saudi officials began posting social-media messages of condolence about al-Fagham and his family late on Saturday evening. It wasn’t until late on Sunday evening that the kingdom’s official media began to publish official reports of al-Fagham’s demise. State-run Saudi television said that al-Fagham, whom it described as a “bodyguard of the custodian of the two holy mosques”, had been killed following a “dispute of a personal nature”. A subsequent television report stated that al-Fagham had died on Saturday evening at a house belonging to a close friend of his in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, which is located on the shores of the Red Sea.

It has since emerged that while visiting his friend’s house, al-Fagham had a prolonged argument with another visitor named Mamdouh bin Meshaal al-Ali. The latter left the house in anger and later returned with a rifle, which he used to kill al-Fagham and injure two others, according to reports. Al-Fagham was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died of gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, police surrounded the house where the shootout took place and tried to arrest al-Ali. But the alleged culprit refused to surrender to police and was subsequently shot dead by security officers, following a firefight that injured several people.

The New York Times said on Sunday that around al-Fagham’s murder the Saudi intelligence services contacted their American counterparts seeking information on a number o Saudi citizens with alleged connections to terrorism. But it is not known whether the request for intelligence was in any way connected to al-Fagham’s killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2019 | Permalink

White House whistleblower is a CIA officer, report claims

Donald TrumpThe individual who filed a report claiming that United States President Donald Trump sought help from a foreign country to win the 2020 election is believed to be a male employee of the Central Intelligence Agency. The man, who is legally classified as a whistleblower, filed the report on August 12. It was released for publication on Thursday and is now available [.pdf] online. It claims that Trump tried to “solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 US presidential election. The basis of this claim refers to a telephone exchange between the US president and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, which took place on July 25.

The whistleblower’s report states that Trump asked Zelensky to investigate the business dealings of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine. The implication of the whistleblower’s allegation is that Trump sought to subvert the election effort of one of his main rivals for the US presidency. The whistleblower report, along with transcripts and memoranda that describe the July 25 telephone conversation between the two heads of state, form the basis of an impeachment inquiry that has been launched by Trump’s political rivals in Congress.

On Thursday, The New York Times cited what it said were three people who knew the identity of the whistleblower. The paper said that the whistleblower is a male employee of the CIA. In the past, the man had been assigned to work in the White House, said The Times. The secondment of CIA personnel to the White House is a regular occurrence. CIA personnel are temporarily assigned to perform duties relating to National Security Council meetings, or manage the White House Situation Room. They also monitor and help manage the White House secure communications system. The paper said that the CIA officer’s White House secondment had ended and that he had returned to the CIA headquarters by the time the July 25 telephone call between Trump and Zelensky took place. In his report [.pdf], the whistleblower states that he was “not a direct witness to most of the events described”. However, he cites accounts of these events by “multiple officials” who shared the information with him “in the course of official interagency business”.

Some have criticized The Times for leaking information about the whistleblower’s place of employment and past assignments. They argue that the information could allow the White House to identify the source of the complaint. By law, whistleblowers in the US have the right to remain anonymous, and thus be protected from possible retaliation from those whom they accuse of abusing their power. But the paper claims that the American public has a right to information about the whistleblower’s “place in government”, so as to assess his credibility and evaluate the significance of his allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 September 2019 | Permalink

Opinion: Saudi Arabia will not go to war with Iran, but it may pay others to do so

Saudi AramcoEver since a barrage of drone and missile attacks struck Saudi Arabia on September 14, many have wondered whether the oil kingdom will go to war with Iran. Riyadh has directly accused the Islamic Republic of being behind the attacks. But the speculation about a possible war is baffling, argues Nesrine Malik in a well-argued article published last Sunday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Saudi Arabia does not “go to war”, she says —it pays others to do so on its behalf.

The war in Yemen is a perfect example, argues Malik. Even though the Saudi monarchy is leading the foreign military involvement in that war, Saudi Arabia is supplying almost no ground troops in that war. There are only Saudi commanders who are managing groups of mercenaries from Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. A large portion of the Saudi-led force consists of Sudanese child soldiers, whose families are paid handsomely for supplying the oil kingdom’s force in Yemen with what Malik describes as “cannon fodder”. The Saudi commanders communicate their battle orders to their hired troops via satellite phones and use unmanned drones and high-flying planes to attack the predominantly Shiite Houthi rebels. That largely explains the high civilian toll in that war.

Meanwhile, the United States government announced last week that it will be sending several hundred troops to the oil kingdom and will be beefing up its air defense systems. But Malik wonders why it is that Saudi Arabia, which has been the world’s largest weapons importer since 2014, and whose 2018 arms purchases accounted for 12 percent of global defense spending last year, requires the presence of American troops on its soil for its protection. The answer is simple, she says: the Saudi regime purchases weapons, not to use them, but to make Wester defense industries dependent on its purchasing power. In other words, the Saudi monarchy buys Western weapons for political reasons. These purchases enable it to get away with its abysmal human-rights record at home, as well as its kidnappings and assassinations abroad.

In the meantime, says Malik, if Saudi Arabia goes to war against Iran, it will do so the way it always does: it will hire proxies —including the United States— to fight on its behalf.

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