North Korean diplomat, related to top regime official, defected to South, say sources

Kuwait CityA NORTH KOREAN ACTING ambassador, who is believed to be the son of one of the most senior officials of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), reportedly defected with his family to South Korea, according to sources. Two South Korean news outlets, the Yonhap News Agency and the Maeil Business Newspaper, reported the alleged defection on Monday. They both cited sources in the South Korean government.

The alleged defector is Ryu Hyun-Woo, who was serving as acting charge d’affaires at the North Korean embassy in Kuwait City, Kuwait. He assumed his post in October 2017, when the Kuwaiti government expelled the North Korean ambassador from the country. The expulsion was ordered in response to a nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang in September of that year, which was in violation of a United Nations Security Council resolution barring the communist state from carrying out nuclear activities.

The government in Pyongyang attributes major significance to its embassy in Kuwait City, since it constitutes its sole diplomatic presence in the Gulf region. Personnel who serve at the embassy are carefully vetted and come from some the most loyal families in the inner circle of the WPK. However, it appears that Ryu, who headed the embassy after October 2017, defected with his wife and children in September 2019. The family reportedly flew to South Korea, where they requested asylum upon arrival. According to the Maeil Business Newspaper, Ryu said he defected in order “to provide his children with a better future”.

According to the South Korean reports, Ryu is the son-in-law of Jon Il-Chun, who formerly directed the Central Committee Bureau 39 —or Office 39— of the WPK. This is the agency tasked by the North Korean regime with securing highly-sought-after hard foreign currency for use by the ruling family and their closest aides. It has been described as the operational nerve center of the North Korean government. If the reports of Ryu’s defection are correct, they would mark a major incident of disloyalty to the regime by a member of the innermost circle of the ruling elite.

Last October it was reported that Jo Song-gil, North Korea’s ambassador to Italy, who disappeared without trace in 2018, was believed to have resettled in South Korea. If true, that would make him the most senior official to defect from North Korea in over 20 years, and it would make Ryu the second most senior official to defect during that time.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2020 | Permalink

NSA places its Trump-appointed lawyer on administrative leave, pending probe

NSAAMERICA’S LARGEST SPY AGENCY, the National Security Agency, has reportedly placed on administrative leave its general counsel, who was installed on orders by the White House just hours before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. Michael Ellis worked as an aide to Representative Devin Nunes (R-Ca) until 2017, when he joined the White House as the senior associate counsel to President Trump and deputy legal advisor to the National Security Council (NSC). In 2020 he was promoted to NSC’s senior director for intelligence.

Last November, days after losing the presidential election, Trump attempted to appoint Ellis as NSA general counsel —effectively the chief legal officer at the spy agency. There was speculation that Trump’s move was part of an effort to declassify documents that he believed would harm the reputation of his domestic political enemies. But the NSA resisted the move, with its director, General Paul Nakasone, allegedly dismissing it as “an attempt to burrow a political appointee [who is] not qualified for the post into a career civil service position”. The Trump administration persisted, however, and last week the then-acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller ordered General Nakasone to appoint Ellis, as instructed, effective by 6:00 pm on January 16. The NSA continued to stall the move, but it eventually appointed Ellis as its general counsel at 6pm on January 19.

Now, however, it appears that Ellis has been placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation into his NSA appointment, which has been launched by the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General. According to The Washington Post, the investigation concerns “the circumstances of [Ellis’] selection” to serve as NSA’s general counsel. CBS News cites “a source familiar” with the case, who claims that Ellis is also facing allegations that he may have mishandled classified documents.

The NSA said it would not “comment on personnel matters”. The Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General said it would not confirm nor deny that Ellis was under investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2020 | Permalink

Trump pardons alleged recruiter of US Navy analyst who spied for Israel

Jonathan PollardDURING HIS LAST DAY in office, United States President Donald Trump issued a federal pardon for Aviem Sella, an Israeli former intelligence officer, who allegedly recruited Jonathan Pollard, an American who sold secrets to Israel. Pollard was released in November of 2015, after serving a 30-year sentence for being what US government prosecutors called “one of the most damaging spies in American history”. The convicted spy recently relocated to Israel, where many see him as a national hero.

In 1987, along with Pollard, the US government indicted Sella, accusing him of recruiting and helping handle Pollard on behalf of Israeli intelligence. Sella, who today is 75, was a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He allegedly began working for Israeli intelligence in the early 1980s. He left the US just days before Pollard was arrested while trying to enter the grounds of the Israeli embassy in Washington, seeking political protection. Israel refused to extradite him to the US and refused to charge him with a crime.

But in his last day in office yesterday, President Trump included Sella’s name in a list of 144 names of individuals to whom he granted last-minute federal pardons. In a statement, the White House explained Trump’s decision by saying that Israel had “issued a full and unequivocal apology [for Pollard’s spying], and has requested the pardon in order to close this unfortunate chapter in US-Israeli relations”. In a statement issued a few hours later, Pollard and his Israeli wife, Esther, said they were “truly happy” about Trump’s decision. They went on to day that pardoning Sella “puts an end to the affair’s bleeding wounds after 35 years”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2020 | Permalink | Thanks to A.B. for corrections

FBI is vetting all 25,000 US National Guard members at Biden’s inauguration

US Capitol attackIN AN UNPRECEDENTED MOVE, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is reportedly vetting every member of the United States National Guard who will be present at the upcoming inauguration of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. According to the Associated Press, the decision to vet the National Guard troops was taken after US defense officials expressed concerns about a potential “insider attack […] from service members involved in securing” the inauguration ceremony.

Approximately 25,000 members of the National Guard will be present in Washington on Wednesday, alongside police and other security personnel. Their numbers are expected to dwarf protective measures taken in previous inaugural events, including those of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It is not uncommon for troops to undergo background checks, especially in the post-9/11 security environment. But it is highly unusual for the FBI to vet that many individuals so quickly in preparation of a specific event. It is also uncommon in recent years for the focus to be on domestic rightwing threats to security, as opposed to Islamist threats.

On Monday the Associated Press quoted the Secretary of the Army, Ryan McCarthy, who said that military officials were “conscious of the potential threat” to security by insider threats. He added that he had “warned commanders to be on the lookout for any problems within the ranks” in the run-up to Wednesday. The news agency said the FBI began vetting the troops over a week ago, and expected to complete the process in time for the inauguration.

Meanwhile, in a related report, the Associated Press said last week that investigators probing the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 were concerned about the large numbers of attackers who appeared to display evidence of military training during the riot. There were “scores of people” mixed in the crowd of insurgents who “either had military training or were trained by those who did”, said the news agency. Others sported military-style gear, such as body armor, helmets, tactical vests, and two-way radios. There were even groups of insurgents who appeared to employ military tactics, such as moving among the crowd in formation.

The US Department of Defense is reportedly conducting investigations into its members who were allegedly involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Large police departments around the country, including Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Houston, are also investigating whether any of their employees participated in the attack on the Capitol, according to the Associated Press.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 January 2020 | Permalink

CIA chief ‘threatened to resign’ to prevent her replacement by Trump loyalist

Gina HaspelTHE DIRECTOR OF THE United States Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, reportedly threatened to resign on the spot in order to prevent a plan by the White House to replace her with a loyal ally of President Donald Trump. This was reported on Saturday by the American news website Axios, which cited three anonymous “senior administration officials” with direct knowledge of the matter.

President Trump reportedly planned to fire the heads of several federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including CIA, if he was re-elected in November. Following his electoral defeat, he discussed with his closest aides the possibility of proceeding with his plan to fire senior security and intelligence officials, as a form of retaliation against a part of the federal government that he views as disloyal to him. In particular, the president appears to believe that the CIA is in possession of secret documents that, if declassified, would harm the reputation of his domestic political enemies.

On November 9, the president summarily fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and replaced him with Chris Miller, who until then was serving as director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He also installed Kash Patel as Miller’s chief of staff. Patel is an attorney whose rise within the ranks of the Trump administration has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2019, after serving as Principal Deputy to the Director of National Intelligence for a number of months, Patel became senior director of the Counterterrorism Directorate at the National Security Council. He was also a former aide to Representative Devin Nunes (R-Ca), and is believed to have been the main author of a memorandum issues by Nunes, which accuses the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation of participating in a conspiracy to destroy Trump.

This memorandum, claims Axios, convinced Trump that Patel would make a good acting CIA director. He therefore planned to replace the CIA’s current deputy director, Vaughn Bishop, with Patel. He then planned to fire Haspel, which would elevate Patel to acting CIA director, according to Axios. The website claims that the president instructed the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to begin the process of replacing Bishop with Patel in early December. However, once Haspel was notified of the plan, she threatened to resign before Patel was installed at the CIA. Her resignation would mean that Trump would have to also fire Haspel’s replacement, Bishop, in order to place Patel at the helm of the agency.

By December 11, Trump had reportedly been convinced to keep Haspel as CIA director. A relatively amicable meeting between him and Haspel, followed by the counsel of his senior aides, allegedly contributed to his decisoin. Among those who spoke in Haspel’s favor was Vice President Mike Pence and Pat Chipollone, who serves as White House Counsel. At that time, said Axios, Meadows contacted Haspel to inform her that the president had reversed his decision, and canceled the paperwork for installing Patel at the CIA.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: Emergence of an armed insurgency is now a distinct possibility in the US

US CapitolWITH DOWNTOWN WASHINGTON RESEMBLING a large military encampment, a repeat of last week’s shocking assault on the Capitol Complex is highly improbable. But America could witness escalating levels of violence across many states, as supporters of the January 6 insurrection continue to organize themselves into a coherent armed movement. Their ability to threaten American national security will depend on whether they can overcome major internal divisions. It will also be determined by the speed with which United States authorities will respond to the rise of what is quickly becoming a dangerous militant movement.

Supporters of the nationalist insurrection that shook the nation on January 6 will undoubtedly return to Washington in time to make a show of force during the Inauguration of Joe Biden. Intelligence reports by US federal agencies mention as many as 17 separate events being planned in the nation’s capital by a variety of militant groups. If these events materialize, the US is likely to witness the largest armed protests in its history. Other gatherings —many of them involving armed militants— are scheduled to take place in all 50 states between January 16 and 20.Q Quote 1

The militants who will descend on Washington in the coming days are unlikely to engage in all-out hostilities against as many as 20,000 members of the US National Guard. The latter have reportedly been given clear rules of engagement, which include the use of lethal force against assailants. The command and control capabilities that are needed to seriously threaten a 20,000-strong professional army, make it unlikely that the insurrectionists will attempt such a suicidal mission. Nevertheless, the possibility that one or more small groups of die-hard militants will descend on Washington determined to engage in direct combat against the US military should not be disregarded. Their chances of a martial victory are extremely slim, but victory can also be achieved through what their supporters will interpret as heroism and —ultimately— martyrdom.

What is far more likely to happen is that the insurrectionists will engage the forces of the government asymmetrically —that is, by resorting to strategies and tactics of unconventional warfare. Such scenarios are more likely to materialize in the coming months, or even years, in the countryside of so-called ‘red states’, where some supporters of President Donald Trump may be willing to help the insurgents by giving them protection and cover. Read more of this post

Domestic extremists now pose the ‘greatest terrorism threat’ to the US, says report

US Capitol - IADOMESTIC EXTREMISTS, MOTIVATED BY conspiracy theories and opposed to mitigation measures against the coronavirus, pose “the greatest domestic terrorism threats” against the United States in 2021, according to a new government report. The report, dated January 13, is contained in a Joint Intelligence Bulletin, which is produced jointly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center. It was accessed by Yahoo News, which reported on its contents on Wednesday.

Using blunt language, the bulletin warns that the attack on the Capitol on January 6 is very likely to motivate extremists to carry out more violent attacks across the country in 2021. In the coming months, violence will likely be “more sporadic, lone actor or small cell violence”, and will be carried out by “a loosely organized, sustained, and significant […] population” of domestic violent extremists (DVEs). These can be grouped into anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists (AGAAVE), militia violent extremists (MVEs), and racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs), according to the bulletin.

These actors broadly view the riot as a success for their cause and perceive it “as a step toward achieving their initiatives”. It will therefore “likely serve as a significant driver of violence [and] inspire others to commit” further violence in the coming weeks and months, the bulletin warns. The attack on the Capitol should therefore be seen as “part of an ongoing trend, in which extremists use demonstrations to carry out ideologically motivated violence”. Such violence is increasingly directed against members of the media, who are seen by DVEs as being complicit “in a system hostile to their beliefs”.

The bulletin also cautions that the recent purges of DVE users from mainstream social media platforms is prompting them to resort to fringe platforms, which they perceive as more secure. This mass migration is “further challenging” the ability of the authorities “to identify and warn of specific threats”, the bulletin concludes.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 January 2021 | Permalink

Austria expels alleged assassin accused of working for Turkish government

Berivan AslanAUSTRIAN AUTHORITIES HAVE REPORTEDLY expelled from the country an Italian citizen of Turkish origin, who was allegedly hired by the Turkish government as an assassin. The man, Feyyaz Öztürk, 53, reportedly turned himself in to Austrian intelligence last year. According to the British press, Öztürk claimed he had been hired by the Turkish government to assassinate Berivan Aslan (pictured). Aslan, who is of Kurdish heritage, is a Viennese parliamentarian and a leading critic of Turkey’s treatment of its minority Kurdish population.

News reports claimed Öztürk’s mission was to terrorize members of the Kurdish expatriate community in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, who tend to be vocal critics of the Turkish government’s human rights record. British newspaper The Telegraph claimed that Öztürk had been tasked by Ankara to “ensure [Aslan] was hurt or died”, so that “other politicians get the message”. Öztürk also claimed that Turkish intelligence officials had blackmailed him in order to force him to carry out Alsan’s assassination. Moreover, he had been asked to kill two more Austrian public figures who are of Kurdish origin.

However, Öztürk reportedly aborted the assassination operation in March of last year, after he broke his leg in an accident during a trip to the northern Italian city of Rimini. Austrian prosecutors confirmed that an official investigation on Öztürk had concluded. It found that he had carried out “military espionage on behalf of a foreign state”, but did it not identify the state. Turkey has strongly denied that its intelligence agencies have any connection with Öztürk.

Öztürk’s espionage trial has been scheduled for February 4. However, according to Austrian law, he cannot be held in pre-trial detention and must be freed prior to his day in court. Rather than allow him freedom of movement inside Austria, the authorities decided to expel him to Italy. Öztürk’s lawyer said yesterday that her client had been designated “an imminent danger to public security” and taken to the Italian border shortly before Christmas.

The lawyer added that Öztürk wishes to return to Austria to attend his trial in February. There are suspicions among intelligence observers that the Austrian state would prefer Öztürk not to return to Austria, so as to avoid exposing espionage methods and sources in court. Meanwhile, Aslan said she remains under police protection, which was initially extended to her last year, when the alleged assassination plot against her became known.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 January 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: Potential espionage aspects of attack on US Capitol must be considered

US CapitolTHE INSURGENTS WHO STORMED the United States Capitol Building Complex on January 6 may have unwittingly provided cover for teams of foreign spies, who could have stolen or compromised sensitive electronic equipment. This largely neglected security-related aspect of the attack is discussed in an insightful article by David Gewitz, a ZDNet and CNET columnist who writes about cybersecurity affairs.

Hundreds of unauthorized people entered the US Capitol last Wednesday. Many of them entered the offices of several members of Congress, some of whom are members of Congressional committees on intelligence, armed services, defense, and other sensitive matters. According to Gewitz, “there is absolutely no knowing what actions were taken against digital gear inside the building” by the intruders. Most of them were clearly members of disorganized mobs, who appeared to have no concrete plan of action once inside the Capitol. However, points Gewitz, it would have been easy for foreign actors to blend in with the crowd of wild-eyed rioters and surreptitiously entered the Capitol in order to steal or compromise sensitive electronic equipment.

In addition to stealing electronic equipment, foreign spies could have stolen sensitive documents, access codes and passcodes, says Gewitz. He adds that more sophisticated efforts could have included loading malware onto Capitol computer systems, or plugging surreptitious USB drives into the internal ports of tower PCs —a process that takes less than two minutes for someone who is equipped with an pocket-size electric screwdriver. Foreign actors could also have left dozens of “generic USB drives in various drawers and on various desks” around the Capitol, hoping that members of Congress or their aides will make use of them in the coming days or weeks. For all we know, says Gewitz, the place could now be riddled with USB chargers with built-in wireless key-loggers, devices that look like power strips but actually hide wireless network hacking tools, fake smoke detectors, electric outlets or switches that contain bugs, and many other surreptitious spying devices.

What should Capitol security personnel do to prevent the potential espionage fallout from the January 6 attack? Gewitz argues that, given the extremely sensitive nature of the information that is stored in the Capitol’s digital systems, federal cybersecurity personnel should “assume that ALL the digital devices at the Capitol have been compromised”, he writes. They will therefore need to resort to “a scorched Earth remediation effort”, meaning that they will have to “completely scrub” those systems, and even lock the USB drive slots of every PC in the building complex. This damage will take months, even years, to clean up, he concludes.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 January 2020 | Permalink

FBI, NYPD forewarned Capitol Police of serious violence by Trump supporters

US CapitolTHE FEDERAL BUREAU OF Investigation and the New York Police Department gave Capitol Police officials specific warnings that supporters of United States President Donald Trump were determined to engage in serious violence on January 6, according to federal officials. The FBI even made contact with known far-right radicals across the United States in early January, and warned them not to travel to Washington for the pro-Trump rally that resulted in the bloody attack on the US Capitol, according to NBC News.

Citing “senior law enforcement officials”, including “a senior FBI official”, NBC reported on Sunday that the FBI had “credible and actionable information” about specific far-right radicals who intended to join the protest on January 6. This information was allegedly communicated to Capitol Police officials, according to the report. The senior FBI official, who is not named in report, told NBC that the Bureau made contact with those radicals and warned them not to travel to Washington for the protest. Citing “multiple law enforcement officials”, the news network also said that the Capitol Police was given extensive intelligence by NYPD about planned acts of violence on January 6. The intelligence was “specific”, “detailing the threats and extremist rhetoric on social media”, according to the news network.

Despite these warnings, however, Capitol Police reportedly turned down an offer of assistance by the US National Guard three days before the fateful siege of the Capitol Building Complex by thousands of pro-Trump insurgents, many of whom were armed. According to the Associated Press, despite the advanced and detailed warnings given to it, “the Capitol Police planned only for a free speech demonstration”.

Meanwhile, the experts warning of a significant risk of widespread violence on January 20, when President-Elect Joe Biden is scheduled to be sworn into office, are growing in number. On Sunday, Cindy Otis, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst and vice-president of the Alethea Group, which tracks online threats, warned that “we are in a tinderbox situation right now”. She pointed to numerous threats made online, which claim that last Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol was “just a taste of things to come”. There are reports that far-right insurgents are preparing for a violent showdown in DC, aimed at preventing Biden from entering the White House on January 20. Other reports suggest that groups of insurgents seek to organize synchronous potentially violent rallies in every state of the union that day.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 January 2021 | Permalink

Analysis: US Capitol attack marks the beginning of a prolonged period of insurrection

Rightwing militancy 2021IF WEDNESDAY’S ATTACK ON the United States Capitol Complex was part of a coup d’état, then the American political system should be considered safe for the time being. The mob that ransacked the Capitol was disordered, leaderless, and appeared to have no coordination, or even direction. However, the broader militant movement that it represents is evolving very rapidly. If left unchecked, it will be able to turn its weaknesses into strengths and spell major trouble ahead for the already stormy waters of American politics. The nation’s law enforcement and security agencies must therefore prepare for a period of widespread insurrection, some of which will be armed and lethal in nature. Insurrectionist acts are likely to occur across the nation, and may last for months, if not longer.

WHO CARRIED OUT THE ATTACK?

Wednesday’s attack was carried out by what can be described as the militant wing of the American nationalist-populist movement. This wing is not strictly representative of the US president’s broader political base. Its members see themselves as vanguard soldiers who are prepared to take extreme action to avert President Trump’s imminent departure from the White House. Such militant attitudes are not typical among Trump voters. Yet this vanguard is revered by Trump’s political base, a sizeable portion of which appears to be in support of Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol. Indeed, early polling by YouGov suggests that over 40 percent of Republican voters strongly or somewhat support the attack on the US Capitol.Q Quote 1

Many members of this frontline force belong to organized militant cells, like the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and —more recently— the Proud Boys. But these groups provide limited operational direction to their members, and were certainly not commanding Wednesday’s events. In fact, an audiovisual analysis of the attack shows that most of the assailants operated in makeshift groups and many didn’t even know each other’s names. There were no leaders directing the attacks on Wednesday. It is indeed likely that the militant figureheads of the movement were as surprised by the turn of events as the hapless members of the US Capitol Police.

HOW WAS THE ATTACK PREPARED?

Many of the assailants were armed with tactical equipment, as well as with clubs, shields, chemical irritants, knives and other weapons. It also appears that at least one group of insurgents arrived at the Capitol with ropes, which they subsequently used to scale its walls. This points to earlier planning and coordination, which likely involved at least some reconnaissance. Read more of this post

Isaac Shoshan, Israeli undercover operative and case officer, dead at 96

MossadIsaac Shoshan, an Israeli undercover operative, who was involved in some of Israel’s most daring and controversial intelligence operations for over 40 years, has died. In 1990, Shoshan co-authored the book Men of Secrets, Men of Mystery with another Israeli former intelligence officer, Rafi Sutton. In 2019, his career was featured in the book Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel, written by the Israeli-Canadian journalist Matti Friedman.

In 1942, Shoshan, a Syrian Jew, traveled for the first time from his native Aleppo to Palestine, which was then under a British mandate. The 18-year-old was soon recruited by the Palmach, the intelligence wing of the Haganah, an armed underground Zionist organization. He carried out undercover work under the Palmach’s so-called ‘Arab Section’, or ‘Arab Platoon’, which consisted of Zionist paramilitaries and intelligence collectors who had grown up speaking Arabic.

After undergoing Islamic religious and cultural training, Shoshan participated in a Palmach operation to kill Sheikh Nimr al-Khatib, in early 1948. Al-Khatib was a Palestinian warlord that the Haganah feared would lead an Arab insurrection against Israel after the impending British withdrawal from Palestine. Although the assassination operation failed, al-Khatib was seriously injured and effectively incapacitated for the rest of his life.

Shoshan was then tasked with carrying out operations in several Arab countries, posing as an Arab. His base was Beirut, where he operated a taxi and worked at a kiosk as a cover. His activities included an elaborate assassination operation against Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Riad al-Suhl, which was aborted at the last minute by the Israeli leadership.

In the mid-1950s, Israeli intelligence disbanded its Arab units, following several failed operations, such as the so-called ‘Lavon affair’, which led to the arrests and executions of some of its undercover operatives. At that time, Shoshan was recalled to Israel, where he began to work as a case officer, with occasional undercover trips abroad, during which he posed as an Arab. He retired in 1982, but continued to carry out contracting work for the Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies until the late 1980s.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 January 2021 | Permalink

Afghans expel 10 Chinese spies who allegedly made contact with pro-Taliban group

The Afghan government reportedly expelled from the country 10 Chinese intelligence officers on Saturday, after they were found to have contacts with pro-Taliban groups. Meanwhile the White House was recently briefed about claims that Beijing offered Afghan militants bounties for killing American soldiers.

Several Indian news agencies reported last month that Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) arrested 10 Chinese nationals in Kabul on December 10, on suspicion of espionage. The 10 Chinese included at least one woman, and were believed to work for the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s primary intelligence agency.

According to reports in the Indian press, the Chinese nationals had used Kabul as a base to buld a fictitious chapter of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Based in China’s heavily Muslim Xinjiang Province, ETIM is a sepratist armed group, which seeks to create an Islamic breakaway state for ethnic Uighurs. The purpose of the ruse was reportedly to entrap ETIM supporters and members who were operating in Afghanistan.

It is also alleged that at least two of the Chinese spies had contacts with the Haqqani network, a militant group that has pledged allegiance to the leadership of the Taliban, but maintains an independent command structure. Indian news networks named the two Chinese alleged spies with Haqqani Network contacts as Li Yangyang and Sha Hung. Interestingly, the arrests of the 10 Chinese nationals took place shortly before United States President Donald Trump was reportedly briefed about contacts between the MSS and pro-Taliban groups in Afghanistan. According to Axios, US intelligence agencies told the president that Chinese spies had offered Afghan militants bounty in exchange for killing American troops.

Citing “diplomats and security officials in Kabul” who are “familiar with the matter”, The Hindustan Times reported on Monday that the ten Chinese nationals had been released after 23 days in detention. They boarded a chartered airplane heading for China on Saturday, said the paper. None were formally charged. Their release was reportedly ordered by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, following direct negotiations with Beijing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 January 2021 | Permalink

Iran state media claims Britain and Germany helped US kill Soleimani

Qasem SoleimaniIRANIAN STATE MEDIA CLAIMED last week that several countries, including Britain and Germany, helped the United States assassinate its top paramilitary commander, Qassem Soleimani (pictured). The reports emerged on the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Soleimani, who led Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He was killed by a drone strike on January 3, 2020, in Baghdad, Iraq. The same missile strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who commanded the Popular Mobilisation Committee, an umbrella organization composed of about 40 pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.

Last week, Iran’s state-owned DEFA Press news agency reported that Tehran’s own investigation into the assassination operation showed that Washington was assisted by several countries, and even by some private security firms. According to the report, the Iranian government’s prosecutor, Ali Alqasimehr, stated that G4S, a security services contractor based in Britain, had “played a role” in Soleimani and al-Muhandis’ killing. He added that the US forces also made use of facilities at the Ramstein Air Base, located in southwestern Germany, to carry out the attack.

In addition to Britain and Germany, Iranian officials said that the governments of Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq assisted in the operation by providing logistical support and intelligence. According to DEFA Press, more countries are likely to be added to the Iranian government’s list of culprits, once Tehran concludes its investigation into the killing. Iranian officials have provided no evidence for such claims. It is also unclear whether Iran is considering launching revenge attacks against countries that allegedly assisted the US in its effort to kill the two paramilitary commanders.

Speaking during a commemoration event on Friday, Soleimani’s successor at the helm of the IRGC, Esmail Ghaani, said that Iran was “ready to avenge” Soleimani’s death. During the event, which was held at the University of Tehran, Ghaani warned that “someone who will retaliate for your crime […] may emerge from inside your own house”. He did not elaborate. Large commemorative gatherings to mark the one-year anniversary of the assassinations took place throughout Iran and Iraq, where Iran-backed paramilitary groups hold significant power.

Last January Iran issued a warning against Greece, saying that it would retaliate if the US used its military bases on Greek soil to attack the Islamic Republic. It was the first time that Iran had threatened to launch attacks against a member of the European Union in connection with the ongoing rise in tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 January 2021 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2020, part III

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when intelNews was launched, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2021 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2020. They are listed below in reverse order of significance, starting from 10 and leading up to 1. This is part three in a three-part series. Part one is available here and part two is here.

01. COVID-19 prompts spy agencies’ mission shift that is ‘reminiscent of the space race’. The worldwide competition to invent a vaccine that can curtail the spread of COVID-19, and to secure sufficient quantities of the vaccine, has prompted a mission shift in major intelligence agencies around the world. This mission shift is taking place with such speed that it is “reminiscent of the space race”, according to The New York Times. In an article published in September, the paper cited “interviews with current and former intelligence officials and others tracking the espionage efforts”, who suggest that the mission shift observed in spy agencies worldwide has been among the fastest in history.

02. Swiss neutrality ‘shattered’ as leading cryptologic firm revealed to be CIA front. Switzerland continues to reel from the shock caused by revelations in February that Crypto AG, the world’s leading manufacturer or cryptologic equipment during the Cold War, whose clients included over 120 governments around the world, was a front company owned by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The revelation, published by The Washington Post and the German public broadcaster ZDF, confirmed rumors that had been circulating since the early 1980s, that Crypto AG had made a secret deal with the US government. According to this year’s revelations, the CIA and West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) secretly purchased the Swiss company and paid off most of its senior executives in order to buy their silence. The secret deal allegedly allowed the US and West Germany to spy on the classified government communications of several of their adversaries —and even allies, including Italy, Spain and Greece, as well as Austria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

03. Danish spy service helped US collect intelligence on NATO allies. There was surprise among intelligence observers in August, when Lars Findsen, director of the Danish Defense Intelligence Service (FE, or DDIS in English) was “relieved of duty for the time being”. The Danish Ministry of Defense said the decision was taken following “a series of whistleblower revelations”. We now know the reason: apparently a secret arrangement between Danish and American intelligence agencies enabled Washington to collect intelligence on Danish citizens, as well as spy on some of its closest European allies, including Germany, France, Sweden, Norway, and Holland. The revelation prompted a heated political discussion in Denmark, while Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch authorities launched investigations into the alleged spying. Some in Denmark called for the Minister of Defense, Trine Bramsen, to release to the public a four-volume report government produced about the alleged Danish-US spy collaboration. This has not yet happened.

04. US forces are secretly helping the Taliban fight the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The original reason the United States sent troops to Afghanistan was to fight al-Qaeda and its local allies, the Taliban. Now, however, it appears US forces are helping the Taliban defeat the Islamic State in northeastern Afghanistan. The American military’s newfound role in Afghanistan reportedly reflects the view of the White House that the Taliban have no aspirations outside of Afghanistan, while the Islamic State seeks to challenge America’s interests worldwide. According to The Washington Post‘s military affairs reporter Wesley Morgan, US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces in Afghanistan have been instructed to provide air cover to Taliban forces as they fight the Islamic State. The resources used in that capacity consist of weaponry that was initially deployed against the Taliban, but is now being secretly repurposed to assist the Taliban in their fight against the Islamic State. According to Morgan, the JSOC team in Kunar, which provides air cover to the Taliban, jokingly refers to itself as the “Taliban air force”. It is unclear whether al-Qaeda, which is a close ally of the Taliban, is benefiting from that assistance.

This is part three in a three-part series. Part one is available here and part two is here.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 31 December 2020 | Permalink