Hardline military official to take command of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency

Lieutenant General Asim MunirThe hardline former director of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is preparing to take the helm of the country’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). Lieutenant General Asim Munir, who has spent more than two decades as a career military officer, has been officially appointed as director-general of ISI. In one of his first notable assignments, Munir served as a military attaché in Pakistan’s embassy in Saudi Arabia. After being promoted to a two-star general, he was appointed commander of Force Command Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan’s northernmost region. The area borders Jammu and Kashmir, an autonomous Indian-administered region, which the Pakistanis claim belongs to them. Gilgit-Baltistan is also a strategic geopolitical corridor that connects Pakistan with one of its major regional allies, China.

In late 2016, after concluding his service in Gilgit-Baltistan, Munir was appointed by Chief of the Pakistan Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to serve as director-general of Military Intelligence, the spy wing of the Pakistan Army. In September of this year, Munir was promoted to lieutenant general, a move that prompted rumors that he would soon become head of ISI. According to The Asia Times, which published a summary analysis of Munir’s career, his recent promotion confirmed that he was “the army chief [General Bajwa]’s guy” and that he was favored to lead the ISI. Technically it is Pakistan’s prime minister who appoints the head of ISI. But in reality the chief of the Army is the one who selects the spy agency’s director. The past four directors of the ISI have all been handpicked by Pakistan’s military leadership.

Munir’s appointment as head of Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency was due to his experience in working closely with Pakistan’s most important strategic partners, China and Saudi Arabia, said The Asia Times. The career military officer is known within army ranks as a nationalist hardliner who views the army as a central guarantor of political stability in Pakistan. He is also a practicing Muslim and has sought to strengthen the ties between Islam and the Pakistani armed forces. According to The Asia Times, Munir is expected to deepen the ISI’s involvement in Pakistan’s domestic political affairs. This is something that concerns pro-democracy and other opposition activists in the country, who have been alarmed by the recent rise to power of /Imran Khan, a former cricket player and Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister. Munir will be formally sworn in his new position on October 25, when the current director-general of ISI, Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, is expected to announce his retirement.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 October 2018 | Permalink

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Czech spy agency says it neutralized Hezbollah cyberespionage network

Czech Security Information ServiceOfficials in the Czech Republic have announced that the country’s spy agency headed an operation in several countries, aimed at neutralizing a cyberespionage network operated by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Early last week, the Security Information Service (BIS), the primary domestic national intelligence agency of the Czech Republic, issued a short statement saying that it “played a big part in helping to identify and disconnect Hezbollah servers in the Czech Republic, other EU member states and the US”. But it did not elaborate. On Tuesday, however, ZDNet’s Zero Day security blog published more information from the Czechs about the BIS operation.

According to the BIS, its cyber security force discovered a number of servers located on Czech soil, which were “almost certainly” used by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that controls large swathes of territory in Lebanon. The servers were allegedly used in a wide-range cyberespionage operation that began in 2017 by a group of Hezbollah hackers based in Lebanon. It was there, said the BIS, where the command-and-control facilities of the operation were located. The servers located on Czech soil were used to download phone apps that contained malicious software. The hackers targeted individual phone users located mainly in the Middle East, according to the BIS, but other targets were in eastern and central Europe. It is believed that the majority of targets were Israeli citizens. Invariably, targeted individuals were approached online, mostly through fake Facebook profiles. Most of the targets were men, and the fake Facebook profiles featured pictures of attractive young women. After initial messages were exchanged via Facebook, the targets were convinced to download phone applications that would allow them to continue communicating with the ‘women’. These applications would install spyware on their phones, thus allowing Hezbollah hackers to capture the content of messages and calls made on the phones. The latter could also be used as eavesdropping devices.

According to BIS Director Michal Koudelka, the spy agency “played a significant role in identifying and uncovering the hackers’ system. We identified the victims and traced the attack to its source facilities. Hacker servers have been shut down”, he said. Koudelka added that some of the servers used by Hezbollah were located in other European Union countries and in the United States. These were shut down following a joint cyber operation by BIS and “partners”, said Koudelka, though he did not identify them.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 October 2018 | Permalink

Suicide bomb threat reportedly leads to evacuation of Iranian envoy to Turkey

Iran embassy in AnkaraThere were conflicting reports yesterday in Ankara of an alleged evacuation of Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, following credible reports of a suicide bomb attack, possibly by the Islamic State. Several Turkish media outlets reported on Monday afternoon that authorities in Ankara had communicated an urgent intelligence warning to the Iranian embassy there of a possible suicide bomb attack. According to the reports, members of the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were behind the planned attack.

At 2 pm local time, reports stated that Iran’s ambassador to Turkey, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian Fard, had been hurriedly evacuated from the Iranian embassy by Turkish security forces. By that time, all roads leading to the Iranian embassy, located next to the Ankara Hilton in one of the Turkish capital’s leafiest areas, had been cordoned off. Reporters from the Reuters news agency and Agence France Presse said that Turkish police and special forces had shut down Tahran Road, where the Iranian embassy is located, and were searching cars. Armed security forces had also surrounded the Iranian embassy, according to Reuters.

Strangely, however, reports of a possible bomb attack and of the ambassador’s evacuation were strongly refuted by the Iranian government, which denounced them as “sheer lies” and “complete fabrications”. In a statement published online on Monday afternoon, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that its diplomats in Ankara had noticed “an increased Turkish security presence” around the Iranian embassy. However, they continued working normally, as they were unaware of the reasons for the heightened security. They assumed that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was appearing nearby, said the statement. A statement by the Iranian embassy in Ankara said that consular employees were present at the embassy and that all scheduled services were being offered without interruption.

In the past month, the embassies of Iran in Paris and Athens have come under attack by Kurdish separatists and leftwing groups protesting against Tehran’s alleged oppression of ethnic minorities in the country. In the past, the Islamic Republic has been rarely targeted by ISIS, whose members dismiss Shiite Islam as a heresy. In June 2017, two attacks were carried out simultaneously in Tehran, targeting the Iranian parliament and the Mausoleum of Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of post-1979 Iran. In September of this year, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack in Iran’s southwestern city of Ahvaz, which killed 25 soldiers and civilians during a military parade.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 October 2018 | Permalink

Pakistan removes judge who accused spy agency of trying to rig general election

Shaukat Aziz SiddiquiThe government of Pakistan has dismissed a High Court judge who accused the country’s powerful intelligence agency of interfering with the judicial process in order to rig the outcome of last July’s general election. On July 25, the governing center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) was unseated by the conservative-centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former cricket star Imran Khan. The elections took place amidst a corruption scandal that saw Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan and leading member of PML-N, arrested on charges of fraud. Sharif was charged following the release of the so-called Panama papers, the massive data leak of documents belonging to Panamanian offshore firm Mossack Fonseca. The leak disclosed that Sharif and his family were owners of a large number of high-end properties in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world.

Shortly after the revelations, Sharif moved to Britain, where he and his children cared for his ailing wife. During his absence, he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. Sharif chose to return to Pakistan on July 13, less than two weeks prior to the general election, and was arrested upon arriving in Islamabad. His supporters claim that the media spectacle surrounding his imprisonment severely hurt PML-N’s electoral performance. Last month, the High Court in Islamabad suspended Sharif’s prison sentence and ordered his release on bail, saying that the prosecution had failed to prove conclusively that the high-end properties in the UK belonged to him. Sharif’s release prompted renewed accusations of electoral rigging by PML-N supporters, who claim that Sharif could have been released from prison before the elections, and that the High Court deliberately withheld its decision until this month in order to hurt PML-N.

In July, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a High Court judge, publicly added his voice to those claiming that Sharif’s arrest had been politically motivated. In a speech given before the Rawalpindi Bar Association, the High Court judge accused Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of exercising pressure on High Court judges in order to delay the decision to release Sharif on bail until after the general election. Justice Siddiqui’s charges made national headlines and prompted strong denials from the Pakistani military, which governs the ISI, and the Pakistan High Court. The latter launched an investigation of Justice Siddiqui, following a complaint issued by the country’s military leadership.

On Friday, the panel of judges that carried out the investigation on Justice Siddiqui, accused him of “conduct unbecoming of a judge of a high court” and recommended his removal from the High Court. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice of Pakistan announced that the country’s President, Arif Alvi, was “pleased to remove Mr. Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui […] from his office with immediate effect”. The announcement did not elaborate on the precise reasons that led to Justice Siddiqui’s removal from the country’s High Court. Siddiqui’s firing marks the first time that a judge has been dismissed under an elected government in Pakistan. In the past, such incidents have occurred only under military dictatorships, which have ruled Pakistan for prolonged periods since the country’s independence in 1947.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2018 | Permalink

US intelligence has evidence Saudis planned to capture missing journalist

Jamal KhashoggiAmerican intelligence agencies have evidence that the Saudi royal family tried to lure The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia, in order to capture him, according to sources. Khashoggi, 59, is a Saudi government adviser who in 2015 became a critic of the kingdom’s style of governance. He moved to the United States, from where he began to criticize Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the civil war in Yemen, its support for the repression of political freedoms in Egypt, and other issues. He also joined the staff of The Washington Post and penned columns in which he criticized Saudi policies. He has been missing since Tuesday, when he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He went there for a scheduled appointment in order to be issued a document certifying his divorce from his former wife in Saudi Arabia.

Last Sunday, Turkish government officials said that Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate during his visit, probably on orders of the Saudi government. Turkish media reports said on Sunday that a 15-member Saudi team arrived in Istanbul shortly prior to Khashoggi’s visit to the consulate. The team, whose members carried diplomatic passports, tortured and then killed Khashoggi, said Turkish sources. They then dismembered his body and took it out of the consulate hidden inside a diplomatic vehicle. Saudi Arabia has denied the charges and said that Khashoggi left the consulate in Istanbul less than an hour after entering it on Tuesday afternoon.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post cited anonymous US officials in claiming that the Saudi royal family had devised an elaborate plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia in order to capture him. The paper said that US intelligence agencies are in possession of communications intercepts of exchanges between Saudi officials, in which the plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia is discussed. The Post also cited “several of Khashoggi’s friends” who said that in recent months he received phone calls from Saudi officials close to the kingdom’s controversial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The officials reportedly offered Khashoggi political protection from prosecution if he returned to Saudi Arabia. They also offered him high-level government jobs, said The Post. But Khashoggi was skeptical of the offers and rejected them, his friends said.

The paper also cited an anonymous “former US intelligence official” who said that the travel details of the 15-member Saudi diplomatic team that went to Istanbul on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance “bore the hallmarks of [an extralegal] rendition” —a person’s unauthorized removal from one country and detention and interrogation in another. Turkey has said that the Saudi team arrived in Istanbul in two separate groups using private aircraft, and departed from the country at different times going to different destinations in the hours after Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2018 | Permalink

Major suspect in Maduro assassination plot dies in captivity in Caracas

Nicolás MaduroA leading suspect in a failed attempt to kill Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro using drones, has died in mysterious circumstances while being held by the country’s intelligence agency. The attack took place on August 4, 2018, in front of the Palacio de Justicia government complex in the Venezuelan capital Caracas. That afternoon, President Maduro was giving a nationally televised speech on the occasion of the 81st anniversary of the Bolivarian National Guard. An hour after the commencement of the outdoor ceremony, Maduro’s speech was interrupted by a loud noise that appeared to come directly from above, approximately 100 yards away from the podium. The noise turned out to have been a bomb affixed on a modified, commercially available drone. Moments later, another drone exploded after crashing into a building just two blocks northeast of where the Venezuelan president was standing. Seven members of the National Guard were injured in the attack.

President Maduro, who escaped unharmed, has blamed Colombia-based far-right extremists for the attack, and has named former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as their leader. But the Colombian government has rejected these allegations and has demanded to see proof. Throughout August, several people were arrested by Venezuelan authorities and charged with treason in connection with the assassination plot. Approximately 30 people have been named as participants in the plan. Among them was Fernando Albán, a 56-year-old critic of Maduro, who was serving as an opposition city councilor in Caracas. Althouth his arrest was announced on Friday, there were no reports about his fate over the weekend. On Monday, however, the government said that Albán had died after committing suicide. A subsequent report said that the 56-year-old had died after throwing himself out of a window located on the tenth floor of the headquarters of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, where he was being held. Later on Monday, Nestor Luis Reverol, Venezuela’s Minister of Interior, said that Albán voluntarily jumped out of the window as he was being transported to court in order to be formally charged.

On Monday night, Venezuela’s Attorney General Tarek William Saab said during a television interview that Albán had been given permission to go to the bathroom and used it as an opportunity to kill himself. But critics of the government see the August 4 assassination attempt as a false-flag operation orchestrated by the Maduro administration to justify a new crackdown on the opposition. They claim that Albán was murdered and that it would have been impossible for him to throw himself out of a window given the security precautions that are in place at the Bolivarian Intelligence Service building. Meanwhile, Albán’s attorney, Joel Garcia, dismissed the Venezuelan government’s explanation of his client’s death as “totally false” and doubted that he would have been allowed to go to the bathroom unaccompanied.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 October 2018 | Permalink

Russia claims ‘misunderstanding’ led to arrests of four spies in Holland

Sergei LavrovRussia’s minister of foreign affairs has downplayed the arrest and expulsion of four Russian military intelligence officers in Holland last April, saying that the incident was caused by a “misunderstanding”. Last Thursday, the US government named and indicted seven officers of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, known as GRU. The seven are alleged to have participated in cyber-attacks on international agencies, private companies and government computer networks in at least half a dozen countries around the world since 2015. Four of the men named last week were reportedly detained in April of this year while trying to hack into the computer network of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Headquartered in The Hague, the OPCW oversees efforts by its 193 member states to detect and eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the world. In the past year, the OPCW has been probing the failed attempt to poison the Russian former double spy Sergei Skripal in England, which the British government has blamed on Moscow.

On Monday, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov dismissed Washington’s accusations against the GRU and said that the Dutch authorities had overreacted in detaining the four Russian officers in April. Following a meeting in Moscow with his Italian counterpart Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Lavrov said that the visit of the four GRU officers in Holland had been “customary”, adding that “there was nothing clandestine in it”. The GRU specialists were in Holland in order to secure computer servers used at the Russian embassy there. “They were not trying to hide from anyone once they arrived at the airport”, said Lavrov. They then “checked into a hotel and paid a visit to our embassy”, he added. Had they been engaged in espionage, the men would have taken strict precautions, said the Russian foreign affairs minister. They were eventually “detained by Dutch police without any reason or explanations, and were not allowed to contact our embassy”, said Lavrov. Eventually they were “asked to leave the country”, but it was “all because of a misunderstanding”, he concluded.

The Russian official did not address the information provided a series of photographs released by Holland’s Ministry of Defense, which show a car used by the four Russians at the time of their arrest in April. The photographs show that the car was equipped with WiFi antennas and transformers. A wireless server and batteries can also be seen in the photographs. Lavrov said that the allegations against the GRU were meant to draw attention to Russia and distract Western citizens from “widening divisions that exist between Western nations”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 October 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink