Serbia recalls all staff from embassy in Macedonia, alleges espionage

Serbian President Aleksandar VucicSerbia recalled its entire diplomatic staff from its embassy in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Monday, claiming that it wanted to protect its diplomats from “offensive intelligence activities” directed against them. The move came without warning and surprised journalists in the two former Yugoslav republics. No official reason was given for the recall on Monday morning. Later, however, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that he had decided to recall the diplomats back to Belgrade due to “sufficient evidence of highly offensive intelligence activities against certain bodies and institutions in Serbia”. He did not specify what he meant, but added that the duty of the government of Serbia was to ensure that “our people be prepared and ready”.

Some reports in Macedonia media suggested that Serbia’s move was related to rumors in Skopje that the Macedonian government plans to support an expected attempt by the Republic of Kosovo to join the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Kosovo was a province of Serbia until 2008, when it proclaimed its independence, a move that was backed by many Western powers, including the United States. However, Serbia has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and has actively opposed Kosovo’s attempts to become a full member of international bodies. Belgrade successfully blocked Kosovo’s entry into UNESCO in 2015. At that time, the former Serbian province country did not receive enough votes to join the organization. But there are concerns in Serbia that, Kosovo might apply again this year and that this time it may be successful.

Serbia has kept a cautionary stance on the current political crisis in Macedonia, which began in 2015 when thousands of people took to the streets in Macedonian capital Skopje to protest against the conservative government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The crisis deepened in late 2016, when many intelligence officers, including a former director of the national spy service, were accused of illegally wiretapping thousands of people on orders of the government. Under growing pressure, Gruevski stepped down and was eventually replaced by the leader of the center-left opposition, Zoran Zaev, who is now prime minister. During his election campaign last spring, Zaev was critical of Serbia, which he accused of behaving nationalistically against other former Yugoslav republics.

Speaking to reporters in Belgrade on Monday, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, said he believed Serbian diplomatic staff would be back in Skopje by the end of August. Mr. Vucic simply commented that there was a “different, new atmosphere” in the Macedonian capital and said he hoped that the situation would become clearer in the coming days.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 August 2017 | Permalink

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Australia concerned about Chinese firm’s involvement in undersea cable project

Sogavare and TurnbullAustralia has expressed concern about a plan by a Chinese telecommunications company to provide high-speed Internet to the Solomon Islands, a small Pacific island nation with which Australia shares Internet resources. The company, Huawei Technologies, a private Chinese venture, is one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers. In recent years, however, it has come under scrutiny by Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China.

One of Huawei’s most recent large-scale projects involves the Solomon Islands, a former British overseas territory that became independent in 1978 and is today a sovereign nation. The Pacific country consist of a complex of nearly 1,000 islands of different sizes, scattered over a distance of 11,000 square miles. It lies northeast of Australia and directly east of Papua New Guinea. In 2014, the government of the Solomon Islands began an ambitious project to connect its Internet servers to those of Australia via a 2,700-mile undersea fiber optic cable. The ultimate goal of the project is to provide Solomon Islands inhabitants with reliable high-speed Internet. The project was approved by Sydney and given the green light by the Asian Development Bank, which promised to fund it. But in 2016 the Solomon Islands government suddenly named Huawei Marine as the project’s main contractor. Huawei Marine, a subsidiary of Huawei Technologies, is a joint venture between the Chinese firm and Global Marine Systems, a British-headquartered company that installs undersea telecommunications cables.

The news was greeted with concern in Sydney. The Australian intelligence community has previously warned that Huawei operates as an arm of the Chinese spy services. Intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom and the United States have issued similar warnings. In 2011, a report by a research unit of the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Huawei Technologies relied on a series of formal and informal contacts with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Ministry of State Security. But a subsequent 18-month review commissioned by the White House found no evidence that Huawei spied for the Chinese government.

Canberra is concerned that, by constructing the Solomon Islands undersea cable, Huawei would be “plugging into Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure backbone”, something that, according to some intelligence officials, “presents a fundamental security issue”. To further-complicate things, opposition officials in the Solomon Islands allege that the country’s government contracted the services of Huawei after the Chinese company promised to make a multi-million dollar donation to the ruling political party. Last June, the director of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Nick Warner, visited the Solomon Islands and tried to convince the country’s Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare, to drop Huawei from the project. The topic was also discussed in a meeting between Mr. Sogavare and his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, in Canberra last week. Following the meeting, the Solomon Islands leader said that his government would “continue to have discussions with the Australian government to see how we can solve that […] security issue”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 August 2017 | Permalink

CIA warned Barcelona police two months ago about possible Islamist attack

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

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

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

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

Saudi government secretly abducting its critics from abroad, say dissidents

Salman of Saudi ArabiaAt least three prominent Saudi dissidents living in Europe, who openly criticized Saudi Arabia’s system of government, have been illegally abducted by the country’s monarchy in the past two years, according to a report by the BBC. All three, who are members of the Saudi royal family, are missing, believed to be dead or held against their will in Saudi Arabia. But the country’s government will not comment on their fate.

According to the BBC World Service, one of the missing dissidents is Prince Turki bin Bandar, a former major in the Saudi police force. In 2010, the prince began falling out with the Saudi royal family over a disputed inheritance. He was reportedly arrested and imprisoned. Once released from prison, in 2012, he moved to France, from where he began criticizing the Saudi government by posting videos and messages on social media. But his messages calling for political reform and an end to corruption in Saudi Arabia stopped in the summer of 2015 when, according to his friends, he disappeared. One of them, the blogger Wael al-Khalaf, told the BBC that Prince Bandar was visiting Morocco where he was detained following a request by the Saudi government. It is believed that he was then deported to Saudi Arabia, where he remains today, almost certainly against his will.

Another Europe-based Saudi royal, Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, has been missing since 2015. His disappearance came after a year-long social-media campaign in which he called for the prosecution of senior Saudi officials for backing the overthrow of the now deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. In September 2015, shortly before his disappearance, Prince Nasr had publicly endorsed two anonymous open letters —allegedly written by a Saudi prince— calling for the violent overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. According to the BBC, Prince Nasr was the only Saudi royal to publicly and openly endorse the letters. He then disappeared and is presumed to be in Saudi Arabia.

The third case, that of Prince Khaled bin Farhan, is more complicated. The prince was living in Switzerland and was a prominent figure among Saudi exiles calling for political reforms in their homeland. In 2003, he took a flight from Milan to Rome on a private jet, which, according to the BBC, had been provided to him by a Russian-Italian company seeking to strike a business deal with him. But Prince Farhan alleges that the trip was a ruse, and that the jet took him instead to Saudi Arabia, where he was imprisoned. Seven years later, the Saudi government allowed him to seek medical treatment in the United States. But when he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, the prince immediately filed a criminal complaint against his abductors in the Swiss courts. Amazingly, in 2016 he was convinced by the Saudi government in Paris, where he was living at the time, to use a Saudi government plane to visit his ailing father in Cairo, Egypt. But, predictably, the airplane took him and his 18-member entourage —which included non-Saudi citizens— to Riyadh. When the jet landed, Prince Farhan was “dragged […] from the plane” by heavily armed guards while “screaming at his team to call the US embassy”, according to two members of his entourage who spoke anonymously to the BBC.

The two anonymous sources told the British broadcaster that they had their passports taken away and were kept in a hotel for three days without being allowed to use a telephone to contact their family abroad or their country’s embassy in Saudi Arabia. They were then allowed to “fly to a destination of their choice” with their expenses paid by the Saudi government. The BBC said it contacted the Saudi government seeking information about the three missing royals, but Saudi officials declined to respond to questions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2017 | Permalink

Germany investigates Swiss intelligence officers over espionage claims

Germany SwitzerlandGermany has launched an unprecedented investigation into three officers of Switzerland’s intelligence agency on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. News of the investigation comes three months after authorities in Germany arrested another Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil. German media report that the three unnamed men are officers of Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). They are suspected of engaging in the same type of activity as “Daniel M.”, namely monitoring German tax-fraud investigators.

The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

According to German media, the investigation against the three NDB officers was launched earlier this month. The news is likely to further complicate relations between Berlin and Bern. The two governments have been at loggerheads since the arrest of “Daniel M.”. Switzerland responded to the arrest by issuing arrest warrants for a number of German tax investigators. But Germany dismissed the move, saying it would refuse to comply with the warrants. On Monday, several European news media quoted German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who described the alleged activities of the NDB as “incredible” and warned that the ongoing dispute between Germany and Switzerland could “wreck” their bilateral relationship.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2017 | Permalink

Mystery sonic device blamed for foreign diplomats’ hearing loss in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAuthorities in Cuba, the United States and Canada are investigating reports that several foreign diplomats stationed in Havana have been experiencing severe hearing loss in recent months. Some are blaming the deployment of a mystery “covert sonic device” for the diplomats’ symptoms. The allegations originate from diplomatic personnel stationed at the US embassy in Havana. The embassy reopened in 2015, 54 years after it was closed down following a series of diplomatic rifts between Cuba and the US during the height of the Cold War.

Last week, citing anonymous “officials with knowledge of the investigation into the case”, the Associated Press said that the first hearing loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. Several of them —five, according to the Associated Press, though the Department of State will not give a precise number— reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The news agency reported that, in a few cases, the symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”. Following those bizarre incidents, authorities in Washington proceeded to conduct an investigation. They concluded that the American diplomats had suffered loss of hearing after being repeatedly “exposed to an advanced device that had been deployed either inside or outside their residences”.

In response to the outcome of the investigation, the White House secretly ordered on May 23 of this year the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats from the embassy of Cuba in DC. But the Cuban government denied that it had anything to do with the American diplomats’ symptoms, and some believe that the alleged “covert sonic device” may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of Cuban authorities. Meanwhile, the plot thickened on Friday of last week, after the Canadian government claimed that at least one of its diplomats stationed in Havana had also suffered from sudden loss of hearing. Canada has now joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Diplomatic Security Service in the US in investigating the incidents. The Cubans have also launched their own investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2017 | Permalink

Russian spy services raid bomb lab in Moscow, foil large-scale suicide plot

ISIS RussiaRussian intelligence services say they have foiled a large-scale bomb plot, after raiding an explosives laboratory belonging to the Islamic State and arresting four suspects. The four men were allegedly planning to target the Moscow Metro transit system and a busy shopping center in the Russian capital. In a statement released to the media this morning, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) did not specify the intended targets of the plotters. But it said it had arrested four people during an early morning raid at an explosives laboratory located in the Moscow suburbs. The FSB said that its officers confiscated large quantities of peroxide-based explosives that resemble the material used by the Islamic State in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, and last May’s suicide bombing in Manchester.

One of the men arrested has been named by the FSB as Akbarzhon A. Dzhalilov, 22, a Kyrghyz-born Russian citizen. The other three men, who have not yet been named, are all from former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Russian media reported that the Moscow cell was being commanded and directed by the Islamic State in Syria. Two Russian-speaking men from the Russian Caucasus, who are located in Syria, are thought to have been handling the cell’s activities. Russian intelligence services estimate that at least 2,500 Russian citizens have move to the Middle East to join jihadist groups in the past three years.

Had it been carried out, the attack would have been added to a growing list of terrorist incidents against Russia since 2015, which are related to the Kremlin’s decision to enter the Syrian Civil War. In October of that year, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the bombing of Metrojet Flight 9268, a chartered commercial flight operated by Russian company Kogalymavia. The chartered airliner went down over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 217 passengers and crew on board —the worst disaster in Russian aviation history. In November of 2016, the FSB reportedly foiled another attack by five members of the Islamic State in Moscow. In February of this year, a seven-member Islamic State cell was busted in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, while it was planning attacks in several metropolitan areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. In April, the North Caucasus-based Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in the St. Petersburg Metro transit system, which killed 15 train passengers. The group, whose existence was unknown before the St. Petersburgh attack, said it supported al-Qaeda and perpetrated the attack in retaliation for Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 August 2017 | Permalink