German intelligence chief says Russia tried to hack energy grid

BfV GermanyThe head of Germany’s domestic security agency has publicly blamed the Russian government for a large-scale cyberattack that has targeted German energy providers. The comments follow a June 13 announcement on the subject by Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), which is charged with securing the German government’s electronic communications. According to the BSI, a widespread and systematic attack against Germany’s energy networks has been taking place for at least a year now. The attack, which the BSI codenamed BERSERK BEAR, consists of various efforts by hackers to compromise computer networks used by German companies that provide electricity and natural gas to consumers around the country.

The attacks have been mostly unsuccessful, said BSI, having managed to breach just a few office computer networks. Energy grids have remained largely unaffected by BERSERK BEAR, said BSI. But the agency has refused to disclose information about the extent of the alleged cyberattacks and the companies that were targeted. It claims, however, that the situation is now “under control”. On Wednesday, Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said in an interview that the Russian government was most likely behind the attacks. There were “numerous clues pointing to Russia”, said Maassen, including the method with which the attack was carried out. The “modus operandi” of the attackers “is a major indicator that points to Russian control of the offensive campaign”, said Maassen.

Earlier this month, the United States imposed for the first time economic sanctions on Russian companies that allegedly helped the Kremlin tap undersea communications cables used by Western countries. One of the companies was identified by the US Department of the Treasury as Digital Security, which Washington said has helped Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. But the Kremlin fervently denies these accusations. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the office of the Russian presidency said that Moscow had “no idea what [Maassen] was talking about”. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in the Russian capital that Germany and other countries “should provide facts” to justify their accusations against Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 June 2018 | Permalink

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Israel charges former cabinet minister with spying for Iran

Gonen SegevIsrael has charged Gonen Segev, who served as the Jewish state’s Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, with spying for its archenemy, Iran. Segev, 62, was reportedly detained last month during a trip to Equatorial Guinea following a request by Israeli officials. He was then extradited to Israel and arrested as soon as he arrived in Tel Aviv last month, according to a statement by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service. On Monday it emerged that Israeli authorities had imposed a gag order on the case, forbidding Israeli media from reporting any information about it. The order appears to have now been lifted.

In 1992, when he was 35, Segev was elected as one of the Knesset’s youngest members, representing the conservative Tzomet party. Initially an opposition Knesset member, Segev eventually left Tzomet and joined a governing coalition with the Labor Party, in which he served as Minister of Energy and Infrastructure. After exiting politics, Segev, who is a medical doctor by training, became a businessman and traveled frequently abroad. But in 2004 he was arrested on a flight from Holland, while reportedly trying to smuggle several thousand ecstasy pills into Israel. He was jailed for five years but was released from prison in 2007, after a commendation for good conduct. Shortly after his release, Segev moved to the Nigerian city of Abuja, where he practiced medicine. It was there, the Shin Bet claims, that he was recruited by Iranian intelligence.

In a statement released on Monday, the Shin Bet said that Segev had admitted being in regular contact with Iranian intelligence agents in Nigeria and other countries around the world. He is reported to have said that he was given a fake passport by his handlers, which he used to visit Iran on two separate occasions in order to hold secret meetings with Iranian intelligence officers. He also traveled to several other countries in order to meet with his Iranian handlers and hand them information about Israel’s energy sector and the location of energy-related security sites in the country. The Shin Bet statement added that Segev introduced his Iranian handlers —who posed as foreign businessmen— to Israeli security officials on several occasions.

It is believed that Segev appeared before a court in Jerusalem on Friday. He was charged with “assisting an enemy in wartime” and with “carrying out espionage against the State of Israel”. The judge also charged him with numerous instances of transmitting classified information to a foreign power.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 June 2018 | Permalink

Germany arrests Tunisian man for producing biological weapon in his apartment

Ricin investigation GermanyGerman authorities have charged a Tunisian citizen with building a biological weapon, after finding significant quantities of the highly toxic substance ricin in his apartment. The 29-year-old man is referred to in public reports only as “Sief Allah H.”, in compliance with German law that forbids the naming of suspects until they are found guilty in court. German officials said last Thursday that the man remains in custody and has been charged with violating Germany’s War Weapons Control Act (known as Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz) and “preparing a serious act of violence against the state”.

According to reports, German intelligence services received a tip-off last month that the man had made online purchases of a coffee grinder and 1,000 castor seeds. Processing castor seeds creates a ricin byproduct, which can then be weaponized in the form of a powder, a fine mist, or solid pellets of various sizes. The end product is more powerful than many other toxic substances, such as cyanide. Upon entering the human body, ricin can cause multiple organ failure in less than two days. It has no known antidote.

After receiving the tip-off, German authorities began monitoring the suspect’s movements in the western German city of Cologne, near the Belgian and Dutch borders. By June, German police discovered that he had produced enough ricin to dispense as many as 1,000 lethal doses.

German media reported that “Sief Allah H.” is a sympathizer of the Islamic State. However, investigators have found no direct link between him and any militant organizations in Germany or abroad. Additionally, no evidence has yet been presented that he had planned an actual attack —in Germany or elsewhere— at a specific time. However, officials from Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said it was “very likely” that the arrest of “Sief Allah H.” had averted a terrorist attack. Late last week, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said that the suspect had made ricin by following instructions posted online by the Islamic State.

Throughout the weekend, several other apartments in Cologne were searched by German authorities. Search parties consisted of members of the local police, intelligence officers and scientists from the Robert Koch Institute, the German government agency tasked with monitoring hazards to public health.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 June 2018 | Research Credit: S.F. | Permalink

Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

US imposes sanctions on companies for helping Russian spy agencies

YantarThe United States has for the first time imposed economic sanctions on a number of Russian companies, which it says helped the Kremlin spy on targets in North America and Western Europe. On Monday, the US Department of the Treasury said it would apply severe economic restrictions on a number of Russian firms that work closely with the Kremlin. One of the companies was identified as Digital Security, which Washington says has been helping Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. Monday’s statement by the Treasury Department named another Russian firm, the Kvant Scientific Research Institute, which it described as a front company operated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

But the Russian firm that features most prominently in Monday’s announcement is Divetechnoservices, an underwater equipment manufacturer. The US alleges that the FSB paid the company $15 million in 2011 to design equipment for use in tapping underwater communications cables. According to Washington, equipment designed by Divetechnoservices is today used by a fleet of Russian ships that sail on the world’s oceans searching for underwater communications cables to tap. One such ship, according to reports, is the Yantar (pictured), ostensibly an oceanic research vessel, which Washington says is used to detect and tap into underwater communications cables.

In addition to Divetechnoservices, the US Treasury has named three individuals who will face economic sanctions due to what Washington says is their personal involvement with the underwater hardware manufacturer. They are: Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy, the company’s owner and former director; Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun, who serves as Divetechnoservices’ general director; and Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov, identified as the manager of Divetechnoservices’ underwater surveillance program. These men —all Russian citizens— will not be able to enter into business relationships with American companies or citizens. On Tuesday, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the latest round of US sanctions as an act of desperation. The White House would fail in its effort to “force the Russian Federation to change its independent course of action in the international arena”, said the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2018 | Permalink

Israel has secretly worked with Emirates against Iran for decades, report alleges

Mohammed bin Rashid EmiratesA lengthy exposé by a leading American newsmagazine has claimed that Israel and the United Arab Emirates, two countries that officially have no relations, have been secretly collaborating for more than two decades. Their secret cooperation has been extremely tight and has included clandestine weapons sales and intelligence-sharing, according to the exposé, which was published on the website of The New Yorker on Monday and will feature in the magazine’s print edition on June 18. The lengthy piece, which deals with the changing geopolitics of the Middle East, is written by Adam Entous, national security correspondent for The Washington Post, who has previously reported for more than two decades for Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

Officially, Israel and the UAE have never had bilateral relations. The Emirates, an Arab federal state ruled through an absolute monarchical system, does not recognize Israel as a country. Consequently, the two Middle Eastern states have no official diplomatic, economic or military relations. But in his lengthy article published on Monday, Entous claims that Israeli and Emirati officials have been meeting in secret for at least 24 years. He alleges that the first clandestine meeting between the two sides happened in 1994 in Washington, after Abu Dhabi sought to purchase a number of American-made F-16 fighter jets. The US warned the UAE that Israel would veto the deal, fearing that these fighter jets in the hands of Arabs may eventually be used against it. But Israel did not pose a veto. Motivated by the Oslo I Accord, which it had signed the previous year, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin secretly reached out to the Emiratis and offered “to discuss the matter directly” with them.

The first series of meetings between the two sides took place “off the record […] in a nondescript office in Washington”, says Entous. Israeli and Emirati officials were diametrically at odds over the Palestinian issue, but were in almost complete agreement on the topic of Iran. Abu Dhabi saw Iran as a major threat to the stability of the Middle East, and so did Israel. Following the secret meetings, Israel lifted its objections to Washington’s sale of F-16s to the Emiratis. That, says Entous, helped “build a sense of trust” between the two Middle Eastern countries. By the end of the 1990s, there were allegedly regular secret meetings between Israeli and Emirati officials, which included the sharing of military, security and intelligence data.

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Analysis: The Islamic State is far from dead; it is regrouping and rebranding itself

Islamic State ISISIn a recent series of interviews to promote his new book, Anatomy of Terror, former FBI special agent and current counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan insists that the Islamic State remains potent and dangerous. Speaking last week to the British newspaper The Guardian, Soufan warned that, even though the Islamic State was unable to hang on to its self-described caliphate in the Middle East, the group has ample opportunities to regroup. In the days of al-Qaeda, “we only had one vacuum, in Afghanistan”, from where Osama bin Laden’s organization operated from and spread its message, said Soufan. “Now we have so many vacuums —Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, the Philippines— and it’s expanding. That’s very dangerous”, he warned.

Soufan, a well-read analyst and complex thinker, who today presides over The Soufan Group and oversees the Soufan Foundation, is right to warn against the notion that the Islamic State is on its way out. The group’s meteoric rise marked a watershed moment in the modern history of militant Sunni Islam. Even if it is militarily annihilated —a prospect that is far from certain— its physical absence will in no way erase its impact and influence among its millions of supporters and sympathizers. In fact, experts warn that the group is —like al-Qaeda before it— proving to be resilient and able to withstand intense military pressure from its enemies. Currently, all signs show that the Islamic State is actively reorganizing under the command of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The prolonged absence of the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi has prompted wild speculation about this supposed demise or severe incapacitation. There are even some who claim that he was killed by an Islamic State faction in an internal coup.

But most intelligence agencies agree that al-Baghdadi —and his core lieutenants— remain very much alive and well. Three weeks ago, The Washington Post cited anonymously a “senior United States counterterrorism official” who confirmed that, by all indications, al-Baghdadi was alive and was coordinating the group’s activities in its last strongholds in eastern Syria. This is supported by communications intercepts, detainee interrogations and statements by informants, said The Post. It is important to note that Al-Baghdadi continues to have alongside him some of the militant group’s most hardened commanders, most of whom were trained in intelligence and military tactics during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Under their guidance, retreating Islamic State forces are leaving behind cell-based formations of underground fighters in areas that are liberated by the fragile US-led coalition. Read more of this post