MI5 director plays down US threat to end intelligence sharing over Huawei

Sir Andrew ParkerThe director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency has dismissed warnings by the United States that intelligence sharing between the two allies will be impeded if London decides to use Chinese-made telecommunications hardware. The British government has come under relentless pressure by Washington to bar Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, from competing for contracts to build the United Kingdom’s 5th generation cellular communications infrastructure.

In recent years, Huawei has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an worldwide campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with some if its allies, notably Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies. Last year, Washington warned two of its main European allies, Britain and Germany, that it would stop sharing intelligence with them if they allowed Huawei to compete for 5G contracts.

But in an interview with The Financial Times, Sir Andrew Parker, head of the Security Service (MI5), said on Sunday that he didn’t believe Britain’s intelligence-sharing relationship with America would be impacted by the decision. When asked whether Washington would stop sharing intelligence with London if the British government allowed a bid by Huawei, Sir Andrew said he had “no reason today to think that”. He added that Britain’s intelligence relations with the US, and with other close allies, such as Canada and Australia, were “the strongest they’ve ever been”. Britain’s intelligence partnership with America “is, of course, of great importance to us”, said Sir Andrew, and went on: “I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It is a two-way street”.

Meanwhile was reported over the weekend that a high-level delegation from the National Security Agency —America’s largest intelligence agency— and the US National Economic Council would be in London today, in what appears to be a final effort to persuade London not to cooperate with Huawei. Prior to her resignation last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May had reportedly decided to allow the Chinese firm to compete for 5G contracts. Her successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is reputed to be in agreement with that decision. Last April, German intelligence official also dismissed American warnings that intelligence sharing with Berlin would end if Huawei built any part of the German 5G network.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 January 2020 | Permalink

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Cyprus issues international arrest warrants for three Israelis wanted for spying

WiSpear surveillance vanThe government of Cyprus has issued international arrest warrants for three Israeli citizens, who are wanted in connection with a private security company that allegedly carried out espionage operations on the Mediterranean island. The warrants were sparked by what has become known in Cyprus as the “spy van case”.

It began on November 16, 2019, when Cypriot police arrested two local men and a woman who were registered as employees of a company called WiSpear. The firm was reportedly registered in Cyprus in 2013 and began offering services relating to communications interception and surveillance in 2017. Its owner is Tal Dilian, an Israeli former intelligence officer. WiSpear provides services to customers in Africa, the Gulf and Southeast Asia, but not to the government of Cyprus, or to Israel.

The company became widely known on the island following a promotional interview given by Dilian to Forbes, during which he allowed a film crew to tour a surveillance van (pictured) belonging to WiSpear. Dilian told the Forbes reporters that the van —a remodeled ambulance— had been fitted with over $9 million worth of surveillance equipment and could intercept Internet-based applications and telephone messages. The report became viral in Cyprus and prompted calls for an investigation into WiSpear.

On Thursday, the Cypriot government issued international arrest warrants for three Israeli citizens, including Dilian and Shahak Avni, a prominent member of Cyprus’ Jewish community. All are believed to be in Israel, and it is doubtful that they will ever be extradited to Cyprus. The Israeli government has not commented on the case. WiSpear said on December 26 that it was “cooperating fully with Cypriot law enforcement”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 7 January 2020 | Permalink

Analysis: Soleimani’s killing was tactically flawless, but was it strategically wise?

Qasem SoleimaniBy assassinating Qasem Soleimani, a Shia celebrity and the Middle East’s most influential military leader, US President Donald Trump has made the most fateful decision of his presidency to date. Tehran has no option but to respond. When it does, the way that Mr. Trump and his administration handle the situation will largely determine the future of the Middle East and the fate of his presidency. In the meantime,Quote it is becoming increasingly clear that victory, if and when it comes, will not be unblemished for whomever claims it.

Mr. Trump’s decision to assassinate General Soleimani was shocking because it was unexpected. It must be remembered that, not only has this president based his entire political program on his desire to end America’s decades-long military engagement in the Middle East, but he had also in recent months signaled his desire to negotiate with Tehran. In the summer he said he wanted to “make Iran rich again, let them be rich, let them do well, if they want”, adding that no regime change was necessary. In December, following a surprise prisoner exchange between the US and Iran, Mr. Trump tweeted: “Thank you to Iran on a very fair negotiation. See, we can make a deal together!”. The news prompted one notable expert to speak of “a very positive step, because it’s the first time under the Trump Administration that Iran and the US have agreed on anything”. That was on December 8, just 25 days before Soleimani’s Quoteassassination. And yet, while publicly thanking Iran, Trump was likely formulating plans to kill its leading general.

Why did the president do it? To some extent, one should not dismiss his argument that he wanted to put an end to the slow tit-for-tat escalation of tensions in the Middle East, before it boiled over. He wanted to make Iran listen. Writing in The Washington Times just hours after Soleimani’s assassination, former CIA official Charles Faddis noted that Mr. Trump’s decision honored US President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Your adversary is more willing to listen to you if he is able to “see the big stick, and he needs to understand you will wield it”, wrote Faddis. A few hours later, David Petraeus, former director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, described Mr. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani as “a very significant effort to reestablish deterrence, which obviously had not been shored up by the relatively insignificant responses up until now”. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part III

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, 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 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part three in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

04. No shortage of high-profile assassinations and abductions in 2019. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, suspicious deaths and abductions in 2019. In January, the Dutch government officially accused Iran of ordering the contract murders of two Iranian men on Dutch soil in 2015 and 2017. The accusation prompted Iran to expel two Dutch diplomats from Tehran, which in turn prompted Holland to recall its ambassador from the Iranian capital. In March, a medical examination suggested that Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died allegedly by falling while intoxicated in a luxury hotel room in Washington, may in fact have been strangled to death. According to the medical examiner —whose name has been redacted in the declassified report— the state of Lesin’s hyoid bone showed signs of “hanging or manual strangulation” or asphyxiation. Also in March, Daniel Forestier, a former paramilitary officer in France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), who was under investigation for allegedly plotting to kill General Ferdinand Mbahou, a senior Congolese opposition figure, was shot dead in the French Alps. According to a police report, Forestier had been shot five times in the chest and head in what a public prosecutor described as “a professional job”. In August, German authorities accused Moscow of ordering the assassination in Berlin of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Chechen separatist who was shot in the head in broad daylight by a man wearing a wig and carrying a pistol fitted with a silencer. In October, Yossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad —Israel’s main external intelligence agency— said in an interview that he had authorized “more than a few” assassinations during his tenure and warned that more may be on the way. In October, Iranian authorities announced the capture of Ruhollah Zam, a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. It was later reported that the Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure Zam from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. In November, Ibragim Eldzharkiev, a senior counter-terrorism officer in the Russian police, was gunned down along with his brother in a downtown Moscow street, in what authorities described as a contract killing.

03. Saudi Arabia hired Twitter employees to spy on users. In November US authorities charged two Saudi-born employees of the social media firm Twitter with spying on American soil. They also charged a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family with handling the two employees. They were allegedly recruited in 2015, on orders from the Saudi government, to spy on the identities of anonymous Twitter users who posted negative views of Saudi Arabia’s ruling dynasty. The employees gave the Saudis private information that included the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users, who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media. One of the two Twitter employees reportedly managed to escape to the oil kingdom before he was captured by the FBI. Remarkably, only a day after the US Department of Justice charged the three Saudi citizens with engaging in espionage on American soil, Saudi officials hosted in Riyadh Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, reportedly to discuss “the longstanding Saudi-US partnership”.

02. A wiretapping scandal of vast proportions was unearthed in Spain. At the beginning of 2019, a Spanish court widened an investigation into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years. At the center of the case is José Manuel Villarejo, a 67-year-old former police chief, who allegedly spied on hundreds of unsuspecting citizens on behalf of corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. A year earlier, five active police officers and an employee of Spain’s tax revenue service admitted to working for Villarejo’s network. They disclosed information about Operation KITCHEN, an espionage effort that targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular, who was eventually jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case. The Gürtel case was the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, and brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of 2017. The BBVA, Spain’s largest bank, is also accused of having made illicit payments of nearly $11.1 million to Villarejo for over 13 years.

01. US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda. Weapons supplied to the Saudi and Emirati governments by the United States and other Western nations are ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militias in Yemen, according to two separate investigations. The weapons are being supplied to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen, in support of the country’s Sunni-dominated government. Since 2015, the Yemeni state has been at war with an Iran-backed alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities, known as the Houthi movement. In an effort to support Yemen’s Sunni government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the UAE with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry. However, a report published in February by Amnesty International alleged that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen, which have al-Qaeda links. A separate investigation aired by CNN claimed that weaponry given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries has been ending up in the hands of Salafist militias in Yemen. Among them is the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 2 January 2020 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part II

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, 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 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

07. Western spy agencies hacked into Russia’s version of Google. Media reports tend to portray Western intelligence agencies as constantly defending themselves against cyber attacks from abroad —notably from North Korea, Iran and Russia. The reality of cyber espionage is far more complicated, as intelligence agencies from all sides adopt defensive and offensive postures, often concurrently. One example of this complexity emerged in last June, when the Reuters news agency reported that Western spy agencies used a malware described as the “crown jewel” of cyber-espionage tools to hack into Russia’s version of Google. The hackers targeted Yandex (Яндекс), the largest technology venture company in the Russian Federation and the fifth most popular search engine in the world. Yandex also provides services such as mapping and email in Russia and several other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The hackers appeared to be interested in acquiring technical information about how Yandex authenticates user accounts. That information could potentially enable them to impersonate Yandex users and access private information such as email messages, geolocation information, and other sensitive data. Reuters said that the hackers attempted to breach Yandex for purposes of espionage, not sabotage or disruption, or stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes.

06. The CIA may have lost 17 of its spies in Iran. If the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown. As we explained in July, losing 17 assets in one big sweep sounds fantastical. However, if it is true, it would mark one of the biggest intelligence-collection disasters in the CIA’s 72-year history. What may be equally worrying for the CIA is that the Iranians claim to have visually identified a number of CIA case officers, whose job is to recruit and handle foreign assets. If the Iranians are telling the truth, many units at the CIA will be in recovery mode for quite some time.

05. NATO allies use spy agencies to back opposing sides in Libyan War. The chaos that is the Libyan Civil War deepened this year, largely because foreign countries are backing opposing sides in the conflict. In April, several European Union member-states, led by Italy, criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. France has joined the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011 he returned to Libya in order to launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli. The GNA is supported by Italy, and more recently Turkey, which has offered to send troops to help the GNA in its war against the LNA. It is wroth noting that, in 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle.

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

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 1 January 2020 | Permalink