Iraqi Kurds claim they have captured senior Turkish intelligence officers

Cemîl BayikThe Turkish government has refused to comment on reports from Iraq, which suggest that Kurdish forces have captured at least two senior Turkish intelligence officers. News of the arrests first emerged in mid-August, when pro-Kurdish media in Turkey’s Anatolia region claimed that an armed Kurdish group in Iraq had captured two members of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), Turkey’s principal intelligence agency.

According to the reports, the Turkish intelligence officers had used forged identity papers to travel from eastern Turkey to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. From there, they went to Sulaimaniyah, a metropolitan center in Iraq’s Kurdish north. Allegedly, the Turkish officers traveled to Iraq in order to assassinate Cemîl Bayik, a co-founder and senior leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Founded in 1978, the PKK is a leftwing secessionist paramilitary organization that seeks an independent homeland for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Iraq’s Sulaimaniyah region is controlled by another Kurdish armed group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has close relations with Iran. But a rival Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Democrat Party (KDP), which is supported by Turkey and opposes the PKK’s secessionist aims, also has a strong presence in the area. It is not known whether KDP forces were aware of —or even assisted— the Turkish intelligence officers in Sulaimaniyah.

Kurdish sources claim that the two Turkish intelligence officers were arrested by PUK forces. Notably, media reports suggest that one of arrestees serves as the MİT’s deputy undersecretary for foreign operations, while the other heads the MİT’s PKK desk. The PUK is now threatening to publish photographs of the two men, which would blow their cover. But there has been no comment on this story from Ankara, where Turkish government officials refuse to confirm or deny that the arrests happened or that the two men are indeed MİT employees. Some observers, however, note that the Turkish government shut down the PUK’s office in the Turkish capital on August 23, and expelled the organization’s representatives. The group has maintained an office in Ankara since 1991, so the Turkish government’s surprising move may signify that the media reports about the arrests of the two MİT officers are indeed accurate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 September 2017 | Permalink

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French police officer charged in complex spy case involving Morocco, Algeria

Paris Orly AirportA French police officer has been charged with illegally sharing secret government documents in an espionage case involving France’s border police and diplomats from Morocco and Algeria. According to information published by the French daily Libération, the police officer supplied Moroccan intelligence with classified information about France’s border-control policies and procedures. He also gave the Moroccans information about the movements in France of Moroccan nationals and senior Algerian government officials.

According to the report by Libération, the police officer, identified only as “Charles D.”, was charged on May 31 of this year with corruption and violating secrecy rules. Court documents state that Charles D. gave away classified documents belonging to the Direction centrale de la police aux frontières (DCPAF), a directorate of the French National Police that is in charge of immigration control and border protection across France. He reportedly gave the documents to another man, identified in court documents as “Driss A.”, who worked at Paris’ Orly Airport. It is believed that Driss A. worked as director of the Orly branch of ICTS International, a Dutch-based company that provides security services in several European airports. It is also believed that Driss A. —a Moroccan-born French citizen— was secretly employed by the Deuxième Bureau, Morocco’s military intelligence service. It appears that the Moroccans compensated Charles D with free holidays in Morocco in exchange for his services.

Interestingly, when French counterintelligence officers raided Driss A.’s home in Paris, they found documents detailing the activities of senior Algerian government ministers during their official trips to France. The officials are identified in the documents as Algeria’s former Deputy Prime Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni, Higher Education Minister Tahar Hadjar, and Telecommunications Minister Hamid Grine. The documents appear to have been produced by Algerian intelligence and given initially to the embassy of Algeria in France. No explanation has been given about how these documents fell in Driss A.’s possession. Some observers assume that Driss A., acting as a Moroccan intelligence operative, must have acquired them from a source inside the Algerian embassy in Paris.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2017 | Permalink

Probe uncovers massive $3 billion secret bribe fund in Azerbaijan

Ilham AliyevAn investigation by a consortium of European newspapers has uncovered details of a massive slush fund worth nearly $3 billion, which was allegedly used by Azerbaijan’s governing elite to bribe officials, business leaders and journalists at home and abroad. The fund was operated out of Baku, the capital of the former Soviet state, which is routinely accused of human-rights abuses. Western countries, including the United States, censure the government of the oil-rich state for its role in systematic abuses. These involve high levels of public- and private-sector corruption, vote-rigging, politically motivated disappearances, and wide curtailment of basic civil liberties. This new information is bound to add to Azerbaijan’s image as a secretive oil-rich state ruled by corrupt elite connected to the country’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and his family.

The existence of the slush fund was revealed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative consortium. The OCCRP’s report was published in Tuesday, following a lengthy investigation by members of 17 European news media, including publications in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium. The report states that the fund, which it nicknames “the Azerbaijani Laundromat”, was operational for over two years, from 2012 to 2014. During that time, it participated in “over 13,000 transactions”, many of which were carried out through companies based in the United Kingdom but registered in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and the Seychelles. Payments were processed by the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, a major European banking institution.

According to the OCCRP report, most of the fund’s recipients were politicians, business executives, reporters and other influential people in Western Europe, as well as Turkey and Central Asia. Other recipients included wealthy families in Azerbaijan, who used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle, according to the report. Some foreign recipients of the funds were politicians, journalists or lobbyists who have been vocal in supporting Azerbaijan’s government and its policies. Most of the funds are believed to have originated from Azerbaijani-based companies, primarily Baktelecom MMC. But Russian-based companies, including Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-operated exporter and importer of defense-related technologies, also contributed over $30 million to the slush fund.

Perhaps most controversially, the OCCRP report alleges that some of the secret slash funds originated from senior cabinet members in Azerbaijan, as well as some intelligence officials. It also states that investigators uncovered “ample evidence of [the fund’s] connection to the family of [Azerbaijan’s longtime] President Ilham Aliyev”. Late on Tuesday, a statement issued by President Aliyev’s office rejected the report as “baseless, malicious and […] provocative in nature”. More reactions to the OCCRP report are expected in the coming days.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 September 2017 | Permalink

Australian parliament reviews use of Chinese-made cell phones

ZTE CorporationThe Parliament of Australia is reportedly reviewing the use of cell phones built by a Chinese manufacturer, after an Australian news agency expressed concerns about the manufacturer’s links with the Chinese military. The cell phone in question is the popular Telstra Tough T55 handset. It is made available to Australian parliamentarians though the Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) unit of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DST). Any parliamentarian or worker in Australia’s Parliament House can order the device through the Parliament’s ICT website. According to data provided by the DST, 90 Telstra Tough T55 cell phones have been ordered through the ICT in the current financial year.

The handset is manufactured by ZTE Corporation, a leading Chinese telecommunications equipment and systems company that is headquartered in the city of Shenzhen in China’s Guangdong province. On Monday, the News Corp Australia Network, a major Australian news agency, said it had contacted the parliament with information that ZTE Corporation’s links to the Chinese military may be of concern. News Corp said it informed the DST that members of the United States Congress and the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee, have expressed serious concerns about the Chinese telecommunications manufacturer in recent years.

As intelNews reported in 2010, three American senators told the US Federal Communications Commission that the ZTE was “effectively controlled by China’s civilian and military intelligence establishment”. The senators were trying to prevent a proposed collaboration between American wireless telecommunications manufacturers and two Chinese companies, including ZTE Corporation. In 2012, the intelligence committee of the US House of Representatives investigated similar concerns. It concluded that telephone handsets manufactured by ZTE should not be used by US government employees due to the company’s strong links with the Chinese state. And in 2016, US-based security firm Kryptowire warned that some ZTE cell phone handsets contained a suspicious backdoor feature that could potentially allow their users’ private data to be shared with remote servers at regular intervals.

A DST spokesman told the News Corp Australia Network that the ZTE-manufactured cell phones had been selected for use by Australian parliamentarians based on “technical and support requirements, [DST] customers’ feedback and cost”. The spokesman added that the DST “is currently reviewing the ongoing suitability” of the T55 handsets, following reports about ZTE’s links with China’s security establishment.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 September 2017 | Permalink

More facts revealed about mystery sonic attacks on US embassy in Cuba

US embassy in CubaAmerican officials have revealed more information about a mysterious sonic device that is believed to have caused numerous diplomats to suffer hearing loss and other serious ailments. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the first hearing-loss symptoms were reported by personnel at the US embassy in Havana in the fall of 2016. The news agency said that at least five embassy personnel reported suffering from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing. The symptoms were so serious that caused some American diplomats “to cancel their tours early and return to the United States”, according to the Associated Press.

Now new information has been disclosed by the United States Department of State. It suggests that, although diplomats began reporting hearing-loss symptoms in as early as fall 2016, the incidents continued until mid-August of this year. In a report published on Saturday, the BBC said that the bizarre incidents had not ended “several months ago” as was initially believed. Instead, they continued even after the last week of May, when the US deported two Cuban diplomats from Washington, DC. The move was in response to what Washington believes was a deliberate attempt to sabotage its diplomatic mission in Havana. The American embassy in the Cuban capital 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.

Additionally, the Department of State said on Friday that the number of American diplomats and other US embassy personnel who have reported sonic-related symptoms has increased to 19. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters in Washington that doctors were still evaluating the health of those serving at the US embassy in Havana. She added that new cases of people suffering from sonic-related medical symptoms could not be ruled out. A report from the American Foreign Service Association, which represents members of the United States Foreign Service, said on Friday that its representatives had spoken to 10 people who had received various treatments for ailments related to the alleged sonic attacks in Cuba. It said that many had suffered “permanent hearing loss”, while others were diagnosed with mild brain injuries.

According to media reports, Washington has concluded that the American diplomats were exposed to “an advanced device that was deployed either inside or outside their residences”. 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.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2017 | Permalink

South Korean former spy chief sent to prison for meddling in elections

Won Sei-hoonThe former director of South Korea’s main intelligence agency has been sent to prison for organizing a large-scale illegal campaign to influence the result of the country’s 2012 presidential election. Won Sei-hoon headed the NIS from 2008 to 2013, during the administration of conservative President Lee Myung-bak. During the 2012 presidential election, Won ordered a group of NIS officers to “flood the Internet” with messages accusing liberal political candidates of being “North Korean sympathizers”. One of those candidates, Moon Jae-in, of the left-of-center Democratic Party of Korea, is now the country’s president. Mr. Moon succeeded his main right-wing rival, Park Geun-hye, who resigned in March of this year following a series of financial scandals. She is now facing charges of bribery, abuse of power, leaking government secrets, and corruption.

In February 2015, the Seoul High Court upheld an earlier sentence of 2.5 years in prison, which had been imposed on Won by a lower court. But his conviction was overturned on appeal. Earlier this August, an internal inquiry conducted by the NIS found that many its officers were tasked by Won to manipulate the outcome of the 2012 presidential election with 30 dedicated teams of officers —some of whom were hired specifically for that purpose. A number of teams were in charge of creating fake social media accounts and using them to post negative views of Mr. Moon and positive views of his conservative rival, Mrs. Park. Other teams were tasked with creating the false impression that South Korea’s rival, North Korea, was supportive of Mr. Moon’s candidacy. The probe also found that the NIS launched similar —though on smaller scale— efforts to influence the outcome of parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012.

On Wednesday, based on new evidence provided by the government, including the results of the NIS’ internal investigation, the Seoul High Court sentenced Won to four years in prison for political meddling. Two other former senior officials in the NIS were sentenced to 30 months in prison each. In delivering his sentence, the judge said Won assembled a team of NIS operatives “with the specific intention to sway public opinion”. Throughout the operation, said the judge, Won was “regularly briefed” and exercised precise control over it. Won was transferred directly from the court to prison, where he will serve his sentence.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 August 2017 | Permalink

US troops in Syria battle anti-Assad rebels once funded by the CIA

US troops in SyriaAmerican troops deployed in Syria have exchanged fire with rebels that were until recently supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In 2013, soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. Acting on the president’s directive, the CIA promptly joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles. But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. It soon became apparent that many Free Syrian Army soldiers approached Turkey, seeking financial income and protection. By early August, there were reports from Syria that large groups of former Free Syrian Army troops were conducting raids in northern Syria in coordination with the Turkish military.

Early on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve told reporters that US troops in Syria had come under fire by Turkish-commanded former Free Syrian Army units. The spokesman told reporters in Kuwait City that the rebels shot at US troops in the outskirts of Manbij, a northern Syrian city of about 70,000, located a few miles from the Turkish border. The American soldiers reportedly returned fire before seeking shelter from the assault. According to the US Pentagon, the Turkish government was promptly contacted by Inherent Resolve commanders, who described the incident as “not acceptable”. Washington alleges that its troops have come under fire “multiple times” in the past month. Some of the culprits are believed to be Turkish-controlled Syrian insurgents, including former members of the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey and the US are member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the two countries do not follow a common policy on Syria. The US Pentagon supports Kurdish insurgents in Syria, which Turkey claims are connected with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Washington’s official position on Kurdish separatists is that they engage in terrorism against the Turkish state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2017 | Permalink