FBI charges Twitter employees with working as spies for Saudi Arabia

TwitterUnited States authorities have charged two employees of the social media firm Twitter and a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family with spying for Riyadh. The Federal Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint on Wednesday in San Francisco, accusing the three men of “acting as unregistered agents” for Saudi Arabia. The phrase is used in legal settings to refer to espionage.

According to the FBI, the charges stem from an investigation that lasted several years and centered on efforts by the oil kingdom to identify and silence its critics on social media. In 2015, the Saudi government allegedly reached out to Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old network engineer working for Twitter, who lived in San Francisco. The complaint alleges that Ahmed Almutairi (also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), who worked as a “social media advisor” for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, arranged for Alzabarah to be flown from San Francisco to Washington to meet with an unidentified member of the Saudi dynasty.

Alzabarah, along with another Twitter employee, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, were given money and gifts by the Saudi government in return for supplying it with private information about specific Twitter users, according to the complaint. The information provided by the two Twitter employees to the Saudi authorities allegedly 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.

Special Agents from the FBI’s Settle field office arrested Abouammo at his Seattle home on Tuesday. However, Alzabarah is believed to have fled the United States along with his family before the FBI was able to arrest him. He is currently believed to be in Saudi Arabia and is wanted by the FBI, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. The Saudi government has not commented on the case. Twitter issued a statement on Wednesday, saying it planned to continue to cooperate with the FBI on this investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2019 | Permalink

Turkey’s arrest of al-Baghdadi’s sister is ‘intelligence goldmine’ says official

Rasmiya AwadA Turkish government official has described the arrest of the sister of the late Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as “an intelligence goldmine”. The official was referring to the arrest of Rasmiya Awad, an Iraqi citizen, who was reportedly arrested on Monday. Little is known about al-Baghdadi’s sister. She is believed to have been born in 1954, which makes her 65 years old this year.

Awad was arrested during a raid by the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army at a makeshift refugee camp in the suburbs of Azaz, a city of 30,000 located approximately 20 miles northwest of Aleppo. The Aleppo province in northwestern Syria has been under Turkish military control since 2016. Since then, the Turkish military command has relied on the Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army and a selection of smaller pro-Turkish militia to control the region.

The Associated Press reported that Awad was detained along with her family, including her husband, her daughter-in-law, and her five children. Five other adults were arrested in the vicinity of the refugee camp, all of them Iraqi citizens, but there is no word yet on whether they are in any way connected with the Islamic State. Turkish officials told the Associated Press yesterday that Awad, her husband and her daughter-in-law were being interrogated.

The news agency quoted one Turkish government official as saying that Awad’s capture was “an intelligence goldmine. What she knows about [the Islamic State] can significantly expand our understanding of the group and help us catch more bad guys”, the official is reported to have told the Associated Press.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2019 | Permalink

High-ranking Russian security official gunned down in Moscow

Ibragim EldzharkievA senior counter-terrorism officer in the Russian police has been gunned down along with his brother in a downtown Moscow street, in what authorities describe as a contract killing. One of the two victims has been named as Ibragim Eldzharkiev (pictured), who headed the Russian Interior Ministry’s Anti-Extremism Center in the Republic of Ingushetia in the Russian Caucasus. His younger brother was reportedly also killed in the attack.

Eldzharkiev assumed the position of director of Ingushetia’s Anti-Extremism Center in 2018, after his predecessor, Timur Hamhoev, was among several senior police officials who were convicted of torturing and extorting detainees. The high-profile caset shed light on the ongoing low-intensity conflict in the Russian Caucasus, which in the 1990s and 2000s was the site of two wars between the Russian military and local separatists.

Russian media reported that Eldzharkiev had been visiting Moscow on private business. Security camera footage allegedly shows the shooter approaching the victim outside the entrance of a building, as he is waiting for his brother to park a vehicle. He then shoots Eldzharkiev repeatedly before directing his gun on the victim’s younger brother, who was trying to flee the scene on foot. Once the two brothers are laying on the ground, the shooter approaches them again and shoots them in the head. The shooter then leaves the murder scene in a car. Both men died at the scene of the attack. The shooter remains at large.

The state-owned Russian news agency TASS said on Saturday that Eldzharkiev’s killing was connected with his professional activities at the Anti-Extremism Center and that he had been targeted by Ingushetian “religious extremist groups”. An anonymous security source told the news agency that the shooter is believed to have used a foreign-made gun to kill the two brothers. This was the second time that Eldzharkiev was targeted by unknown assailants. The first time was in January of this year, when two unidentified gunmen opened fire at his service car, injuring a member of his protection team.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 November 2019 | Permalink

London accused of hiding report about Russian meddling in Brexit referendum

BrexitThe British government has been accused by opposition parties, and by pro-remain conservative figures, of trying to conceal a report documenting Russian meddling in British politics. The report documents the results of an investigation into Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the outcome of the 2017 general election in the United Kingdom, as well as the result of the 2016 European Union referendum, which ended in victory for the pro-Brexit campaign.

The investigation was carried out by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and is largely based on closed-door testimony by senior officials from Britain’s intelligence community. It reportedly contains evidence from Russia experts in agencies such as the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

According to media reports the probe was completed in March of this year and underwent a redaction process to safeguard intelligence methods and sources. On October 15 it was submitted to Downing Street and on October 17 it reportedly landed on the desk of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. British opposition politicians allege that even sensitive reports are usually made public no later than 10 days after they are submitted to Downing Street, which means that the document should have been released prior to October 28.

Some fear that, with Parliament about to suspend operations on Tuesday, in anticipation for December’s general election, the report will effectively remain hidden from public view until the spring of 2020. On Friday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn publicly urged the government to release the report and claimed that the prime minster may have “something to hide”. But cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom argued that it is not unusual for parliamentary committee reports to remain in the government’s hands until they are properly evaluated. “The government has to respond properly, it cannot respond in haste”, said Leadsom.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 November 2019 | Permalink

WhatsApp sues Israeli firm for enabling spy attacks on 1,400 users worldwide

NSO GroupThe Facebook-owned company WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against a leading Israeli technology firm, accusing it of enabling governments around the world to spy on 1,400 high-profile users, including politicians and diplomats. The Reuters news agency said it spoke to “people familiar” with the investigation into the spy scandal, which it says was launched “earlier this year”.

What is interesting about the case, says Reuters, is that a “significant” proportion of the hundreds of WhatsApp users who were targeted by governments worldwide are “high profile” officials. The victims reportedly serve in various government agencies, including the armed forces, of at least 20 countries on five continents. They allegedly include politicians, diplomats, military officers, academics, journalists, lawyers and human-rights activists in countries such as the United States, India, Mexico, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

WhatsApp alleges that the spy activities against these individuals were enabled by NSO Group, an Israeli software development company that specializes in surveillance technologies. The Facebook-owned company alleges that NSO Group specifically developed a hacking platform that allows its users to exploit flaws in WhatsApp’s servers in order to gain access to the telephone devices of targeted individuals. At least 1,400 of WhatsApp’s users had their telephones compromised between April 29 and May 10, 2019, says WhatsApp.

NSO Group, whose clientele consists exclusively of government agencies worldwide, denies any wrongdoing. The company claims that its products are designed to “help governments catch terrorists and criminals”, says Reuters. But WhatsApp and Citizen Lab, a research initiative based at the University of Toronto, which worked with WhatsApp on the NGO Group case, claim that at least 100 of the 1,400 victims were news journalists, political activists and the lawyers who defend them. There was no overlap between ongoing criminal or terrorism investigations and those targeted by NSO Group’s software, they claim.

The names on the list of espionage victims are not known. But Reuters said that, depending on how high-profile the victims are, the WhatsApp-NSO Group spy scandal could have worldwide political and diplomatic consequences.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: ISIS leader’s hideout in Turkish-controlled part of Syria raises questions

Turkey SyriaIn 2011, the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad raised questions about Pakistan’s knowledge of his whereabouts. Today it is hardly controversial to suggest that at least some elements in the Pakistani government must have been aware of bin Laden’s location. Last week’s discovery of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a region of Syria controlled by Turkey inevitably raises similar questions about Ankara’s role in the Syrian conflict and its relationship with the Islamic State.

The self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State was found hiding in Barisha, a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is located just two miles from the Turkish border. The region that surrounds Barisha is under the control of Turkey and can most accurately be described as a Turkish protectorate inside Syria. The area north of Barisha has been under Turkish control since August of 2016, when Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, a cross-border operation conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces in cooperation with Turkish-baked militias in Syria. In early 2018, Turkish and pro-Turkish forces extended their territorial control further south, capturing Barisha and all surrounding regions. They remain in control of the area to this day.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is often described as a “proto-state”. It is governed by a collection of local councils of Turkmens and Arabs, with some Kurds and Yazidis also present. These councils elect representatives to the self-proclaimed Syrian Interim Government, which was formed in Turkey by Turkish-backed Syrian exiles and is currently headquartered in Azaz, an Arab-majority city of 30,000 that is under direct Turkish military control. Azaz is also the headquarters of the Turkish-backed “Free Police”, a gendarmerie-style militia that is funded, trained and equipped by the Turkish government.

In addition to the Turkish troops, the region is controlled by the Turkish-funded Syrian National Army. The 25,000 troops of the SNA —which is jokingly referred to by the locals as the “Turkish Syrian National Army”— operate completely under Turkish command. A substantial portion of the SNA’s force consists of former Islamic State fighters who switched their allegiance to the SNA once they saw the writing on the wall. Others are former members of the group that used to call itself Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate that has become the most powerful Salafi-jihadist force in Syria after the demise of the Islamic State.

Turkish-occupied northern Syria is also the base of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist group consisting of over 20,000 fighters, which is not officially aligned with al-Qaeda, but has similar goals. Since at least 2017, Ahrar al-Sham has effectively operated as a Turkish proxy militia and is in charge of dozens of check points and observation posts throughout the region. Lastly, the area is home to Hurras al-Din, yet another Salafi-jihadist group that is affiliated with al-Qaeda —though its leaders deny it. The group is able to operate in Turkish-controlled areas of Syria with suspicious ease. It was this group, Hurras al-Din, that sheltered al-Baghdadi in Barisha in return for cash.

Given Turkey’s military and political control of Idlib province, the question arises of how the world’s most high-profile terrorist leader was able to enter the region and receive protection from a militia that operates there under the watchful eye of the Turkish military. The New York Times reports that al-Baghdadi had been living in Barisha for several months before last week’s raid, and that Washington had been aware of his hideout location since the summer. Was Turkish intelligence also aware of the Islamic State leader’s whereabouts? If not, how could that be? If yes, why did it take a Kurdish spy, handled by Syrian Kurdish intelligence, to locate him and provide information to the Untited States? More importantly, what exactly is the relationship between Turkey and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who seem to operate freely in Idlib and provide protection to senior Islamic State officials in exchange for cash?

There are clearly more questions than answers here. If the United States is serious about combating Islamist extremism in the Middle East, it must press Ankara on these questions as a matter of urgency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 October 2019 | Permalink

Former CIA officer connected with abduction of Muslim cleric flees Europe

Sabrina De SousaA former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was convicted of involvement in the 2003 abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, says she fled Europe for the United States in fear of her safety. Sabrina De Sousa, 63, was a diplomat at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, when a CIA team abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured and raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him —apparently without Italy’s permission or consent. They were able to trace the American operatives through a substantial trail of evidence they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. The US government has refused to extradite the 22 officers to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2015. Portuguese authorities threatened to extradite her to Italy, but in 2017 the Italian government partially commuted her sentence to house arrest and reduced it from seven to four years. There were reports at the time that Italy had bowed to diplomatic pressure from Washington. On Monday, however, Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera said that De Sousa had fled Europe and returned to the US in fear for her personal safety. The former CIA officer told the paper that she decided to return to the US after senior American officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Italy earlier this month. Pompeo traveled to Rome for an official visit on October 1, while Haspel met with senior Italian intelligence officials on October 9.

De Sousa told Il Corriere della Sera that Haspel’s visit to Italy “verified for the Italian government that the American administration had washed its hands of my situation”. For this reason, and “terrified of the consequences that I could face” in Italy, “I decided to leave”, said De Sousa. She did not elaborate on the precise connection between her partially commuted sentence and Pompeo and Haspel’s visit to Italy. She added that recent changes to the US Whistleblower Act made it possible for her to openly discuss further details on her case, but did not elaborate. Her Italian lawyer, Andrea Saccucci, spoke to the Reuters news agency and confirmed that his client had left Europe for the US.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2019 | Permalink