Despite spying allegations, African Union deepens ties with Chinese telecoms firm

African UnionDespite allegations in the French press that China has been spying for years on the internal communications of the African Union, the organization appears to be deepening its ties with a leading Chinese telecommunications firm. The allegations surfaced in January of last year in the Paris-based Le Monde Afrique newspaper. The paper claimed in a leading article that African Union technical staff found that the computer servers housed in the organization’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were secretly communicating with a server facility in Shanghai, China. The secret communications reportedly took place at the same time every night, namely between midnight and 2 in the morning. According to Le Monde Afrique, the African Union servers forwarded data to the servers in Shanghai from 2012, when the building opened its doors, until early 2017.

Beijing donated $200 million toward the project and hired the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation to build the tower, which was completed in 2012. Since then, the impressive 330 feet, 19-storey skyscraper, with its reflective glass and brown stone exterior, has become the most recognizable feature of Addis Ababa’s skyline. The majority of the building material used to construct the tower was brought to Ethiopia from China. Beijing even paid for the cost of the furniture used in the impressive-looking building. The paper noted that, even though the organization was allegedly notified about the breach by its technical staff in January of 2017, there was no public reaction on record. However, according to Le Monde Afrique, African Union officials took immediate steps to terminate the breach. These included replacing the Chinese-made servers with new servers purchased with African Union funds, without Beijing’s mediation. Additionally, new encryption was installed on the servers, and a service contract with Ethio Telecom, Ethiopia’s state-owned telecommunications service provider, which uses Chinese hardware, has been terminated.

Last week, however, the African Union deepened its ties with Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications firm that provided all the hardware, as well as much of the software, used in the organization’s headquarters. Last week, at a meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Thomas Kwesi Quartey, deputy chair of the African Union’s Commission signed a memorandum of understanding with Philippe Wang, Huawei’s vice president for North Africa. According to the memorandum, Huawei will increase its provision of hardware and services to the African Union “on a range of technologies”. These range from broadband telecommunications to cloud computing, as well as 5G telecommunications capabilities and artificial intelligence systems. The Chinese firm will also continue to train African Union information technology and telecommunications technicians. Both the African Union and the government of China have denied the Le Monde Afrique allegations.

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

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In a surprise move, Iran releases Washington resident accused of espionage

Nizar ZakkaIran has announced that it will release a Lebanese national and United States permanent resident, who has served nearly half of his 10-year prison sentence for allegedly spying for Washington. Nizar Zakka, 52, was born in Lebanon but was schooled in the US, where he lived permanently until 2015. In September of that year, Zakka traveled to the Iranian capital Tehran at the invitation of the government of Iran, where he spoke at a conference on Internet-based entrepreneurship. He attended the event as an information technology expert who worked for companies like Cisco and Microsoft before setting up his own company called IJMA3. Based in Washington, DC, IJMA3 lobbies investors to help build online networks in the Middle East in order to develop the region economically, socially and politically.

But on September 18, 2015, as Zakka was traveling to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran for his return flight, he was detained by Iranian security officers and never made it out of the country. A year later, he was convicted of spying for the US and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The court also handed him a $4.2 million fine, allegedly for “collaborating with a government that was hostile to Iran”. Iran’s state-run media said Zakka was a “treasure trove” of intelligence on the American military. But the Lebanese IT expert denied all charges leveled against him. He said he was tortured during his interrogation and he went on frequent hunger strikes to protest his innocence and the conditions of his detention. Throughout his imprisonment, the Lebanese government pressured Iran for his release. The US also raised the issue through Congress and the Department of State. But Washington’s ability to influence Iran was limited, as it does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran.

On Tuesday, however, Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had received word from Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon that Zakka would be released soon. The Iranians reportedly said they decided to release Zakka following personal interventions by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the country’s President Michel Aoun. Additionally, said the Iranian ambassador, Zakka would be released as “a goodwill gesture” during Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. The statement added that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was “ready to receive a Lebanese delegation at any time for the extradition of the Lebanese prisoner Nizar Zakka”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 June 2019 | Permalink

Leaked documents show Cuban spies targeted Miami International Airport

Miami International AirportDocuments that were allegedly leaked by a Cuban intelligence insider show that Cuban spies targeted the Miami International Airport (MIA) and may have acquired MIA internal files, passwords and other sensitive information. The documents were published on Monday by CiberCuba, an online news portal that was founded in 2014 by Cuban exiles in Spain. The website said that it was given access to several batches of classified Cuban intelligence files by an “anonymous source”. The files allegedly contain copies of internal emails and email attachments, personnel contracts, financial information, as well as intelligence collected on “persons of interest” to the Cuban government.

The Spain-based website said on Monday that the leaked documents, which it dubbed “CiberCubaleaks”, constitute one of history’s largest and most significant disclosures of internal files of the Cuban Ministry of Interior. In a lading article on Monday, CiberCuba published six documents from the Ministry’s Directorate of Counterintelligence, which are dated between mid-2015 and late 2017. The documents contain information provided by two spies in the United States, codenamed CHARLES and EL GORDO. They contain internal passcodes that can be used to access secure areas at MIA, sensitive records relating to the commercial airlines that use the airport, and descriptions of restricted areas at MIA.

But in a statement made to The Miami Herald, the Director of Aviation for Miami-Dade County, Lester Sola, dismissed the information in the leaked documents as “not credible”. Sola said that the description of MIA documents in the leaded files did not seem accurate and missed some basic clues, such as a correct description of the colors of MIAs security protocols. Consequently, said Sola, “nothing in the [CiberCuba] report poses a credible security threat”. However, his office did not ignore the information and shared it with government agencies; consequently, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was “looking into” the CiberCuba report as of Monday morning, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 June 2019 | Permalink

North Korea said to have executed senior nuclear negotiators as ‘spies’

Kim Song-hye Kim Hyok-cholNorth Korea has executed at least five of its senior nuclear negotiators and imprisoned several others, according to a report in a leading South Korean newspaper. Rumors of executions of North Korean nuclear negotiators have circulated in international diplomatic circles since February, but specific allegations have not surfaced in the news media. That changed on Friday, when Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s highest-circulation newspaper, said that at least five executions of nuclear negotiators took place in Pyongyang in March.

According to the paper, the most senior North Korean official to be executed was Kim Hyok-chol (pictured), who led the nuclear negotiations with Washington until February, when the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un met US President Donald Trump in Vietnam. Citing an “anonymous source” Chosun Ilbo said on Friday that Kim was executed by a firing squad at the Pyongyang East Airfield in Mirim, a suburb of the North Korean capital. Four other Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were executed at the same time, allegedly for having been “swayed by American imperialists to betray the Supreme Leader”, said the newspaper. Two more senior North Korean nuclear negotiators, Kim Yong-chol and Kim Song-hye (also pictured), have been stripped of their government posts and sent to labor camps, according to the report. Until recently, Kim Song-hye headed the Bureau of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, Pyongyahg’s main agency for negotiations with South Korea. Kim Yong-chol was one of several vice-chairs of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. He visited Washington with Kim Song-hye for negotiations prior to last February’s high-level summit in Vietnam.

There have been no reports in North Korean media about purges of senior officials or executions of alleged spies. However, the three officials named in the Chosun Ilbo report have not been seen in public in nearly a month. Additionally, last week the official Workers’ Party of Korea newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, published an editorial that condemned “counter-party and counter-revolutionary actions” of government officials who “claim to labor for the Supreme Leader […] but clandestinely harbor other machinations behind the back of the Supreme Leader”. The New York Times reached out to the South Korean and American governments about the Chosun Ilbo report, but no-one would comment on record. If the Chosun Ilbo report is accurate, it would support the view that there is exasperation in Pyongyang about the breakdown of its nuclear negotiations with Washington. It would also signify that Kim has radically reshuffled his team of negotiators, but this does not necessarily denote a change in his negotiating stance.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 June 2019 | Permalink

Pakistan sentences two, including senior military officer, to death for espionage

Inter-Services Public Relations PakistanA military court in Pakistan has sentenced two men to death and one to 14 years in prison for espionage. The alleged spies, who have been named, include a lieutenant general and civilian employee of a security agency. In February, several Pakistani news outlets reported that “an international spying network” had been dismantled in the country following the arrests of at least five intelligence and security officials who were working for foreign interests. Soon afterwards, the online reports were taken down and nothing more was said about the arrests. But on Thursday, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the country’s Armed Forces, said in a statement that three men had been sentenced for “espionage/leakage of sensitive information to foreign agencies” which “prejudiced national security”.

The three men were identified as Lieutenant General Javed Iqbal, Brigadier (ret.) Raja Rizwan, and Dr. Wasim Akram, who was reportedly “employed at [an unidentified] sensitive organization”. Iqbal and Akram were sentenced to death, while Rizwan was sentenced to 14 years of “vigorous imprisonment”, according to ISPR. Reports in local media said that General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistani Army’s Chief of Staff, had approved the sentences handed to the men by the military judges. This means that the sentences will be carried out unless Pakistan’s President, Arif Alvi, pardons them. Interestingly, the ISPR statement noted that the three men were tried in separate military courts for separate cases. No further information was provided. As intelNews reported in February, Pakistani media claimed at the time that those arrested included a Pakistani official with diplomatic credentials who was serving in a Pakistani embassy “in a European capital”.

No information has emerged about the country or countries to which the alleged spies gave sensitive information. Back in February, Pakistan’s leading conservative daily, The News International, claimed that the spies’ handlers belonged to an intelligence agency of one of “the world’s most powerful countries”. The paper also hinted that the alleged spy network may have been working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, but provided no information to support this claim. It added that the network had been “completely dismantled” following a counterintelligence operation that an unnamed source described to the paper as “remarkable”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 May | Permalink

Analysis: Yemen conflict shows small-drone warfare ‘is here to stay’, say experts

DroneThe current wars in the Middle East, especially the ongoing conflict in Yemen, are proof that the use of small drones in insurgencies is now a permanent phenomenon of irregular warfare, according to experts. Drones have been used in warfare in the Middle East for almost 20 years —including by outside powers like the United States. But National Public Radio’s Geoff Brumfiel reports that the wars in Iraq and Syria, and especially the war between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels, clearly demonstrate that we have entered “a new era of drone warfare”.

The use of off-the-shelf small drones has been increasing since 2010, with the Syrian Civil War having served as a testing ground for military uses of drones by all sides involved in the conflict. Belligerents quickly realized that the use of drones —whether remotely operated from the ground, or guided by GPS coordinates— could provide useful air power “for a fraction of the cost of fighter jets” employed by national militaries, according to Brumfiel. He quotes numerous drone warfare expects who agree that the ongoing Yemeni Civil War provides the clearest sign yet of the proliferation of drones for military and paramilitary purposes. The Houthi rebels have employed drones to attack government targets and targets such as air fields, oil installations and military bases in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Most of these drones, and the knowledge of how to modify them for military use, are given to the Houthis by Iran, according to RAND Corporation expert Ariane Tabatabai, who is quoted in Brumfiel’s article.

Iran has been developing military drone technology since the 1980s, but did not begin to employ drones outside of its airspace until 2015. The change was prompted by the emergence of the Islamic State emerged as a major Sunni threat to Shiite populations in the region. Iranian drones are now everywhere, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen. These drones, including drones used by the Houthis, are major sources of concern for conventional armies, because they are difficult to detect and destroy, according to Center for a New American Security researcher Nicholas Heras. He told Brumfiel that small drones are difficult to locate by radar, and their flight paths are far more flexible than those of airplanes. Additionally, those drones controllers can use GPS systems to “navigate through holes” in air defenses, said Heras.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2019 | Permalink

Venezuelan paramilitary groups in Colombia prepare to launch cross-border raids

Venezuelan defectorsGroups of Venezuelan expatriates are reportedly forming armed militias in Colombia and say they are preparing to launch cross-border attacks to topple the government of President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. It is believed that over a million Venezuelans have crossed the border into Colombia since 2016, when the ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela began to deepen. Among them are at least 1,400 members of various branches of Venezuela’s Armed Forces. Many of these defectors have declared their support for Juan Guaidó, the United States-supported President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, who has publicly called on the country’s Armed Forces to remove Maduro from power. According to a May 28 report by the Reuters news agency, some of these defectors are forming militias in Colombia and say they are preparing to launch cross-border attacks into Venezuela.

Reuters reporters spoke recently to eight Venezuelan defectors at an undisclosed location near the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The defectors said they represented a militia of 150 men, all of whom were had defected from the Venezuelan police force, army and intelligence services. One of the men identified himself as Eddier Rodriguez, 37, and said he now works as a private security guard in the Colombian city of Bogotá. He told Reuters that all 150 members of his militia were “willing to give our lives if necessary” to topple President Maduro. He added that his militia members had managed to arm themselves with handguns and were raising money to purchase more weapons and explosives. Rodriguez also claimed that his militia had been in contact with several Venezuelan “resistance groups” in Colombia, implying that his militia was not the only group of its kind. According to Rodriguez, his militia plans to coordinate with other similar groups to launch “Operation Venezuela”, an all-out cross-border attack against Venezuela, with the participation of “garrisons in Venezuela [which were] ready to fight once the operation began”.

Reuters said it was unable to independently verify the eight men’s claims about their militia group and other such groups in Colombia. However, reporters said they spoke with Victor Bautista, the Colombian Foreign Ministry’s director for border security, who assured them that the Colombian government “totally rejected” any attempts by armed groups to attack Venezuela. These groups would be considered “paramilitary organizations and would be detained by authorities If they were found”, Bautista told Reuters. The news agency also cited an anonymous Colombian intelligence official, who said that Colombia’s intelligence services had verified the existence of a number of Venezuelan paramilitary groups in the country. However, they “could not act against them because they had not yet committed any crimes”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 May 2019 | Permalink