Hundreds of foreign spies in Brussels, European diplomatic agency warns

European Commission buildingThe European Union’s diplomatic agency has warned officials who are active in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, according to a German news report. The report appeared last weekend in Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper, which cited a report from the European External Action Service (EEAS). Based in Brussels, the EEAS operates as the European Union’s diplomatic agency and is headed by Federica Mogherini, an Italian former government minister who has been serving as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy since 2014.

According to Die Welt, the EEAS estimates that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” are operating in Brussels. Most of these intelligence officers are allegedly embedded in their countries’ embassies, trade missions, cultural centers and other outreach facilities in the Belgian capital. There are also many intelligence operatives from Western agencies, including those of the United States, as well as from Iran, Turkey and Morocco, among other foreign nations. The report in Die Welt adds that the EEAS advised European Union diplomats to avoid certain establishments in the European Quarter of Brussels, which are believed to be heavily frequented by international spies. Among them are “a popular steakhouse and café” that are “within walking distance of the Berlaymont building” —the headquarters of the European Commission. The same building houses the offices of the EEAS.

Such warnings are not new. In June of last year, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said during a rare public appearance that Vienna —the spy capital of the world— no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. He said that the Austrian capital had been overtaken by Brussels as the spy capital of Europe and added that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. In 2012, Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), claimed that Brussels was home to more spies than any other city in the world.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 February 2019 | Permalink

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Reports allege third man was involved in poisoning of Sergei Skripal

Sergei SkripalNew reports from Russian investigative sites claim that a third man using a fake name was involved in the attempted assassination of former double spy Sergei Skripal in England last year. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer, was resettled in the English town of Salisbury in 2010, after spending several years in a Russian prison for spying on behalf of Britain. But he and his daughter Yulia almost died in March 2018, after they were poisoned with a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, though the Kremlin denies it had any role in it. Two assailants have so far been identified by British intelligence. They have been named as Dr. Alexander Yevgenyevich Mishkin —cover name ‘Alexander Petrov’— and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga —cover name ‘Ruslan Boshirov’. Both are said to be employees of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, commonly referred to as the GRU. The two men spoke on Russian television last year, denying any involvement in the attack on the Skripals. Their whereabouts since their television interview remain unknown. Moscow denies that it had any role in the attack.

In October of last year, the Russian investigative news site Fontanka claimed that a third man under the name of Sergey Fedotov, may have been involved in the attack on Skripal. Last Thursday, another Russian investigative news site, Bellingcat, said that the name Sergey Fedotov appears to have been created out of thin air for operational purposes by Russia’s intelligence services. According to Bellingcat, Fedotov appears to have no past prior to 2010, when his identity was invented using the same techniques that the fake identities of ‘Petrov’ and ‘Boshirov’ were concocted by the GRU. Moreover, Fedotov’s records show that he traveled extensively in the Middle East, Asia and Europe between 2010 and 2015. The Russian news site claims that he was in Bulgaria in late April 2015, when Emilian Gebrev, a wealthy local defense industry entrepreneur, fell violently ill. Gebrev was hospitalized for signs of poisoning along with his son and one of his company’s executives for several days, eventually making a full recovery. As the Bulgarian businessman was being taken to hospital, Fedotov skipped his return flight out of Sofia and instead drove to Istanbul, Turkey, where he bought a one-way airline ticket to Moscow, says Bellingcat.

The BBC’s Gordon Corera said he contacted the Russian embassy in London and the Kremlin in Moscow. Both sources strongly refuted the Bellingcat report. A Kremlin spokesman cautioned the BBC to be skeptical about Bellingcat’s report, since “we don’t know what [its] authors based their work on [or] how competent they are”. British Police told Corera that they were “still investigating whether further suspects were involved” in the attack on Skripal and were “not prepared to discuss” details pertaining to “an ongoing investigation”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 February 2019 | Permalink

US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda-linked groups

Shabwani EliteWeapons 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 the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen. The war has been going on since 2015, when a alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities formed the Houthi movement, which quickly seized control of much of the country. The Houthis effectively toppled the government, prompting a reaction by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, which see the Shiite movement as an Iranian front. In an effort to restore Yemen’s Sunni-dominated government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry.

However, a report published this week by Amnesty International alleges that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen. Among them are three militias that are known to be supported by the government of the Emirates, namely the Giants, the Security Belt and the Shabwani Elite. These groups, says Amnesty, have been seen using Western-supplied weaponry in the field of battle and in their compounds throughout Yemen. In its report, the human-rights group says that these groups are not accountable to any government and have been linked to serious war crimes against civilians. Meanwhile, a separate investigation aired this week by CNN claims that American-manufactured weaponry and materiel given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries is ending up in the hand of Salafist militias in Yemen. The report names the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The CNN report also claims that some of the American weaponry has fallen in the hands of Houthi fighters.

On Wednesday the BBC quoted a senior American general who said that the Pentagon plans to investigate whether American and other Western-supplied weapons are being illegally diverted into the hands of non-state Sunni militias in Yemen. The government of the United Arab Emirates has not commented on the reports. As intelNews reported last August, an investigative report published by the Associated Press claimed that senior AQAP commanders were on the payroll of US-backed Sunni militias in Yemen and that its fighters were being recruited to fight against the Houthis. The report also argued that Washington was privy to the secret agreements between Yemen’s Sunni militias and AQAP.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2019 | Permalink

Israel extends intelligence document classification period to 90 years

MossadThe government of Israel has increased to 90 years the period during which documents belonging to intelligence and security agencies can remain secret, extending it by 20 years. Until last month, government documents produced by Israeli spy agencies, such as its external spy organization, the Mossad, or its domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, could remain hidden from public view for up to 70 years. Last year, however, the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commissioned a study into the possibility of extending the classification period for such documents. Israel’s Supreme Council of Archives, a body within the Israel State Archives that advises the Office of the Prime Minister on matters of classification, recommended against extending the classification period by more than five years.

Last month, however, Netanyahu rejected the recommendation of the Supreme Council of Archives and managed to pass an amendment to the classification regulations that will keep documents secret for 90 years from now on. The existence of the amendment was revealed publicly for the first time on Monday of this week. In addition to agencies such as the Mossad and the Shin Bet, the extended regulation will also apply to several cyber-oriented military units, as well as to government-run research institutes and commissions, including the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which published news of the amended regulation on Tuesday, said that documents from 1949, the year that the Shin Bet and the Mossad were founded, would normally have been published this year. But now they will remain hidden from public view until 2039. Documents relating to more recent cases, such as the death of Ben Zygier, Mossad’s so-called ‘prisoner X’, or the assassination of Hamas arms procurer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, which took place in 2010, will not be released until 2100.

The office of President Netanyahu said on Monday that the goal of the amendment was to protect Israel’s assets and informants who remain alive, or their descendants in foreign countries. It added that many documents produced by Israel’s spy agencies described operational methods that were “still in use today” and could therefore “harm national security”. Last but not least, said the Prime Minister’s Office, some of the information in classified documents “could harm Israel’s foreign relations”. The statement did not elaborate on these claims.

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

Firm founded by ex-Blackwater boss to operate in China’s Xinjiang province

Erik PrinceA security firm founded by Erik Prince, the former boss of the private military company Blackwater, has announced a deal with the Chinese state to operate a training facility in China’s largely Muslim Xinjiang province. In the months following the United States invasion of Iraq, Blackwater was hired by the Department of State to provide diplomatic security at several locations throughout the Middle Eastern country. By 2010, when the company was abruptly sold to a group of private investors, its tactics in Iraq had prompted international controversy. Prince went on to help found Frontier Services Group (FSG), another private security firm registered in Hong Kong. The company provides security training to personnel working for Chinese companies. Its specialization is training personnel of Chinese firms based abroad, mainly in regions of Africa.

The announcement of the new training center was posted on the FSG’s Chinese-language website. It said that one of FSG’s subsidiaries had struck an agreement to build and operate a “training center” at the Kashgar Caohu industrial park in the city of Kashgar, one of China’s westernmost cities, situated near the country’s border with Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. The city of 1 million people is located in the province of Xinjiang. In recent months, Beijing has been heavily criticized by several Western countries for allegedly carrying out mass detentions of Uighur Muslims, which make up about half of Xinjiang’s population. Uighurs are ethnically related to the peoples of Central Asia and speak a Turkic dialect. Some see the Chinese state as an occupier and advocate secession, often combined with calls to create an Islamic caliphate. China denies the allegations of mass detentions and claims that Uighurs are voluntarily enrolled in “educational and training facilities”, where they are de-radicalized through political and cultural instruction. Up to a million Uighurs are believed to have been enrolled in these facilities in the past year.

It is worth noting that the initial announcement of the Kashgar Caohu training center agreement between FSG and its Chinese client was eventually deleted from the company’s website. Late last week, an FSG spokesperson told several news agencies, including Reuters, that Prince was not involved in what was described in a statement as a “preliminary agreement” for a training center in Xinjiang. The spokesperson added that Prince probably had “no involvement whatsoever” in the agreement.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 5 February 2019 | Permalink

Japanese police investigate online sale of uranium on Yahoo! auction website

Uranium yellow cakePolice in Japan are investigating how a man was able to offer uranium for sale through an online auction website operated by Yahoo!, a California-based provider of Internet services. Japanese news agencies reported on Friday that the alleged product was displayed packed inside a transparent glass tube on the online auctions site. It was advertised as “Uranium 99.9%”. There was no information about the sale’s starting price on Yahoo! Auctions. The website, Yahoo! Kantan Kessai, is a rare remnant of the California-based company’s worldwide auction service, which terminated its operations in most countries between 2002 and 2008. But smaller segments survive in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.

In November 2017, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority was notified by a user that a product described as “Uranium 99.9%” was on offer on the auction website. After investigating the case, the agency notified the police in January of the following year, which in turn contacted Yahoo! and brought the auction to its attention. The incident was not disclosed to the media at the time, so that the police and intelligence services could investigate whether a network of individuals was involved in the case. Meanwhile, the seller and several individuals who had made bids on the product were arrested and questioned. The substance was confiscated and given to the Japan Atomic Energy Agency for tests. According to local media reports, initial tests conducted by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency showed that the substance is indeed radioactive. Further tests showed that the material is uranium, as advertised, though a question remains as to whether it is depleted uranium or uranium concentrate. It is not known whether the uranium is enriched (thus having an increased percent composition of uranium-235 through isotope separation) or depleted (the less radioactive byproduct of the process of isotope separation).

Reports also suggest that the main suspect in the case told authorities that he acquired the uranium from a seller located outside Japan, who sold it on an international auction website. Reports suggest that, depending on the outcome of ongoing laboratory results, the seller of the substance faces imprisonment of up to a year and a fine of up to ¥1 million (less than $10,000).

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

Pakistan dismantled ‘major international spy network’, say media reports [updated]

Pakistan Federal Investigation AgencyMedia reports in Pakistan claimed yesterday that “an international spying network” had been dismantled in the country following the arrests of at least five intelligence officials who were working for foreign interests. According to The News International, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, the arrests were carried out earlier this week by the Federal Investigation Agency, the country’s primary counterintelligence agency. Those arrested were allegedly members of Pakistan’s intelligence and security forces, it said. They reportedly include a Pakistani official with diplomatic credentials who was serving in a Pakistani embassy “in a European capital”. [Update: by 1700 EST on Friday, the article on The News International website had been taken down; but an English-language summary of the article can still be found on this website].

The report did not specify the foreign intelligence agency for which the Pakistani officials were allegedly working. But it said that it belonged to one of “the world’s most powerful countries”. It added that the network had been “completely dismantled” following a counterintelligence operation that an unnamed source described to the paper as “remarkable”. As a result, the adversary spy network in Pakistan had been “crippled […] completely”, added The News International.

The conservative-leaning paper, which supports Pakistan’s new center-right Prime Minister Imran Khan, hinted that the alleged spy network may have been working for the United States Central Intelligence Agency. It said that the agency that was involved in running the spy ring had been allowed by the government of Pakistan to “roam free” inside Pakistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Its case officers had been allowed to recruit agents in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a region in the northwest of the country that is seen as a Taliban stronghold. The paper also protested against prior arrangements that permitted the foreign agency’s case officers to enter and leave Pakistan “with no scrutiny of their luggage”. It added that the government of Prime Minister Khan decided to move against this and other spy networks run by the foreign intelligence agency after it determined that these networks were “working for the interests of that agency in Pakistan and not for Pakistan’s national interests”.

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