Analysis: Tension grows between Iraqi state and Shiite militias that helped fight ISIS

Popular Mobilization ForcesA powerful alliance of about 50 Shiite militias, who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, is resisting calls by the Iraqi government to surrender its weapons and join civilian life, according to observers on the ground. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of ISIS. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces, because of the latter’s proximity to the United States.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, northern Iraqi cities like Mosul, Bashiqa and Nineveh are largely under the command of the PMF today, a full 18 months after they were recaptured from ISIS. All political and economic activity in the region is controlled by PMF fighters operating under the command of the 30th Brigade, which is one of the most hardline pro-Iranian militias in the PMF. It is alleged that the militias receive economic kickbacks from Shiite-owned Iraqi firms who are awarded multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post and other news media have reported, PMF militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families. There are also allegations, made by Deutsche Welle and other Western media, that the PMF has conducted mass executions of Iraqi Sunnis as part of its goal to rid Iraq of Sunni Islam.

Last month, Iraqi Armed Forces tried to dismantle PMF-controlled checkpoints into Mosul, but was confronted by armed PMF forces who refused to cede contro. Following the failed attempt to recapture the checkpoints, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned the PMF that it had until July 31 to disband. Its members were called to join a newly established gendarmerie under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Failure to do so would mean that the militias would be considered outlaws and would be treated as such by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister warned. But the PMF has requested more time to lay down its weapons, as some of its more moderate commanders are trying to convince the Iran-aligned militias to declare allegiance to a state army that they consider to be pro-American. The future will show how likely that is to happen.

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

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Australian ex-intelligence officer pleads guilty to disclosing spy operation

Bernard CollaeryAn Australian former intelligence officer will plead guilty to revealing an Australian spy operation against the impoverished nation of East Timor, which prompted international outcry and damaged Canberra’s reputation. IntelNews has covered the case of the former intelligence officer, known only as “Witness K.” since 2013, when it was first revealed. It is believed that Witness K. served as director of technical operations in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), Australia’s foreign-intelligence agency. In 2013, he publicly objected to an intelligence-collection operation that targeted the impoverished Pacific island nation of Timor-Leste, also known as East Timor.

According to Witness K., a group of ASIS officers disguised themselves as members of a renovation crew and planted several electronic surveillance devices in an East Timorese government complex. The inside information gathered from those devices allegedly allowed the Australian government to gain the upper hand in a series of complex negotiations that led to the 2004 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty. The treaty awards Australia a share from profits from oil exploration in the Greater Sunrise oil and gas field, which is claimed by both Australia and East Timor. But in 2013, the East Timorese government took Australia to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, claiming that the CMATS treaty should be scrapped. The East Timorese argued that during the sensitive negotiations that preceded the CMATS treaty, the Australian government was in possession of intelligence acquired through illegal bugging.

The claim of the East Timorese government was supported by Witness K., who argued that ASIS’ espionage operation was both “immoral and wrong” because it was designed to benefit the interests of large energy conglomerates and had nothing to do with Australian national security. It is worth noting that Witness K. said he decided to reveal the ASIS bugging operation in 2012, after he learned that Australia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, had been hired as an adviser to Woodside Petroleum, an energy company that was directly benefiting from the CMATS treaty.

However, as soon as the East Timorese told the Permanent Court of Arbitration that they would be questioning a witness from ASIS, officers from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the country’s domestic intelligence agency, raided the Canberra law offices of Bernard Collaery, East Timor’s lawyer in the case. The raiders took away documents that revealed the identity of Witness K., and then proceeded to detain him for questioning. They also confiscated his passport, which prevented him from traveling to the Netherlands to testify in the case. Read more of this post

Al-Qaeda is enduring security threat despite Hamza bin Laden’s death, experts warn

Al-Qaeda in YemenAl-Qaeda and its affiliate groups continue to be the most persistent transnational threats to the security of the West, according to experts who spoke after the alleged death of Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza. Last week The New York Times reported that Hamza bin Laden, widely seen as an ascending figure in the group that his father co-founded in the 1980s, was killed sometime after 2017. The paper cited two anonymous United States government officials who said that Hamza bin Laden died in 2017 or 2018 as a result of a military operation led by an unnamed state.

But experts have since warned that the death of Hamza bin Laden has not significantly weakened al-Qaeda. At a briefing in Washington on Thursday, Nathan Sales, a US Department of State acting under secretary who focuses on security and terrorism, stressed that “al-Qaeda is as strong as it has ever been”. The group’s relative quietness in recent years should not be perceived as an indication of weakness or resignation, said Sales. On the contrary, the Sunni militant group remains “very much in this fight”, he cautioned. Unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al-Qaeda has been patient in the past five years and has strategically allowed ISIS to “absorb the brunt of the world’s counterterrorism efforts”, said Sales. During that time, al-Qaeda patiently rebuilt itself and largely recovered from the blow it suffered in the years leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Today al-Qaeda retains significant territory in northwest Syria and is also present throughout Yemen, where it counts on the support of many thousands of armed fighters, according to Sales. Its affiliate group in Somalia was behind a car bombing in Mogadishu in July, while the group also took responsibility for an armed attack in an upscale suburb of Kenya in January of this year. Another expert, Jason Blazakis, who until last year directed the US Department of State’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, appears to agree with Sales. In an article published last Friday, Blazakis cautioned that Hamza bin Laden’s demise, if true, “doesn’t mean that al Qaeda no longer represents a critical threat to US national security”. On the contrary, he said, the group’s “strategic patience and focus on the ‘far enemy’”, i.e. the United States, make it “the most enduring transnational threat to US national security interests”.

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

Taiwan president’s security detail implicated in cigarette smuggling scandal

Taiwan cigarette smugglingAt least 70 members of Taiwan’s presidential security detail used the president’s official trips abroad to smuggle thousands of cigarettes into the country, it has been announced by Taiwan’s’s spy chief. According to news reports from Taiwan, the smuggling scandal was uncovered last month, when the country’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, concluded an official tour of several Caribbean nations. Taiwanese customs officers stopped a security agent in President Tsai’s entourage, who allegedly tried to bring nearly 10,000 cartons of duty-free cigarettes into the country. The agent had ordered the cigarettes online prior to the presidential trip. He then concealed the cartons in an airport warehouse and planned to bring them into the country by disguising them as supplies used by President Tsai’s motorcade.

The customs officials contacted China Airlines, the national carrier of Taiwan, and requested information on the number of duty-free cigarette cartons that had been brought onboard by members of the president’s entourage during her foreign trips. The data revealed that thousands of cartons had been transported during presidential trips, which pointed to an organized smuggling operation by dozens of members of Tsai’s entourage. A subsequent investigation by the National Security Bureau (NSB), Taiwan’s spy service, revealed that the smuggling network had begun operating during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai’s predecessor. The scandal prompted the resignation of the director of the NSB. On Friday, the NSB’s new Director, Chiu Kuo-cheng, gave a rare press conference in which he provided further details on the case. According to Chiu, 49 members of the presidential security detail, 25 NSB officers and two members of Taiwan’s Military Police, participated in the smuggling network. Most smuggled between 10 and 50 cartons of cigarettes per trip; but some smuggled over 1,000 cartons per trip.

Chiu said on Friday that two NSB officers had been placed under arrest for their participation in the smuggling ring, and further arrests were being planned. He warned those responsible that he had personally taken command of the NSB’s investigation, and that punishment would be “severe” for those found to have participated in the smuggling. Chiu added that a number of China Airlines officials were also implicated in the smuggling network and were being questioned. On Saturday, President Tsai said she had no knowledge that members of her own security detail were smuggling duty-free cigarettes into Taiwan.

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

Facebook says it disabled disinformation campaign linked to Saudi government

Facebook ArabicFacebook has disabled a large network of fake accounts that it says were involved in an extensive disinformation operation tied to the government of Saudi Arabia. The social media company said on Thursday that the operation concentrated on spreading state-approved propaganda that extolled the Saudi royal family and its policies in the Middle East. The operation employed over 350 fake accounts, which collectively had nearly 1.5 million followers. It is believed that the Saudi propaganda scheme was also active on Instagram, the popular image- and video-sharing service, which is owned by Facebook.

According to Facebook’s Office of Cybersecurity Policy, the Saudi disinformation operation used an interconnected network of fake accounts that were made to look like they represented local news outlets in a number of Middle Eastern countries. The accounts circulated carefully written news reports that presented Saudi officials and the Kingdom in a positive light. Major themes in posts included the philanthropic work of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and the economic and social policies he has instituted since his ascent to power. Other posts expressed support for Saudi’s involvement in Yemen, where the Saudi government is leading an anti-Shiite military campaign. Several posts criticized Qatar, which Saudi Arabia accuses of sponsoring terrorism, and Iran, which is Riyadh’s most formidable regional rival. For several months last year, the fake news network circulated posts that expressed strong skepticism about claims that the Saudi government ordered the murder of one of its leading critics, Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, Turkey.

Although Facebook, regularly deletes fake accounts for what it calls “inauthentic behavior”, it almost never issues statements tying groups of accounts to specific governments. However, according to Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of Facebook’s Cybersecurity Policy Office, “investigators were able to confirm that the individuals behind this are associated with the government of Saudi Arabia”. Gleicher added that the disinformation campaign spent over $100,000 promoting its posts online. Most were in the Arabic language and targeted countries in the Middle East and North Africa, he said. The social media giant’s announcement came 48 hours after a report in The Washington Post quoted several cyber security experts who said many government’s other than Russia’s use social media to spread disinformation, including those of Israel, China and Saudi Arabia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 August 2019 | Permalink

ISIS will launch ‘complex international attacks’, warns UN intelligence report

Sri Lanka Easter bombingsDespite its military defeat in the Middle East, the Islamic State retains the ability to launch “complex international attacks” and will likely do so this year, according to a new report by a United Nations monitoring team. These attacks will occur in “unexpected locations” around the world, says the report, which was authored by a committee of the UN’s Security Council that monitors the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions designed to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and groups aligned with them.

On April 21 of this year, the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) claimed responsibility for nine suicide blasts that targeted Catholic churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka’s western and eastern coastal regions. The near-simultaneous bombings killed 258 people and injured over 500. They are believed to constitute the bloodiest terrorist attack in Sri Lanka’s history. But the United Nations report published on Wednesday claimed that the Sri Lanka attacks were the beginning of a worldwide campaign by ISIS, which will continue to occur throughout 2019. The absence of major ISIS attacks after April 21 is a temporary “abatement”, says the report, and will likely end before the this year concludes. Between now and then, “more Islamic State-inspired attacks will occur”, it notes. Since the fall of its self-styled caliphate in the Middle East, the militant Sunni group has maintained a sophisticated online media profile and propaganda campaign and continues to “aspire to have global relevance”, according to the report. To achieve this aim, the Islamic State’s leadership believes that the group must continue to carry out large-scale international attacks. In their effort, ISIS planners are assisted by the group’s substantial fortune, which is estimated to approach $450 million. These funds are being used to sponsor terrorist operations by ISIS affiliates in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the report claims.

In an earlier intelligence report published in August of last year, the United Nations warned that the Islamic State had recovered from its recent defeats in the battlefield and retained as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria alone. The report appeared to contradict earlier proclamations by the Iraqi government that the war against the group had been won. Similar proclamations were issued last year by United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over.

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

Spain’s second largest bank under investigation in massive espionage scandal

José Manuel VillarejoSpain’s second largest bank has been placed under investigation in connection with a probe into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years. The investigation centers on José Manuel Villarejo (pictured), a 67-year-old former police chief, who remains in pre-trial custody following his arrest in November of 2017 for carrying out illegal wiretaps. State prosecutors accuse Villarejo of running an illicit information-collection enterprise that violated the privacy of hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. Villarejo’s victims were targeted by corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. Many were eventually blackmailed by the recipients of the information that was collected by the former police chief and his network.

On Tuesday, Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, placed the country’s second-largest bank, the BBVA, under formal investigation in connection with the Villarejo case. Audiencia Nacional Judge Manuel García-Castellón took the decision to investigate the BBVA after government prosecutors argued that the bank was one of Villarejo’s main clients, as shown in documents seized from the former police chief in 2017. According to the prosecution, the bank made illicit payments to a company called Cenyt, which was owned by Villarejo. The payments lasted for over 13 years, during which Villarejo earned close to €10 million ($11.1 million) from BBVA. In return, Villarejo and his employees carried out surveillance operations on behalf of the bank. One of the operations targeted Sacyr, a large Spanish-based construction company, which had tried to purchase BBVA in 2004 and 2005. Spanish government prosecutors now accuse BBVA of bribery, disclosure of sensitive information, and corrupt business practices.

In January of 2018 five active police officers and an employee of the Agencia Tributaria, Spain’s tax revenue service, testified in court about having worked 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. The purpose of Operation KITCHEN was to wiretap Bárcenas’ communications without acquiring a court warrant, said the witnesses. Last year Bárcenas was jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case, the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, which brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of 2017. Villarejo’s trial continues.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 July 2019 | Permalink