Vietnam arrests deputy security minister in unprecedented anti-corruption campaign

Phan Van Anh VuIn a move that has stunned Vietnamese society, authorities in Hanoi have arrested one of the country’s most powerful security officials, allegedly for helping a business tycoon and former intelligence agent escape abroad. The move, which observes described as “unprecedented” in modern Vietnamese history, signals a widening of the anti-corruption campaign that started in 2016 and is now affecting Vietnam’s powerful intelligence agencies. Vietnam boasts one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, but its economic performance is severely hampered by corruption, which is endemic in the communist country of 93 million. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Vietnam 107th out of the world’s 180 countries, behind nations like Colombia, Albania and Zambia. Two years ago, the Vietnamese government launched an anti-corruption campaign, which has so far resulted in a wave of arrests and demotions of senior officials in the country’s lucrative energy and banking sectors. The moves have stunned the Vietnamese public, which is not used to witnessing public discussions of corruption, let alone the open punishment of state officials.

Until this week, one major area of government appeared to have been spared from the anti-corruption probe: the feared security and intelligence community. This largely means the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which is the most powerful civilian agency in the country and has traditionally been off-limits during previous transitional periods in Vietnam’s turbulent history. The MPS is in charge of the country’s extensive police force, its civilian intelligence wing, and its nascent cyber security units. The size of its employee base is classified, though it is believed to be vast.

But now the traditional shielding of the MPS from the unprecedented changes taking place in the Vietnamese government appears to have ended. On Wednesday, authorities announced the arrest of Bui Van Thanh, MPS’ deputy minister and the country’s second most powerful intelligence official. A press statement issued by the government said that Thanh had committed “serious violations in his work”. Consequently, he had been dismissed and his military rank would be lowered from lieutenant general to colonel. Government officials said Thanh came under suspicion for facilitating the escape of Phan Van Anh Vu, a government employee who became a property tycoon after amassing a large personal fortune while working as an MPS agent. Vu was wanted by Hanoi for allegedly selling state secrets in exchange for money, but managed to leave the country. In January, however, he was arrested in Singapore and extradited to Vietnam. He reportedly told authorities that a fake passport in his possession had been given to him by Thanh. He also said that Thanh helped him buy state property by giving him inside information affecting the sale prices. In July, Vu was jailed or nine years for espionage and corruption, following a closed-door trial. The precise charges against him remain unclear.

Earlier this week, the Vietnamese government announced that a “major restructuring” would be taking place in the MPS, with the aim of reducing its size and maximizing its efficiency. Government media reported that “hundreds of departments” would be merged and the overall structure of the organization would be heavily scrutinized. Many observers believe that more arrests and demotions will follow in connection with this announcement. Some critics have argued, however, that political infighting is fueling the anti-corruption probe and that it is a concealed attempt to neutralize intra-party opponents of the current administration in Hanoi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 August 2018 | Permalink

 

 

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Germany arrests Jordanian intelligence operative who spied on mosque

Hildesheim mosqueAuthorities in Germany announced yesterday the arrest of a German national who is accused of spying on a central German mosque on behalf of Jordan, according to media reports. The man was reportedly arrested on Tuesday at an unknown location by officers of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). In a press statement, the agency said the man is a 33-year-old German national named “Alexander B.”. German privacy rules forbid the public identification of crime suspects prior to their conviction in a court of law.

According to the public statement issued by the BfV, the 33-year-old man is believed to have worked for “a Jordanian intelligence agency” —most likely the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, or GID, which is a branch of the Jordanian Armed Forces— since at least 2016. He is accused of having infiltrated a Sunni mosque in the central German city of Hildesheim, located 20 miles southeast of Hanover in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. His mission, according to the BfV, was to keep tabs on mosque goers who expressed support for the ideology of the Islamic State, and might even consider traveling to the Middle East to join the radical group. The alleged Jordanian intelligence operative was also tasked with reporting on news reaching the mosque from those of its members who had already gone to the Middle East and joined the Islamic State.

Last year, German authorities closed down the Hildesheim mosque, known in German as Deutschsprachiger Islamkreis Hildesheim e. V. (DIK), and arrested its imam, Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., known as Abu Walaa. The Iraqi-born imam was charged with supporting a foreign terrorist organization by actively recruiting young Muslims on behalf of the Islamic State. The mosque has since remained closed, because authorities believe that it had become a beehive of fundamentalist activity. Jordan is one of the Middle East’s most liberal states and has been targeted repeatedly by the Islamic State, which views its leadership as pro-Western. However, it appears that Alexander B. was spying on the Hildesheim mosque —therefore on German soil— without having informed the host country of his activities. The government of Jordan has not commented on his arrest.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 August 2018 | Permalink

US-backed alliance in Yemen war bribes, recruits al-Qaeda warlords, report finds

Al-Qaeda in YemenYemeni militias backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates are actively paying off al-Qaeda-allied factions to abstain from the fighting, and are recruiting al-Qaeda members to fight against Shiite rebels, according to a new investigative report. Ever since 2015, when the civil war in Yemen broke out, the US, along with its Arab allies UAE and Saudi Arabia, has supported Sunni troops in their war against Shiite Houthi rebels. The latter are believed to be supported by Iran, and the US-backed coalition is engaged in an effort to curtail what it sees as Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

But Iranian-supported fighters are just one of the many well-armed factions involved in the Yemeni Civil War, which Washington is ostensibly against. Another such faction is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula (AQAP), believed to be the strongest surviving branch of the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. For several years now, the US-led coalition in Yemen has argued that its forces have severely limited AQAP’s strength and ability to fight, and that the group’s territorial control has been shattered. But a new investigative Text published on Monday by the Associated Press argues that the reason why AQAP’s activities appear to have decreased in Yemen, is that its commanders are being bribed by US-backed Sunni militias and that its fighters are being recruited to fight against the Houthis. As strict Sunni Salafists, AQAP members view the Shiite Houthis as apostates and enemies of Islam. They are therefore “effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition” in Yemen, note the editors of the Associated Press report. Citing “interviews with two dozen officials, including Yemeni security officers, militia commanders, tribal mediators and […] members of al-Qaeda”, the report’s authors say that US-backed Sunni militias “actively recruit al-Qaeda militants […] because they’re considered exceptional fighters”.

The Associated Press report also claims that the Sunni coalition has struck a series of secret agreements with AQAP, under which it paid off its fighters to abandon several Yemeni towns that were under their control. Upon leaving, these AQAP fighters were allowed to take with them tons of military equipment and valuables, including cash. In one case, AQAP was bribed to abandon the port city of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest urban center, and its fighters were allowed to keep their weapons and up to $100 million in looted cash deposits, said the Associated Press. In another case, AQAP militants were paid off to leave several towns in Yemen’s Abyan province, and 250 of them were incorporated into the so-called Security Belt, a Sunni militia backed by the government of the UAE. The AQAP fighters reportedly told their Security Belt commanders that they would “unite with the devil [himself] in the face of Houthis”.

The Associated Press notes that there is no evidence that funds supplied to Yemeni Sunni militias by the US have ended up into the hands of AQAP. Additionally, the US government has repeatedly denied accusations by Russia, Syria, and others that it supports various al-Qaeda factions. However, the Associated Press argues that the US Pentagon has been privy to the secret agreements between the Sunni militias and AQAP, which some say may end up strengthening al-Qaeda’s most formidable local branch anywhere in the world.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2018 | Research credit: M.A. | Permalink

US fired Moscow embassy employee who may have spied for Russia

US embassy in RussiaA female Russian national who worked for the United States Secret Service in Moscow was quietly dismissed in 2017, amidst concerns that she was spying for Russia. British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story last week, did not name the Russian woman. But it said that she had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow “for more than a decade”, most recently for the Secret Service –a federal law enforcement agency that operates within the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service has several missions, the most important of which is to ensure the physical safety of America’s senior political leadership.

Throughout her Secret Service career, the Russian woman is thought to have had access to the agency’s email system and intranet network, said The Guardian, citing “an intelligence source”. She could also potentially have had access to “highly confidential material”, said the paper, including the daily schedules of America’s past and current presidents and vice presidents, as well as their family members’ schedules.

The unnamed Russian national first came under suspicion in 2016, said The Guardian, during a routine security review conducted by two counterintelligence staff members at one of the Department of State’s Regional Security Offices (RSO). These reviews usually take place every five years and scan the background and activities of employees at American embassies abroad. The review showed that the unnamed Russian national was holding regular meetings with officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service. In January of 2017, the Department of State reportedly shared its findings with the Secret Service. But the latter waited until several months later to fire the Russian woman, having decided to do so quietly, said The Guardian.

According to the paper, instead of launching a major investigation into the State Department’s findings, the Secret Service simply dismissed the woman by revoking her security clearance. The paper said that the Russian national’s dismissal took place shortly before the US embassy in Moscow was forced to remove or fire over 750 employees as part of Russia’s retaliation against economic sanctions imposed on it by Washington. That coincidence helped the Secret Service “contain any potential embarrassment” arising from claims of espionage, said The Guardian. The paper contacted the Secret Service and was told that “all Foreign Service nationals” working for the agency “are managed accordingly to ensure that […US] government interests are protected at all times”. Their duties, therefore, are “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support. This is of particular emphasis in Russia”, said a Secret Service spokesman, who refused to discuss specific cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

Syrians accuse Israel of assassinating top missile scientist in Hama province

Syrian Scientific Studies and Research CenterOne of Syria’s leading pro-government newspapers has said that Israel was behind a bomb blast in Hama province that killed a senior scientist working for the country’s missile program. Aziz Azbar was reportedly a senior research director at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, known as CERS. The Damascus-based agency is thought to be at the center of the Syrian government’s formidable chemical weapons program. Last year, the United States Department of the Treasury imposed economic sanctions on nearly 300 CERS employees, after Washington accused them of being directly responsible for the Syrian government’s repeated use of chemical weapons against rebels and civilians. The European Union, as well as the French and British governments, also imposed sanctions on CERS and its staff.

According to Syrian media, Azbar specialized in developing and maintaining rocket systems in the city of Masyaf, located about 160 miles north of Damascus, where CERS maintains a research facility. He reportedly died last Saturday night when his car suddenly blew up. According to some reports, the blast originated from a bomb that had been placed in the headrest of his car seat and was detonated remotely. His driver was also killed in the blast, according to Syrian media reports. An insurgent group calling itself the Abu Amara Battalions, which is linked with the Sunni Levant Front in Syria’s Aleppo province, issued a statement claiming responsibility for Azbar’s killing. The Abu Amara Battalions have previously issued similar statements after reportedly assassinating Syrian government officials or militia commanders.

However, on Sunday Syria’s al-Watan newspaper said that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was responsible for Azbar’s death. The Syrian scientist was “a person of the utmost interest to Israel” said the paper, because of his direct connection to Damascus’ Russian- and North Korean-built Scud missile arsenal. However, officials in Israel refused to acknowledge that Tel Aviv had any connection with Azbar’s killing. “Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores”, said Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. “Every time they try to pin the blame on [Israel], so we won’t take this [latest accusation] too seriously”, he added. The Syrian government has not made any formal statements regarding Azbar’s death.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 August 2018 | Permalink

British police arrest man over mystery killing of Seychelles leader in 1985

Gérard HoarauA man has been arrested by British counter-terrorism police in Northern Ireland, reportedly in connection with the assassination of a Seychelles exiled political leader in London in 1985. No-one has ever been charged with the murder of Gérard Hoarau, who was gunned down with a Sterling submachine gun in Edgware, London, on November 29, 1985. At the time of his killing, the 35-year-old Hoarau led the Mouvement Pour La Resistance (MPR), which was outlawed by the Seychelles government but was supported by Western governments and their allies in Africa. The reason was that the MPR challenged the president of the Seychelles, France-Albert René, leader of the leftwing Seychelles People’s United Party —known today as the Seychelles People’s United Party. The British-educated René assumed the presidency via a coup d’etat in 1977, which was supported by neighboring Tanzania, and remained in power in the island-country until 2004.

Despite proclaiming that he espoused a “moderate socialist ideology”, his critics —including Hoarau— accused him of being a secret admirer of Cuban-style communism and called for his removal from office. In 1979, Hoarau was one of several critics of René who were ordered to leave the Seychelles under threat of imprisonment. He initially found refuge in South Africa. But in 1981, the Seychelles security forces foiled an armed invasion by South African-supported mercenaries, which aimed to depose René. The mercenaries —most of them South African Special Forces veterans, former Rhodesian soldiers, Belgian veterans of the Congo Crisis, and American Vietnam War veterans— were led by British-Irish mercenary Thomas Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare. The group of over 50 armed men was intercepted at the Seychelles International Airport in Mahé and managed to escape only after taking hostages and hijacking an Air India passenger airplane that happened to be at the airport. However, they left behind five mercenaries, including at least one officer of South Africa’s National Intelligence Service.

In 1982, South Africa struck a deal with the Seychelles for the release of the captured mercenaries. In return, it promised to stop sheltering René’s opponents, including Hoarau. The latter was thus forced out of South Africa and sought refuge in London, England, where he was assassinated three years later. At the time of Hoarau’s killing, there was strong suspicion that the government of the Seychelles was directly involved in his assassination. There were also reports in the British press that a British hitman may have been hired to assassinate Hoarau. But despite several arrests in connection with the case, no-one was ever charged with the Seychellois exiled leader’s assassination. This, however, may soon change. In 2016, the British Metropolitan police re-opened the case and, according to a police press statement “established fresh lines of inquiry”. On Thursday, a 77-year-old man was reportedly arrested in Antrim town, Northern Ireland, by officers of the Metropolitan Police and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The man, who has not been named, was transported to London for questioning “on suspicion of conspiracy to murder”. A police spokesman said on Thursday that the man had not previously been arrested as part of the Hoarau murder investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 August 2018 | Permalink

Facebook says efforts to subvert upcoming US elections resemble ‘new arms race’

FacebookFacebook has said it is involved in an “arms race” against “bad actors” as it announced on Tuesday the removal of accounts that allegedly tried to subvert the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States. The social-media giant said its security division had identified 32 profiles and pages that were set up for the sole purpose of disrupting, subverting or otherwise influencing the American political process. At least seven more accounts were shut down on the Instagram platform –which is also owned by Facebook– for the same reasons. In the past 14 months, the suspect accounts generated nearly 10,000 posts and were liked or followed by over 290,000 users, said Facebook.

In addition to producing memes that aimed to stir existing racial, political and religious tensions in American society, the suspect accounts are also believed to have generated approximately 150 paid advertisements, spending around $11,000 for that purpose. Moreover, close to 30 public events were organized, advertised and hosted by the suspect pages throughout the US in the past 14 months. One such event was subscribed to by 4,700 users, with another 1,400 users stating that they would attend.

In a preliminary report posted on its online newsroom, Facebook said it was too early in the investigation to identify the party or parties behind the alleged effort to influence the US mid-term elections. Its security team had detected “one instance” of a connection between this latest operation and the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), which Facebook identified as being one of the main sources behind efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential elections. But the report cautioned that the instigators of this latest attempt to influence the US political process had gone to great pains to hide their identities, affiliations and geographical coordinates. For instance, they routinely employed virtual private networks in order to disguise their internet protocol addresses. They also used third parties to purchase advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. These and many other tactics severely limited the ability of security technicians to attribute these efforts to specific countries, governments or companies, said Facebook.

Using unusually strong language to describe its ongoing probe, Facebook said that the exploitation of its platform for sinister political purposes resembled “an arms race” and that constantly changing tactics were needed to combat it. In addition to removing the suspect accounts, Facebook said it was working closer with law enforcement and leading online security firms in order to analyze and eliminate threats from what it described as “bad actors”. It added that it was “investing heavily” in more people and better technology in order to eliminate those who were trying to weaponize its communication platform for sinister goals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 August 2018 | Permalink