Islamic State leader al-Baghdadi abandons Mosul, say intelligence sources

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiThe leader of the Islamic State has abandoned the city of Mosul and is hiding in the desert zone of western Iraq, according to intelligence sources. Meanwhile Mosul, once the most populous city under the Islamic State’s control, is now reportedly being defended by a diminishing cadre of fewer than 3,000 Sunni militants, who are facing a 110,000-strong invading army.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became the center of worldwide attention in July of 2014, when Islamic State troops swept rapidly through western Iraq and captured the region’s largest city, Mosul, in a spectacular coordinated attack. Soon after Mosul was captured by the Islamic State, al-Baghdadi led Friday prayers at Mosul’s Great Mosque and proclaimed himself caliph —emperor of the world’s Muslims. In the following months, the Islamic State reached the height of its power, commanding large expanses of land that stretched from the northern regions of Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad. Soon after al-Baghdadi’s public appearance in Mosul, the United States government set up a joint task force aimed at killing or capturing him. The group, which is still operational today, includes representatives from the Armed Forces, the National Security Council, and the Intelligence Community. Al-Baghdadi is believed to have stayed in Mosul, but has proven difficult to trace. He almost never uses electronic communications and is constantly on the move, sleeping at different locations every night.

Last October, US-backed Iraqi government troops, Shiite militias and Kurdish forces launched a large-scale military operation to recapture Mosul and drive out the Islamic State from the region. The assailants, whose combined forces are said to exceed 110,000 troops, reclaimed much of eastern Mosul earlier this year, and are preparing to launch a large-scale military advance on the western half of the city. While the operation to complete the recapture of Mosul is underway, American and Iraqi intelligence sources report that al-Baghdadi has not been public heard from since early November of last year. This leads many analysts to believe that the Islamic State leader has left the city and is now hiding in the vast and inhospitable desert that stretches along the Iraqi-Syrian border. Moreover, intelligence analysts claim that the Islamic State’s online activity has fallen sharply, to about half of what it was during the group’s peak in late 2014. This leads to the conclusion that the Islamic State is now increasingly focusing on essential functions aimed simply at the survival of the regime. The group has reportedly lost at least 3,000 fighters in Mosul, but an estimated 2,400 armed men have vouched to defend the city to the very end.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 March 2017 | Permalink

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FBI launches criminal investigation into WikiLeaks’ CIA disclosures

WikiLeaksThe United States federal government has launched a criminal investigation into the public disclosure of thousands of documents that purportedly belong to the Central Intelligence Agency. The documents were released on Tuesday by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. They reveal what appear to be technical collection methods used by the CIA to extract information from digital applications and electronic devices, ranging from flash drives to smart screen televisions. WikiLeaks named the collection “Vault 7”, and said that it consists of nearly 8,000 web pages and 1,000 attachments. It also said that its editors redacted hundreds of pages of computer code, in order to prevent the public release of advanced cyberweapons allegedly used by the CIA to sabotage electronic devices and systems.

On Wednesday, former director of the CIA Michael Hayden told the BBC that the disclosure appeared “incredibly damaging”, because it revealed some of the methods that the CIA uses to acquire information. But some cybersecurity experts said that the techniques contained in the leaked documents did not appear to be uniquely advanced, and most focused on exploiting technical vulnerabilities that were generally known. Still, The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the CIA had begun to assess the damage caused by the release. The agency was also trying to contain the extent of the damage, and had even “halt[ed] work on some projects”, said The Times. Officials from the CIA are reportedly in communication with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which on Wednesday launched a criminal investigation into the “Vault 7” release.

The main purpose of the FBI investigation is to find out how WikiLeaks acquired the files. The website said that the documents were leaked by a CIA contractor, which would imply that they were accessed from a server outside the CIA’s computer network. However, federal investigators are not excluding the possibility that the leaker of the information may be a full-time CIA employee. Reports suggest that the FBI is preparing to conduct hundreds, and possibly thousands, of interviews with individuals who are believed to have had access to the documents that were released by WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, neither the FBI nor the CIA have commented on the authenticity of the information contained in “Vault 7”. WikiLeaks said that Tuesday’s release, which it codenamed “Year Zero”, was the first part of several installments of documents that will be released under its Vault 7 program.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 March 2017 | Permalink

Files released by WikiLeaks show advanced CIA technical collection methods

Julian AssangeThousands of documents belonging to the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which were released on Tuesday by the international anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, are almost certainly genuine. They reveal an entire universe of technical intelligence collection methods used by the CIA to extract information from digital applications and electronic devices, ranging from flash drives to smart screen televisions. WikiLeaks named the collection Vault 7, and said that it consists of nearly 8,000 web pages and 1,000 attachments. It also said that its editors redacted hundreds of pages of computer code, in order to prevent the public release of advanced cyberweapons that are allegedly used by the CIA to sabotage electronic devices and systems.

The information contained in the leaked documents is almost certainly genuine, and most likely belongs to the CIA —though many of the programs listed may be jointly run by the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA). These programs, with names such as McNUGGET, CRUNCHYLIMESKIES, ELDERPIGGY, ANGERQUAKE and WRECKINGCREW, appear to be designed to compromise computer systems using a series of sophisticated methods that force entry or exploit built-in vulnerabilities or systems. Targets include popular communications systems like Skype and WhatsApp, smartphones produced by Google and Apple, commercial software like PDF and Microsoft Windows, and even so-called smart televisions that connect to the Internet.

The WikiLeaks revelations are most likely related to operations conducted under the auspices of the Special Collection Service (SCS), a joint CIA/NSA program that dates to the earliest days of the Cold War. The program was started by the United States Armed Forces but was eventually transferred to civilian hands and monitored by the CIA. It used advanced communications-interception facilities around the world to collect information. Over the years, the CIA collaborated with the NSA and developed many SCS projects targeting several foreign countries using technical and human means. In recent years the SCS has been primarily operated by the NSA, which oversees the program’s technical platforms.

WikiLeaks did not reveal the source of the documents. But it said that they had been “circulated [by the CIA] among former US government hackers and contractors” and that it was one of the latter that leaked them to the anti-secrecy website. A statement by WikiLeaks said that Tuesday’s release, which it codenamed “Year Zero”, was part one of several installments of documents that will be released under its Vault 7 program. The site also claimed that the information in “Year Zero” has “eclipsed the total number of pages published over the first three years of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks”. The CIA, the NSA and the White House have not commented on this development.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 March 2017 | Permalink

Malaysia assassination highlights North Korea’s network of front companies

North KoreaThe sensational assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, on February 13, revealed much about the current operational mindset of Pyongyang. But it also brought to light the shady network of front companies set up by the North Korean regime to facilitate the country’s illicit financial activities around the world. This extensive network permits Pyongyang to evade international sanctions against it, and to coordinate the activities of hundreds of clandestine operatives around the world. Through these activities, the reclusive country has been able to develop its weapons of mass destruction program unabated, despite concerted efforts by the United Nations to prevent it from doing so.

Writing for Forbes, Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the UN has for many years employed sanctions to “block international financial and material support for North Korean nuclear and missile development efforts”. But now the UN’s own experts have concluded that Pyongyang has been able to evade these sanctions so skillfully that it has “largely eviscerated the intent and impact of UN sanctions resolutions”. How has it done so? Mostly through a network of countries that routinely turn a blind eye to North Korea’s illicit activities. These include several countries in the Middle East, as well as Singapore, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Pyongyang maintains an extensive network of front companies in these countries, says Snyder, with the main purpose of enabling it to evade international sanctions against it.

Malaysia has been a primary hub of North Korean illicit activity. In that, Pyongyang has been crucially assisted by the fact that —until last week— North Korean citizens could travel to Malaysia without entry visas. Malaysia thus provides a useful base for dozens of North Korean front companies, such as Glocom, which ostensibly markets radio communications equipment, or Pan Systems Pyongyang, which just happens to trade in exactly the kind of commercial items that could be described as “dual-use goods” in UN sanctions resolutions. Pan Systems is connected to several Malaysian-based subsidiaries, including International Global Systems and International Golden Services, which, according to investigators, are operated by North Korean intelligence.

Many of these companies also serve as exporting and importing hubs for Pyongyang. In the last five years, several ships have been intercepted while carrying illicit cargo dispatched from North Korea or destined for the reclusive state. In one such instance in 2013, the Jie Shun, a Cambodian-registered ship with a North Korean crew, was found to be carrying over 30,000 rocket propelled grenades hidden under thousands of tons of iron ore. The shipment was intended for an “undisclosed Middle Eastern destination”, says Snyder and was traced to a firm called “Dalian Haoda Petroleum Chemical Company Ltd.”. Many of these mysterious firms are headquartered in China, registered in Hong Kong, but actually work on behalf of North Korea, often using banking facilities in Europe and the United States to conduct financial transactions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

Opinion: Trump’s astonishing wiretapping claims deepen volatility of US politics

Trump and ObamaThe absurdity of American politics reached new heights over the weekend, as President Donald Trump dramatically alleged on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped his telephones last year. Even for a highly impulsive public figure known for his sensational and often-unsubstantiated allegations, Mr. Trump’s latest claims prompted a new sense of abnormality and astonishment in Washington. If the president is unable to prove his dramatic claims, his reliability will be further-eroded, and what little is left of his relationship with the American intelligence and national-security communities will disintegrate. If his allegations are proven, they will cause a scandal of unprecedented proportions from which American political institutions —including the presidency— will find it difficult to recover.

Mr. Trump appears to claim that Mr. Obama personally instructed the machinery of government to intercept the telecommunications of his campaign in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election. But experts —including the present author, whose PhD focuses on government-sponsored wiretapping— correctly note that, barring a complete and systematic breakdown of law and q-quoteorder at the highest levels of the American government, Mr. Trump’s claims cannot possibly be true. American presidents have not been legally allowed to order wiretaps since 1978, when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was established. Prompted by the abuse of executive power revealed through the Watergate scandal, FISA forces government agencies to seek the approval of specially mandated judges before installing wiretaps. If an agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wants to wiretap an individual or group suspected of acting as agents of a foreign power, it must convince one of 11 federal district judges who rotate on the FISA court that the case warrants a wiretap order. Thus, before authorizing the wiretap, a FISA judge must be convinced by examining the available evidence presented before him or her.

Usually FISA counterintelligence cases involve foreign subjects who are suspected of operating in the US as unregistered agents of a foreign power —that is, spies or handlers of spies. However, if the case proposed by the FBI involves the targeting of American citizens’ communications, then the application for a wiretap must be personally reviewed by the US attorney general. Only if the attorney general approves the application does it get sent to a FISA judge. That is precisely why President Trump’s allegation is so explosive: if Mr. Obama personally directed a law enforcement or intelligence agency to wiretap the Trump campaign’s telecommunications, it would mean that a US president deliberately violated FISA regulations and kept the Department of Justice in the dark while wiretapping the telecommunications of American citizens. Read more of this post

MI6 to revert to old-fashioned ways of recruitment, says director

Alex YoungerBritain’s primary external-intelligence agency will revert to old-fashioned ways of recruiting employees, including the co-called “tap on the shoulder” method, according to its director. Known informally as MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) was founded in 1908 to protect Britain’s national security by collecting intelligence from foreign sources. However, the agency has had difficulty recruiting a diverse group of people, and many still view it as a professional destination for a small wealthy elite, drawn primarily from Britain’s most prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

MI6 is now trying to diversify the makeup of its employees, according to its director, Alex Younger. Younger, who is known at MI6 as ‘C’, gave an interview to British newspaper The Guardian on Thursday. He did so as the agency he leads prepares to increase its personnel numbers by 40 percent in the next four years. Last year, the British government announced that MI6’s personnel strength would grow from its current size of 2,500 employees to approximately 3,500 by 2020. The reason for the increase, said Younger, is that Britain is facing “more threats than ever before […] from terrorist groups and hostile states”. As a result, “the demands on our services [and] capabilities are on the up”, Younger told The Guardian in his first-ever interview with a national newspaper.

But MI6 would function more efficiently and achieve better results it if had a “more diverse workforce”, said Younger. Therefore, he said, the agency must go out of its way to “draw in a new cadre of black and Asian officers”. In doing so, the spy service would need to reach out to minority communities who are “selecting themselves out” of working for the British intelligence community. Useful in this process are what Younger called “old recruitment techniques”, such as the so-called “tap on the shoulder”. The term refers to the deliberate recruitment of individuals who will be approached by MI6 without having applied for employment with the agency. “We have to go to people that would not have thought of being recruited to MI6”, said Younger, adding that the “tap on the shoulder” method can be redeployed in order to increase diversity among MI6’s workforce and “reflect the society we live in”.

The spy agency is preparing to launch an aggressive recruitment campaign next week, aiming at bringing its overall size to 3,500 —a historic high, according to intelligence observers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 March 2017 | Permalink

Islamic State faces imminent financial collapse, claims new study

ISIS meetingThe Islamic State is facing imminent financial collapse, according to a new study conducted by a London-based research group in association with one of the world’s leading international accounting firms. The recently launched report is entitled Caliphate in Decline: An Estimate of Islamic State’s Financial Fortunes. The analysis that forms the basis of the report was conducted by scholars at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, a research center that operates out of the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London. The report’s authors were joined by financial analysts at Ernst & Young, a British-based company that is often referred to as one of the world’s ‘big four’ accounting firms.

The report challenges the widely accepted claim that the Islamic State is the wealthiest terrorist organization in history. Its authors argue that the organization’s wealth is connected to its function as “a quasi-state”, with a geographical territory under its control and a subject population that lives in it. Territorial control, say the report’s authors, allows the Islamic State to amass significant revenue from sources like direct and indirect taxation, extraction of natural resources, and confiscation of property from citizens, among others. Even though much of the Islamic State’s financial activity is hidden, the study uses open sources to make the claim that the group’s income in 2014 was close to $2 billion. Last year, however, the overall income amassed from all sources dropped to less than $900 million, an estimated reduction of 45 percent, say the researchers.

The reason for the drop is that the financial revenue model of the Islamic State is directly linked to its territorial control. In comparison to the peak of its power in the spring of 2014, the Islamic State has today lost control of over 60 percent of its territory in Iraq and nearly a third of its territory in neighboring Syria. As coalition forces are beginning to retake Mosul, the Islamic State is facing the potential loss of the caliphate’s commercial capital. These developments will continue to seriously erode the group’s tax base and severely limit its revenue streams. There are no signs, say the researchers, that the Islamic State has been able to devise new forms of revenue streams that are not connected to direct territorial control. However, the authors of the study warn that a potential financial collapse of the Islamic State will not prevent the organization from carrying out terrorist activities in the Middle East and beyond.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 March 2017 | Permalink