Former CIA officer connected with abduction of Muslim cleric flees Europe

Sabrina De SousaA former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was convicted of involvement in the 2003 abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, says she fled Europe for the United States in fear of her safety. Sabrina De Sousa, 63, was a diplomat at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, when a CIA team abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured and raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him —apparently without Italy’s permission or consent. They were able to trace the American operatives through a substantial trail of evidence they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. The US government has refused to extradite the 22 officers to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2015. Portuguese authorities threatened to extradite her to Italy, but in 2017 the Italian government partially commuted her sentence to house arrest and reduced it from seven to four years. There were reports at the time that Italy had bowed to diplomatic pressure from Washington. On Monday, however, Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera said that De Sousa had fled Europe and returned to the US in fear for her personal safety. The former CIA officer told the paper that she decided to return to the US after senior American officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Italy earlier this month. Pompeo traveled to Rome for an official visit on October 1, while Haspel met with senior Italian intelligence officials on October 9.

De Sousa told Il Corriere della Sera that Haspel’s visit to Italy “verified for the Italian government that the American administration had washed its hands of my situation”. For this reason, and “terrified of the consequences that I could face” in Italy, “I decided to leave”, said De Sousa. She did not elaborate on the precise connection between her partially commuted sentence and Pompeo and Haspel’s visit to Italy. She added that recent changes to the US Whistleblower Act made it possible for her to openly discuss further details on her case, but did not elaborate. Her Italian lawyer, Andrea Saccucci, spoke to the Reuters news agency and confirmed that his client had left Europe for the US.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2019 | Permalink

US spy agencies pore over intelligence acquired in raid that killed al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAmerican intelligence agencies are studying up to seven terabytes of data that were captured by Special Operations Forces during last week’s nighttime raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. Officials in Washington told The New York Times on Monday that Delta Force commandos confiscated “a large amount of material” from the raid that killed the Islamic State leader. The material allegedly includes several laptops and cellphones, which contain an estimated “four to seven terabytes of data”, according to one United States official who spoke anonymously to the paper.

It is believed that al-Baghdadi changed hideouts across northern Syria every few days, so it is unlikely that he and his entourage carried with them a large printed archive of Islamic State files. However, even a few hard drives or memory sticks could contain extensive information, said The Times. The commandos that carried out the nighttime raid reportedly spent two hours on the ground collecting intelligence from the site. All of it has now been delivered to experts in the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and other elements of the US Intelligence Community, who are currently “conducting a preliminary review of the confiscated documents and electronic records”, said the paper.

The information may shed light on questions such as if and how al-Baghdadi ran the Islamic State, how he communicated with the group’s military commanders across Iraq and Syria, and how he exchanged information with other senior Islamic State officials in the Middle East and beyond. There are also questions about al-Baghdadi’s links with the leaders of Islamic State affiliates around the world. Essentially, to what extent did the core leadership of the Islamic State under al-Baghdadi direct the operations of the group’s affiliates abroad? There may also be documents among the confiscated information material that discuss the Islamic State’s changing strategy following the collapse of its territorial base in the Middle East.

In addition to the confiscated information, American troops captured two of al-Baghdadi’s lieutenants who were guarding his compound during last weekend’s raid. The two men are currently being questioned by American interrogators and are eventually going to be handed over to the Iraqi government to face justice, according to The Times.

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

ISIS quickly replaces dead leader with former Saddam loyalist, say sources

Abdullah QardashBarely a day after the United States announced the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the militant Sunni group has replaced him with an Iraqi former military officer, according to sources. US President Donald Trump said on Sunday that al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), died by detonating an explosive vest. He reportedly did so after being cornered by American Special Operations Forces troops at his hideout in the northwestern village of Barisha, which is located in the Syrian province of Idlib near the border with Turkey.

Since Sunday’s announcement by the White House, ISIS has remained silent. But an intelligence source reportedly told Newsweek that the Sunni militant group had appointed a new leader just hours after al-Baghdadi’s killing. The American newsmagazine cited a “regional intelligence official” who asked “not to be identified by name or nation”. The official said that al-Baghdadi had been replaced with Abdullah Qardash (pictured), a former high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army, who served under the country’s late leader Saddam Hussein. Qardash’s name is often spelled Karshesh in English, and he is also referred to in some documents as Hajji Abdullah al-Afari —presumably his ISIS moniker.

In August of this year, al-Baghdadi reportedly nominated Qardash to lead ISIS’ religious affairs engagement office, known as “Muslim Affairs”. The nomination is believed to have been accepted, and was even announced in Amaq, the militant group’s semi-official news agency. But Qardash’s name has not been mentioned again in subsequent ISIS communiques. According to Newsweek, the former Iraqi Army officer had already “taken over a number of duties from al-Baghdadi” prior to the latter’s demise. The anonymous regional intelligence officer told the newsmagazine that al-Baghdadi’s role within ISIS was “largely symbolic” in recent months. He was “a figurehead [and] was not involved in operations day-to-day. All he did was say yes or no —no planning”, added the intelligence official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 October 2019 | Permalink

Veil of secrecy may soon be lifted on Novichok nerve agent used to attack Skripal

Sergei SkripalThe chemical structure and action mechanism of a top-secret family of nerve agents known as novichoks may soon be available to a wider pool of researchers through its inclusion into the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) list of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The term novichok (meaning ‘newbie’ in Russian) was given by Western scientists to a class of rarely used nerve agents that were developed in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1971 and the early 1990s.

The first public discussion about the existence of these agents took place in the early 1990s, when Vil Mirzayanov, a chemical warfare expert working for the Soviet military, revealed their existence. However, Western intelligence agencies have discouraged public scientific research on these nerve agents, fearing that such activities could reveal their chemical structure and mechanism of action. That could in turn facilitate the proliferation of novichok nerve agents worldwide.

But this attitude shifted drastically after March 2018, when —according to British intelligence— Russian spies used novichok in an attempt to kill Sergei Skripal, a Russian defector to Britain. The British government claims that Russians spies smuggled novichok into Britain by hiding it inside an imitation perfume bottle.

The attempt on Skripal’s life failed, but it prompted the United States, Canada and the Netherlands to propose that two categories of novichoks be chemically identified and added to the CWC list of Schedule 1 chemical weapons. If that were to happen, members of the OPCW —including Russia— would be required to declare and promptly destroy any stockpiles of novichoks in their possession.

Russia’s initial reaction was to oppose the proposal by the United States, Canada and the Netherlands. The Russian OPCW delegation questioned the proposal’s scientific validity and dismissed it as politically motivated. However, according to a report published yesterday in the leading scientific journal Science, Moscow has now agreed with the proposal to list two classes of novichoks in the CWC list, and even proposed adding a third class of the obscure nerve agent to the list. Russia also proposed the inclusion into the CWC list of two families of carbamates —organic compounds with insecticide properties, which the United States is reputed to have included in its chemical weapons arsenal during the Cold War.

According to the Science report, the OPCW Executive Council has already approved Russia’s proposal, which means that the organization is now close to classifying novichoks as Schedule 1 nerve agents. If this happens, academic researchers in the West and elsewhere will be able for the first time to collaborate with defense laboratories in order to research the chemical structure, as well as the mechanism of action, of novichoks. This is likely to produce computer models that will shed unprecedented light on the symptoms of novichoks and the various methods of treating them. But they will also provide information about the chemical structure of the nerve agent, which may eventually lead to proliferation concerns.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2019 | Permalink

Iranians may have used female spy to ‘honey-trap’ dissident living in France

Ruhollah ZamThe Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure a leading Iranian dissident from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. Iranian authorities announced the arrest of Ruhollah Zam on October 15. On that day, Iranian state television aired a video showing a blindfolded Zam surrounded by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam, 46, was a prominent online voice of dissent during the 2009 Green Movement, an Iranian youth-based reform campaign whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. He joined other young Iranians in launching AmadNews, a website whose stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran. Soon after its emergence, AmadNews became the online voice of the Green Movement. Following a brief period of detention in 2009, Zam fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People).

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured in a “complicated intelligence operation” that used “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. But it did not provide further information about the method that was used to convince Zam to travel to Iraq, whose government is closely aligned with Iran’s. A few days ago, however, the London-based newspaper The Times claimed that the IRGC used a woman to gain Zam’s trust and lure him to Iraq.

Citing exiled Iranian activists that work closely with Zam, the British newspaper said that the woman entered his life nearly two years ago, thus pointing to a lengthy intelligence operation by the IRGC. Over time, she won his trust and eventually convinced him to travel to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. The reason for his trip was that, allegedly, the woman convinced him that Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq, had agreed to fund Zam’s online activities. However, the cleric needed to confer with the exiled dissident in person before agreeing to fund his work, according to the woman. It is not known whether Zam and the unnamed woman were romantically involved.

The Times also alleged that Zam’s abduction and arrest was met with “at least tacit approval” by the French intelligence services. The latter now expect that two French academics, who have remained imprisoned in Iran for alleged espionage activities for over a year, will be released as part of a swap with Zam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2019 | Permalink

Russian government cyber spies ‘hid behind Iranian hacker group’

Computer hackingRussian hackers hijacked an Iranian cyber espionage group and used its infrastructure to launch attacks, hoping that their victims would blame Iran, according to British and American intelligence officials. The information, released on Monday, concerns a Russian cyber espionage group termed “Turla” by European cyber security experts.

Turla is believed to operate under the command of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), and has been linked to at least 30 attacks on industry and government facilities since 2017. Since February of 2018, Turla is believed to have successfully carried out cyber espionage operations in 20 different countries. Most of the group’s targets are located in the Middle East, but it has also been connected to cyber espionage operations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, officials from Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and America’s National Security Agency (NSA) said Turla had hijacked the attack infrastructure of an Iranian cyber espionage group. The group has been named by cyber security researchers as Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) 34, and is thought to carry out operations under the direction of the Iranian government.

The officials said there was no evidence that APT34 was aware that some of its operations had been taken over by Turla. Instead, Russian hackers stealthily hijacked APT34’s command-and-control systems and used its resources —including computers, servers and malicious codes— to attack targets without APT34’s knowledge. They also accessed the computer systems of APT34’s prior targets. In doing so, Turla hackers masqueraded as APT34 operatives, thus resorting to a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘fourth party collection’, according to British and American officials.

The purpose of Monday’s announcement was to raise awareness about state-sponsored computer hacking among industry and government leaders, said the officials. They also wanted to demonstrate the complexity of cyber attack attribution in today’s computer security landscape. However, “we want to send a clear message that even when cyber actors seek to mask their identity, our capabilities will ultimately identify them”, said Paul Chichester, a senior GCHQ official.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran abducts France-based dissident in ‘complex intelligence operation’

Ruhollah ZamIranian authorities have announced the capture of a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. The kidnapped dissident is Ruhollah Zam, 46, son of  Mohammad-Ali Zam, a well-known reformist cleric who served in top Iranian government posts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in 2009 the younger Zam distanced himself from this father and sided with the so-called Green Movement, whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. Around that time, Zam was part of a group of Internet-savvy Iranians who launched AmadNews. The website’s stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran, and it soon became the online voice of the Green Movement.

Zam was promptly arrested and jailed for urging Iranian protesters to topple the government. He was eventually released thanks to his father’s status and reputation. He quickly fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People). The Iranian government accuses Zam of inciting violence against the state and claim that his online agitation is funded by the intelligence services of countries like France, Israel and the United States.

On October 15, Iran’s state-owned media network aired a video showing a bound and blindfolded Zam surrounded by armed officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured following a “complicated intelligence operation” using “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. It eventually emerged that Zam had flown from France to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. He appeared to be under the impression that he would travel to the Iraqi city of Najaf in order to meet Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq.

In the same video, Zam is shown sitting in an armchair next to an Iranian flag, making a statement. He calmly looks at the camera and says that he “fully regrets” his actions directed against Iran. He then says that he made the mistake of entrusting his security to the intelligence services of France. Finally, he warns other dissidents who are involved in agitation against the Iranian state to not trust foreign governments. He names the latter as “the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey”. Iranian officials have not responded to questions about Zam’s current status and fate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 October 2019 | Permalink