Malaysia charges senior intelligence officials with stealing government funds

Azam Baki MalaysiaEight senior officials of Malaysia’s external intelligence agency, including its former director, have been arrested, allegedly for stealing over $16 million from government coffers. The arrests represent a dramatic widening of the anti-corruption campaign that has gripped the Asian nation of 31 million since it was launched in May of this year. The campaign is led by a special task force within the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The task force was set up by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with the aim of probing the so-called 1MDB scandal. The acronym refers to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-owned strategic development company spearheaded by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Dato Sri Najib Razak, with the aim of raising funds to match foreign direct investment in the country.

However, in 2015 opposition politicians began to allege that hundreds of millions of dollars had gone missing from the fund. In May 2018, when Malaysia’s current prime minister took office, the MACC launched a nationwide investigation into the allegations. Meanwhile, Western governments, including the United States, alleged that several billions in 1MDB funds invested from abroad were stolen and used to purchase a superyacht, private airplanes and other luxury items, such as jewelry, clothing and fine art. By August, the 1MDB probe had turned into the largest corruption investigation in Malaysia’s history. On August 6, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged with several counts of money laundering and was barred from leaving the country.

On Thursday, MACC’s Operations Commissioner, Azam Baki said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that police had arrested eight current and former member of the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization (MEIO). The eight included officials, case officers, and the agency’s former Director, Hasanah Abdul Hamid, said Baki. He added that during the arrests police seized over $6 million in cash and luxury items from several locations, including from MEIO’s headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative center located 25 miles south of Kuala Lumpur. A ninth person, an unnamed Malaysian businessman who lives in London, had also been arrested, said the MACC official. According to a government press release, the eight current and former members of MEIO are connected to a transfer of $16 million from the 1MDB fund to private bank accounts in Malaysia and abroad. All eight have denied the charges through their lawyers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 August 2018 | Permalink

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Afghan government in crisis as senior security and spy chiefs tender mass resignations

Mohammad Haneef AtmarThe government of Afghanistan is facing one of its most serious crises since the end of the Taliban reign in 2001, as the country’s most senior security and intelligence officials tendered their resignations this week. The unprecedented move followed a dramatic escalation in attacks against Afghan government installations by Taliban and Islamic State forces, which have resulted in dozens of casualties throughout the Central Asian country. On Saturday, Mohammad Haneef Atmar, long time national security adviser to President Ashraf Ghani and one of the Afghanistan’s most recognizable and powerful political figures, tendered his resignation. Many seasoned observers were surprised when President Ghani, who is a close political ally of Atmar, accepted his resignation and replaced him with Hamdullah Mohib, who until recently was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States.

But the political crisis deepened on Sunday, when three more senior officials tendered letters of resignation. Tariq Shah Bahrami, Minister of Defense, Wais Ahmad Barmak, Minister of the Interior, and Masoom Stanekzai, head of Afghanistan’s National Security Directorate, all resigned their posts. All three have been subjected to intense criticism by Afghanistan’s political opposition and national media, for having failed to stop the anti-government insurgency, which is intensifying in nearly every one of the country’s provinces. Criticism of the three men became even sharper last week, after the Taliban launched a spectacular rocket attack on the Presidential Palace in the Afghan capital Kabul, which was heard in the background during President Ghani’s speech to commemorate the Muslim festival of Eid.

Late on Sunday, however, a presidential spokesman told media representatives that President Ghani had rejected the three officials’ resignations. Instead, he demanded that they stay in their posts and redouble their efforts to enhance the security of Afghanistan. Later that same evening, the Presidential Palace issued a written statement to the media, which said that President Ghani “did not approve the [officials’] resignations”. Instead, he “gave them the necessary instructions to improve the security situation” in the country. Meanwhile on Tuesday US Defense Secretary James Mattis insisted during a press conference in Washington that the current US strategy in Afghanistan is working and that the Talian would eventually be forced to negotiate, thus ending the country’s ongoing civil war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2018 | Permalink

US delegation met secretly with Syrian intelligence chiefs, newspaper claims

Ali MamloukA delegation of senior American government officials met secretly with Syria’s spy chiefs in an effort to lay out the terms of a possible deal between Washington and Damascus, according to a Lebanese newspaper. Relations between the United States and Syria have been strained since the late 1950s, when Damascus blamed Washington for a failed coup and expelled America’s ambassador there. In 2012, the US shut down its embassy in the Syrian capital in response to the government’s violent suppression of protests. Since then, Washington has carried out missile strikes on Syrian soil at least twice, while openly supporting armed groups that are opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

But according to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a group of senior American officials held a secret meeting in Damascus with Syrian spy chiefs. If true, the move could signify a major shift in US-Syrian relations. The paper, which supports the pro-Assad Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, and is close to the Syrian government, published news of the alleged meeting on Tuesday. It said that the meeting took place in complete secrecy during the last week of June and that it was facilitated by intermediaries from Russia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter used a UAE government airplane to fly the US delegation —whose names Al-Akhbar did not reveal— to the Syrian capital. The visiting delegation, which according to the paper “included [senior] officers from many US intelligence and security agencies”, was transported to a secret Syrian government facility in the dead of night by “a huge procession of black SUVs”, said the paper. The Syrian delegation at the meeting was reportedly headed by Ali Mamlouk, special security adviser to President al-Assad and head of the National Security Bureau of the governing Ba’ath Party. Other participants from the Syrian side included Mohammed Dib Zeitoun, director of the General Security Directorate, and Muwaffaq Asaad, the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian Armed Forces, said Al-Akhbar.

During the meeting, the two sides allegedly attempted to lay out the foundations of a possible post-civil war deal between Washington and Damascus. According to the Lebanese paper, the US delegation offered to withdraw American Special Forces from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria. In return, they allegedly asked for the removal of Iranian troops from Syrian regions that are adjacent to the Israeli border. The two sides also discussed the resumption of intelligence sharing on matters relating to Sunni radicals operating in Syria. No decisions were taken during the meeting, said Al-Akhbar, but the two sides decided to continue to share proposals and ideas about a possible bilateral agreement.

The French news agency Agence France Presse said on Tuesday that it could not independently confirm Al-Akhbar’s claims, as its attempts to contact the US departments of State and Defense were not fruitful. It noted, however, that both Mamlk and Zeitoun feature on the US government’s list of sanctions against Syrian government officials that are believed to have directly participated in human-rights abuses against political opponents since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 August 2018 | Permalink

Russia, US, deny conducting mystery airstrikes in Tajikistan

Afghanistan TajikistanRussia, the United States and Tajikistan have all denied that they were behind a series of mystery airstrikes that took place along the Tajik-Afghan border on Sunday, while the identity of the targets also remains unknown. The 800-mile border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan consists of mountainous terrain. Unlike the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is rife with skirmishes and firefights, the Afghan-Tajik border is usually peaceful and sparsely guarded. But on Sunday, August 26, local officials from both sides of the Afghan-Tajik border reported that fighter jets conducted a series of airstrikes. News media in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe said that Tajik border guards exchanged fire with Taliban fighters, killing as many as eight, but losing two officers in the process. However, on Monday a Tajik border police official denied media reports and said that the border incident involved Tajik lumberjacks who were attacked by unknown assailants from Afghanistan.

Adding to the mystery, Afghan officials said on Sunday that fighter jets bombed Afghan territory adjacent to the Tajik border. They added that they did not know if the fighter jets were Russian or Tajik. However, Tajikistan has a nominal air force consisting of no more than four Czech-made light-attack aircraft, which have not been used in over a decade. That leaves Russia, which maintains an air base in the suburbs of Dushanbe, 100 miles from the Afghan border. But on Monday, Moscow denied any involvement in the incident, as did Tajikistan. Russian officials placed the blame on the US, saying that the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force in Afghanistan is known to regularly launch airstrikes throughout Afghanistan. But US Pentagon officials said that they were not involved. When asked by reporters in Kabul, Afghan government representatives said that Afghanistan lacked the ability to monitor its airspace due to a lack of radar equipment. They called on the US-led NATO force to investigate Sunday’s incident.

Meanwhile, the identity of the persons targeted in the alleged airstrikes is also in doubt. On Monday, the Taliban denied that they had engaged with either Afghan or Tajik government forces along Afghanistan’s northern borderlands, saying that they had not authorized their fighters to operate in the area. Additionally, the Taliban have not been known to engage Tajik government troops in the past. Some observers have opined that the border skirmish may have been caused by drug smugglers who regularly transport drugs from Afghanistan to Russia or the Caspian Sea region through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However, there are no prior reported incidents of Russian, American or Tajik fighter jets having been deployed along the Afghan-Tajik border to combat drug traffickers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 August 2018 | Permalink

CIA informants inside Russia are going silent, say US sources

Kremlin, RussiaSecret informants inside the Russian government, which the United States has relied on in recent years for tips about Moscow’s strategy and tactics, have gone silent in recent months, according to sources. Over many years, US intelligence agencies have built networks of Russian informants. These consist of officials placed in senior positions inside the Kremlin and other Russian government institutions, who can help shed light on Russia’s political maneuvers. These informants were crucial in enabling the US Intelligence Community to issue warnings of possible Russian meddling in the American presidential elections of November 2016. Since then, US spy agencies have largely relied on these informants to produce detailed assessments of Russian intelligence activities targeting the US, and propose measures against those involved.

But on Friday, The New York Times said in an article that these vital sources of information in Moscow have been going silent in recent months. Citing “current and former officials”, the paper said that US officials did not believe that the informants have been captured or killed. Instead, they have voluntarily “gone underground” because of “more aggressive counterintelligence” practiced by Russian security agencies. Moscow has stepped up attempts to detect spies operating inside Russia since the Sergei Skripal incident, when relations between it and most Western countries sank to their lowest point since the Cold War. In turn, Western informants operating in Russia have “decided it is too dangerous to pass information” and have gone “silent for their own protection”, said The Times.

This situation, however, has left the Central Intelligence Agency and other US spy agencies “in the dark” about the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, just as America is nearing its mid-term elections. The lack of information has been exacerbated by the expulsion of dozens of American diplomats from Russia in March of this year. Moscow announced the expulsions in response to Washington’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats in protest against the attempt —allegedly by Russia— to kill Sergei Skripal in England. Many of the diplomats who were expelled from Russia were in fact intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover. Few of those are now left on Russian soil and, according to The Times, “are under incredible surveillance” by Russian counterintelligence agencies. Washington is still collecting information from Russia through other channels, including communication intercepts, which, according to The Times, “remain strong”. But the paper cited anonymous American officials who “acknowledged the degradation in the [overall flow of] information collected from Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 August 2018 | Permalink

Russia is looking for nuclear missile that went missing, US sources claim

Russian nuclear-powered missileRussia is preparing to carry out an extensive search for a nuclear-powered missile that went missing during a test several months ago, according to American intelligence sources. The missing missile appears to be part of a new Russian-made weapon system that President Vladimir Putin boasted about earlier this year. During his annual state-of-the-union speech in Moscow on March 1, Putin said that Russia had developed a new type of nuclear-powered missile with a virtually unlimited range. This new type of weapon, said the Russian president, could fly indefinitely and thus deliver nuclear warheads to any target around the world. Additionally, the new system was designed in such a way that it could evade every known missile defense system and was thus “invulnerable to interception”, he claimed.

According to observers, the recently announced Russian weapon has been in development for more than 15 years. It is based on gasoline-powered engines that are used during the missile’s takeoff. But soon afterwards, they give way to a nuclear-powered engine that guides the missile to its eventual destination. However, despite Putin’s claims, the weapon has never been successfully tested according to American intelligence sources. The Americans claim that the Russian military tested these missiles at least four times between November of 2017 and February of this year, and that all four missiles crashed long before they reached their intended destination. The idea of indefinite flight, therefore, which Putin boasted about earlier this year, remains unrealized, according to American sources. Moscow, however, denies that the missiles crashed during the testing stage.

Now the American news network CNBC has said that Russia is preparing to launch a large-scale search operation for one of the nuclear-powered missiles that went missing in the Arctic Ocean in November of 2017. It is believed that the missile crashed in the Barents Sea, a vast expanse of water located off the northern coasts of Russia and Norway. Citing anonymous individuals “with direct knowledge of a US intelligence report” on the subject, CNBC said on Tuesday that the Russian search mission will consist of three vessels, at least one of which will be specially equipped to handle radioactive material from the missing missile’s nuclear core. The American news network said that the Russian search mission has no definite timeline. The Russian government has not commented on CNBC’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 August 2018 | Research credit: A.G.B. | Permalink

German ex-spy chief tells West to stop sharing intelligence with Austria

Peter GridlingA former director of Germany’s foreign intelligence service has warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin. August Hanning served as chief of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, from 1998 to 2005. He went on to serve as the most senior civil servant in the Ministry of the Interior until his retirement in 2009. In an interview published on Wednesday in Germany’s Bild newspaper, Hanning argued that “caution is necessary with [an intelligence] service [like that of Austria,] which cannot protect its own secrets or the sources and sensitive information of its partners”. He went on to add that “there is […] now extreme caution when sharing information] with the Austrian intelligence services.

Hanning’s statement came less than a week after The Washington Post claimed in a major article that most Western intelligence services had stopped sharing sensitive information with the Austrian government. The newspaper alleged that the disruption in intelligence cooperation between Austria and other Western countries was sparked by an unprecedented police raid on the headquarters of Austria’s spy agency in February of this year. On February 28, Austrian police raided the central offices of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), which operates as Austria’s domestic intelligence agency. By that evening, thousands of classified documents had been removed from the BVT’s headquarters and stored in police facilities in Vienna. Austrian officials claimed that the raid was sparked by allegations made by South Korean intelligence that blank Austrian passports had been acquired by the North Korean government.

However, according to The Post, the raid was politically motivated by Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which is part of the country’s ruling coalition. The purpose of the raid, said the article, was to neutralize the BVT, whose mission includes defending the Austrian constitution from domestic threats from the far left and the far right. Many Western services were alarmed by the February 28 raid on the BVT and immediately stopped sending sensitive information to the agency’s Vienna headquarters, according to The Post. It also said that Western European powers are concerned by the seemingly close relations between some members of Austria’s government and the Kremlin. Last week, Russian Premier Vladimir Putin traveled to Austria to attend the wedding of Karin Kneissl, Austria’s Minster of Foreign Affairs, who is politically close to the Freedom Party. The Russian leader said that he attended Kneissl’s wedding on a “purely private” capacity. But that did little to appease European Union leaders.

On Monday, the BVT rejected the claims made by The Post. In a statement issued to the media, BVT director Peter Gridling (pictured) said that “cooperation [between the BVT and] partner intelligence services continues to work well in key areas such as the fight against terrorism”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 August 2018 | Permalink