Malaysia releases second female assassin of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother from prison

Siti AisyahThe second of two female assassins who killed the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur has been released from prison by the Malaysian state, after a mostly secret trial. The two women, Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia (pictured), approached Kim Jong-nam as he was waiting to board a plane at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13. The estranged half-brother of the North Korean leader was about to travel to Macau, where he had been living in self-exile since 2007. Soon after his encounter with the two women, Kim collapsed and eventually died from symptoms associated with VX nerve agent inhalation. Huong was arrested on February 15, when she returned to the same airport to catch an outbound flight to Vietnam. Siti’s arrest was announced a day later.

Both women told Malaysian police that they worked as escorts and that they were under the impression that they had been hired by a Japanese YouTube show to carry out a televised prank on an unsuspecting traveler. They claimed that they did not realize that the men who had hired them several months prior to the assassination operation were agents of the North Korean government —which international authorities blamed for Kim’s murder. In March of this year, Malaysian authorities announced that all charges against the Indonesian woman, Siti, had been dropped, and that she would be released from detention. No reasoning behind the decision was provided to the media. On Thursday, it was revealed that Huong would be freed, after she agreed to plead guilty to a much lesser charge of “causing bodily injury”, as requested by government prosecutors.

What is behind the decision of the Malaysian court? British newspaper The Guardian said last month that the government of Indonesia engaged in intense “behind-the-scenes diplomacy” in order to have its citizen released. These efforts “significantly influenced how events […] unfolded in the courtroom”, said the paper. Additionally, the Malaysian government had been uncomfortable with the international attention of this incident from the very beginning, and had expressed the desire “to be done with the trial because it was diplomatically inconvenient”, according to The Guardian. The paper added that, as the international status of Kim Jong-un rose unexpectedly through his meetings with United States President Donald Trump, Malaysia sought to be “part of this conversation”. Kuala Lumpur thus decided that “the recovery of [its] relationship with Pyongyang [was] more important than justice for the assassination of Kim Jong-nam”, former South Korean intelligence officer Dr. Nam Sung-wook told The Guardian.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 May 2019 | Permalink

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Maduro fires intelligence chief amidst reports of inner circle defections

Venezuela crisisThe embattled President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, has reportedly fired his intelligence director, as news emerged early on Thursday that members of his inner circle were considering removing him from power. These reports circulated shortly after Juan Guaidó, President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, openly called on the country’s Armed Forces to remove Maduro from power. Guaidó has been recognized by over 50 countries —including the United States and much of the European Union— as the legitimate president of Venezuela. But Maduro continues to be supported by a number of powerful allies, including China and Russia, which sent troops there last month.

On Wednesday, Maduro dismissed General Christopher Figuera from the post of director of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN). SEBIN is Venezuela’s primary intelligence agency and has a dual domestic and international role. Much of its domestic mission is to protect and defend the Bolivarian Revolution, which forms the ideological framework of the country’s socialist government. Critics accuse SEBIN of operating as the Venezuelan government’s political police, and of committing scores of human rights abuses against supporters of the opposition. But it appears that Figuera responded favorably to Guaidó’s call on April 30 for an uprising against Maduro. Speaking at a rally on Tuesday, Guaidó said that the Venezuelan military “no longer back […] Maduro […]. They are backing the constitution and are for a change of government”, he said. He went on describe the movement against Maduro as “a usurpation”.

On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal claimed that Venezuelan opposition forces had been holding “secret talks” with members of Maduro’s inner circle, aimed at removing Maduro from power. Among those who held secret talks with opposition negotiators, said the paper, were Minister of Defense General Vladimir Padrino, and General Iván Rafael Hernández, head of Venezuela’s military spy agency, the Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM). Meanwhile, the American-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor said on Wednesday that the uprising led by Guaidó appeared to be “more extensive than initial reports indicated”. According to Stratfor, members of the military and security forces “seized multiple garrisons across the country” and created “substantial cracks” in the security services and the military. Other sources, however, including Britain’s Daily Telegraph, claimed that Guaidó’s efforts were “weak” and “folded” quite quickly. By Tuesday night, said The Telegraph, several members of Guaidó’s reform movement had sought asylum in foreign embassies in Caracas, and Guaidó’s whereabouts remained unknown. Observers noted, however, that the likelihood of further violence increased as the uprising continued to unfold, and that another “major event” could take place at any moment.

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

 

Family of alleged UAE spy who died in Turkish prison call for investigation

Zaki Mubarak Hassan and Samer ShabanThe family of a man who died in a Turkish prison on Sunday while awaiting trial for allegedly spying for the United Arab Emirates has called for an international investigation into this death. Zaki Mubarak Hassan and Samer Shaban —both Palestinians— were reportedly arrested by Turkish police on April 21 and charged with espionage. Turkish counterintelligence officials suspect that at least one of the suspects may have been involved in a spy operation that relates to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was killed last October inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul by a 15-member team of Saudi intelligence officers.

Shortly after the two men were arrested, the Reuters news agency cited an anonymous “senior Turkish official” who said that one of two men arrived in Turkey just days after Khashoggi’s murder. He was allegedly monitored by Turkish counterintelligence for a period of six months and his activities led investigators to the second man. The latter is believed to have traveled to Turkey in order “to help his colleague with the workload”, said Reuters. The source added that the two UAE nationals had undergone several hours of interrogation, during which they had confessed that they were employees of the UAE intelligence service. They had also admitted to recruiting local residents as informants. Their activities and targets were consistent with intelligence operations aimed at exiled Arab nationals and students living in Turkey, said the source. The unnamed Turkish official told Reuters that authorities had amassed “extensive evidence” on “covert activities on Turkish soil” by the two men, and described the case against them as “airtight”.

Yesterday, however, the Turkish government announced that one of the men, Zaki Mubarak Hassan, had been found dead in his prison cell in Istanbul. Press reports said that Hassan was found “Sunday morning hanging from a bathroom door” in his cell, and that prosecutors were investigating the formal cause of his death. Late on Monday, his family told the Saudi Arabian Arab News channel that they did not believe Hassan had killed himself. Speaking to Arab News from his home in Bulgaria, Hassan’s brother, Zakeria, said that agents of the Turkish government killed his brother because they realized he was not a spy for the UAE and “they didn’t want to show that they made a mistake”. He added that he had notified the Palestinian ambassador in Ankara of his brother’s arrest, but the ambassador did not seem interested in assisting the family. Meanwhile, the uncle of the second man, Samer Shaban, told another Saudi news channel, Al Arabiya, that his nephew had left the Gaza Strip in 2007 for Egypt. Zaki Mubarak said that Shaban, a Palestinian police officer, was a Fatah supporter and eventually moved from the Hamas-dominated Gaza Strip to the UAE, where he began working as an employee of the Palestinian Authority’s consulate in Dubai. His goal, said Mubarak, was to immigrate with his family to Turkey and from there to Europe.

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

Analysis: Sri Lanka attacks may indicate ISIS is moving east, say experts

Sri Lanka ISISThe April 21 suicide attacks in Sri Lanka, which were claimed by the Islamic State, may indicate that the militant group is moving east in search of fertile recruiting ground, according to some observers. In the words of The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, the attacks “reminded the world in dramatic fashion that [the Islamic State] does not need to control territory to be a major threat”. In fact, as the loss of its Middle Eastern territory has forced the Islamic State to decentralize, the group has begun to turn to its peripheral affiliates further afield. These “will become more dangerous” as the core of the Islamic State weakens, according to Callimachi and Schmitt.

But the Sri Lanka attacks may also demonstrate that the Islamic State is moving further east in search of either territory to conquer or new groups of committed fighters to incorporate into its ranks. It follows that Sri Lanka is one of several East Asian countries that face major threats by the group, as the latter tries “to ignite creating fear in societies already battling so much division”, says Ash Gallagher, an American war correspondent based in East Asia. Writing for the British newspaper The Independent, Gallagher notes that not only is the Islamic State already established in Afghanistan (where it has “swallowed whole units of Taliban fighters”, according to The Times), but it is becoming increasingly powerful in the Philippines. Experts have been warning for a while that the number of foreign Islamic State fighters entering the Philippines has been growing, and the momentum they generate among local Islamist groups may prompt them to declare a new caliphate in the near future. In fact, a caliphate was declared there in May 2017 by local Islamist leaders who had previously declared their allegiance to the Islamic State. By October, government forces had defeated the so-called “East Asia Wilayah”, a self-declared overseas province of the Islamic State, by retaking Marawi, the capital city of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province, from Islamic State rebels. The military operation became known as “the battle of Marawi” and is thought to have been the longest urban battle in the postwar history of the Philippines. More than 1,200 people died in the five-month battle, most of them civilians. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced to this day as a result of the fighting. Read more of this post

Malaysia is helping Iran evade US economic sanctions, intelligence sources claim

Petronas MalaysiaCiting “Western intelligence officials”, Israeli newspaper Haaretz said on Thursday that a deepening alliance between Malaysia and Iran is expected to enable Tehran evade some of the economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States. In the past, every time Washington has imposed economic sanctions on Iran, it has issued renewable waivers for a number of countries whose economies have historically depended on substantial Iranian energy imports. This is done in order to prevent these economies from entering a recession due to lack of access to sufficient energy supplies. This week, however, US President Donald Trump said that Washington would not renew waivers for these countries, which include Italy, India, Turkey, South Korea and China. These waivers are now expected to run out on May 2, 2019, after which date the US has threatened to impose economic sanction on all countries that have substantial financial dealings with Tehran.

Many observers believe that these new sanctions will have a deep and immediate impact on the Iranian economy. But, according to Haaretz, the American sanctions are bringing Iran closer to Malaysia. Throughout the past month, says the Israeli newspaper, “atypical numbers” of oil tankers have been sailing between the two countries —a sign of trying to move as much oil as possible out of Iran before the US sanctions hit. Citing “Western intelligence officials”, Haaretz claims that Iran plans to continue to funnel funds from oil and natural gas sales through Malaysian banks. Much of that assistance, which sources claim will grow in the next month, is facilitated through Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company. As one of the world’s largest companies and the most powerful corporate entity in Malaysia, Petronas has immense political power. Much of the country’s political elite connected with Petronas —including the country’s current Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who was a senior advisor to the company in the early 2000s. In 2017, Petronas signed a cooperation agreement with an Iranian refinery facility and announced its intention to develop an emerging oilfield in the Middle Eastern country. Then in late 2018, Petronas officials traveled to Iran to sign a memorandum of understanding on mutual cooperation between the Malaysian company and Iran’s state-owned energy producer and distributor, the National Iranian Oil Company.

Haaretz notes that cultural and political ties between Malaysia and Iran run deep. The Southeast Asian country is one of a handful of nations that allow Iranians to visit without first having to obtain a visa. If fails to note, however, that in recent times there have been tensions between the two countries, due to concerns in Kuala Lumpur that Iran is trying to spread a militant version of Shia Islam in Malaysia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 April 2019 | Permalink

British spy agency calls Trump’s espionage claim ‘utterly ridiculous’

GCHQThe Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s primary signals-intelligence agency, has called claims by United States President Donald Trump that it spied on his election campaign “utterly ridiculous”. President Trump’s allegations are not new. They apparently rest on claims made in March 2017 by a Fox News commentator, that the GCHQ spied on Trump on orders of then-US President Barack Obama. The claim was repeated on March 17 at the White House by Sean Spicer, Trump’s then-press secretary, who said that Obama had used the GCHQ to spy on Trump so as to evade American privacy laws. At the time, Spicer’s claim prompted an angry response from the British government in London and from the British spy agency itself. In a rare public comment, GCHQ called the allegations “utterly ridiculous”.

This past Wednesday, the US president appeared to repeat his claim that GCHQ had spied on his election campaign, via a post on the popular social networking platform Twitter. Responding to a reiteration of the claim on the conservative cable television channel One America News Network, Trump tweeted “WOW! It is now just a question of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it will be a beauty!”. The president’s tweet appeared just hours after the British government confirmed that Trump had been invited for a four-day state visit to the United Kingdom in June. The visit is believed to include a meeting with British Prime Minster Theresa May and dinner with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

Following Trump’s tweet, the US newsmagazine Newsweek contacted GCHQ with a request for a response to the US president’s allegation. A GCHQ spokesperson referred the newsmagazine to the agency’s 2017 statement, and repeated: “The allegations that GCHQ was asked to conduct ‘wire tapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored”. It is extremely rare for GCHQ —one of Britain’s most secretive and publicity-shy agencies— to respond publicly to stories in the media. Late on Wednesday, British Foreign Affairs Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that the invitation to President Trump to visit London would not be rescinded, and insisted that Britain’s “special relationship” with the US remained “intact”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 April 2019 | Permalink

Iran abruptly replaces head of Revolutionary Guard Corps —no reason given

Hossein SalamiAuthorities in Tehran revealed on Sunday the sudden replacement of the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The unexpected move was announced by pro-government media, but no explanation was given. Since 2007, the IRGC has been led by Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, 61, a conservative military commander who is widely believed to have consolidated the IRGC’s role within Iran’s power structure. Under his leadership, the IRGC has come to be seen as the staunchest defender of the principles of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Many Western observers describe the IRGC as a ‘praetorian guard’ whose members possess immense power and often wealth. Today the IRGC is a military force with a command structure that is distinct from that of Iran’s regular Armed Forces. It maintains its own army, navy and air force, has its own paramilitary and political protection units, and is in charge of Iran’s nuclear program.

But in a brief report aired on Sunday, Iranian state media announced that Jafari had stepped down from the leadership of the IRGC after 11 years at the helm. The report said that Jafari had been replaced by the IRGC’s deputy commander, Major General, Hossein Salami. Like Jafari, Salami, 59, is believed to be close to the Iranian regime’s hardliners; he is thus critical of the reformers who support President Hassan Rouhani —seen by most as the architect of the Iranian nuclear deal. Moreover, like Jafari, Salami is known for his asymmetrical warfare thinking, which the Iranians employed with considerable success in Iraq following the military invasion of the country by the United States in 2003. The same tactics were utilized by the IRGC in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Iranian ally Hezbollah.

Jafari’s surprise replacement came two weeks after Washington announced that it would designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization —a move that most observers saw as a clear move by the White House to undermine the Iranian government. Explaining the decision, US President Donald Trump said in a statement that the IRGC was the primary vehicle through which the government in Tehran “directed and implemented […] terrorism as a tool of statecraft”. Among other things, the new designation means that the US government is now able to bring criminal charges against any individual or organization that is found to have political or financial dealings with the IRGC.

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