Bosnia accuses Croatian spy services of arming Islamists

Dragan MekticAuthorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have accused the government of Croatia of deliberately arming militant Islamists in order to damage Bosnia’s reputation and sabotage its campaign to join the European Union. The claims were aired by a Bosnian government minister on Thursday, a day after allegations of a weapons-smuggling plot by Croatia were made in the Bosnian media. On Wednesday, Zurnal, a Bosnian investigative website, alleged that the Croatian intelligence services had recruited a Bosnian national and used him to smuggle weapons and explosives into the majority Muslim country.

According to Zurnal, the Bosnian man was “intercepted” by Croatian intelligence while driving through Croatia on his way to Bosnia. He was traveling to Bosnia from an unnamed “European Union country”, where he allegedly lives. The Zurnal report alleges that officers of Croatia’s Security and Intelligence Agency (SOA) had evidence that the Bosnian man was a supporter of the Islamic State and threatened to notify the authorities in his country of residence. They then allegedly used this threat in order to pressure the Bosnian man to smuggle weapons and explosives into Bosnia and hide them in a mosque in Zenica, a city of about 100,000 residents in central Bosnia.

On Thursday, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Minister of Security, Dragan Mektic (pictured), accused the SOA of plotting the weapons-smuggling operation in an attempt to damage Bosnia’s reputation. The goal of the operation, said Mektic, was to paint Bosnia as a center of Islamic State activity in Europe and sabotage the country’s efforts to join the European Union —of which Croatia is already a member. Also on Thursday, the office of Bosnia’s state prosecutor announced that an investigation had been launched into whether Croatian intelligence agencies had attempted to recruit other Bosnian citizens with known extremist views.

Since 2014, Croatian and Serbian security agencies have repeatedly warned that hundreds of Bosnian Muslims traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, and that many of them have since returned to the Balkans. But the Bosnian government argues that extremist Islam has no place in the country, whose predominantly Muslim population follows moderate versions of the religion. Late on Thursday, the Croatian government dismissed Mektic’s claims as “groundless” and said that they were aimed at harming relations between Bosnia and Croatia. No information has been released about the identity of the Bosnian arms smuggler, his current whereabouts or the fate of the alleged operation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 March 2019 | Permalink

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Russians use front-company to access US federal employees’ contact info, says report

EFIS EstoniaRussian spy agencies use front companies to purchase directorates that contain the contact details of United States government employees, according to a new intelligence report. The contact details are contained in multi-page directories of Congressional staff members and employees of US federal agencies. They are published every January by a specialist vendor called Leadership Connect with the cooperation of a Washington, DC-based provider of publishing services. The directories contain the names, job titles, professional addresses and telephone numbers of US government employees.

But according to the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS), copies of the directorate are purchased every year by the Russian intelligence services, such as the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The two Russian spy agencies allegedly use a front company in order to purchase copies of the directory. In reality, however, the purchases are made on behalf of Russian intelligence units, such as Military Unit 71330 of the FSB. This allegation is contained in the 2019 security environment assessment, which was published this week by the EFIS. Titled International Security and Estonia, the report is an overview of the main threats to Estonia’s internal security and a description of how these threats relate to international developments.

The directories, says EFIS, are not classified. On the contrary, they contain information that is publicly available in the US. However, the job descriptions and contact information of US federal employees are difficult to access in a collected format. The directories are therefore useful to Russian intelligence, which routinely tries to access large quantities of open-source information from foreign countries. Russian spy agencies are known to incorporate this open-source information into recruitment or surveillance plans that target specific individuals or foreign government agencies. They also use them to fill gaps in intelligence collection about specific agencies or parts of agencies, according to Robert Dannenberg, a former CIA officer who spoke to Yahoo News about the EFIS report.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 March 2019 | Permalink

US to shut down its embassy in Venezuela as national blackout enters 6th day

US embassy in Caracas VenezuelaThe United States said on Tuesday that it will evacuate its last few diplomats from its embassy in Caracas, as the electricity blackout in Venezuela enters its sixth day, making it the longest energy crisis in the nation’s history. Energy shortages are not new in Venezuela. The oil-rich Latin American country of 31 million people suffered two disastrous nationwide blackouts in 2009 and a third one in 2016. But the current blackout is quickly approaching the one-week mark and is believed to have caused a minimum of 20 deaths, mostly in hospitals around the country. The majority of the population currently lacks access to fuel and banking services, while there are disruptions in critical food and water supply lines. Several instances of mass looting have been reported across the nation since Monday.

The precise cause of the blackout remains unknown, though a number of experts point to a massive outage of the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant, located in northeastern Venezuela’s Necuima Canyon, as the root of the problem. Known also as the Guri dam, the facility generates more than four fifths of Venezuela’s electricity output, and may be responsible for the nationwide blackout. The continuing crisis has exacerbated the already adversarial relationship between Washington and Caracas, as the Venezuelan government blames the US and the local opposition leader Juan Guaidó for the blackout. The government said on Monday that it would investigate Guaidó in connection with rumors of sabotage of the Guri dam facility. The announcement prompted the White House to warn that “a lot of countries would react very quickly” if Guaidó was incarcerated. On Tuesday, Washington said that the remaining 20 members of staff of its embassy in the Venezuelan capital would be evacuated by Friday. Soon afterwards, the Venezuelan government said that it had ordered the American diplomats to leave the country, so that their presence there would not be used as a pretext by Washington to launch a military invasion of the country.

Meanwhile, the blackout continued as of Tuesday night, with experts warning that the aging infrastructure of Venezuela’s energy network, coupled with the lack of specialists on the ground, made it difficult to overcome the crisis. The US-based Wired magazine explained on Tuesday that restoring the integrity of the energy grid following a large-scale blackout —a process known as a “black start”— will depend on being able to identify the root of the problem. But the absence of spare equipment and up-to-date monitoring software and hardware means that the Venezuelan state operator lacks the ability to visualize the grid and “understand the state of the system in real time”. At the same time, supporters of the Venezuelan government accuse Washington of sabotaging its oil-export sector by refusing to buy Venezuelan oil and threatening to impose sanctions on foreign states that purchase oil from Venezuela. That, they say, has deprived the country of its main source of hard currency and is makes it exceedingly difficult for Caracas to sustain the nation’s energy and food-supply networks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 March 2019 | Permalink

US warns Germany it will end intelligence sharing if Huawei is given 5G contract

US embassy Berlin GermanyThe United States has warned Germany that intelligence sharing between the two countries will be threatened if the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is awarded a contract to build Germany’s 5G network. The company, Huawei Technologies, is a private Chinese venture and one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers. In recent years, however, it has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an international campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with Britain, Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies.

But some American allies, including Spain, France and Germany, are not satisfied with Washington’s arguments and claim that the United States is eyeing the financial benefits that would arguably come from its domination of the global digital superhighway. German officials, in particular, have told their American counterparts that Berlin has not seen any evidence that Huawei’s telecommunications hardware come with hidden interception features. Moreover, Germany says that it plans to subject Huawei’s systems to rigorous security tests before using them. On Friday, Washington increased its pressure on Berlin by informing German officials that intelligence cooperation between the two allies would be severely impacted if Chinese telecommunications manufacturers are given the green light to build Germany’s 5G infrastructure.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the warning was included in a letter signed by Ambassador Richard Grenell, America’s top diplomat in Germany. It was allegedly sent to Peter Altmaier, Germany’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy. The paper says that Grenell suggests in his letter that Berlin should consider rival bids by companies belonging to American allies, such as the Swedish telecommunications equipment manufacturer Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia Corporation, or the South Korean Samsung Corporation, which is the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturer. The Wall Street Journal did not reveal how it acquired Grenell’s letter, nor did it say whether the German government responded to it.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 12 March 2019 | Permalink

India, Pakistan used terrorist groups to attack each other, says Pakistan ex-president

Jaish-e-MohammedThe government of Pakistan employed terrorist groups to attack India, according to Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, who also accused India of doing the same. Musharraf, 75, took power in Pakistan in 1999 through a coup d’état supported by the country’s military leadership. The four-star Army general ruled as Pakistan’s 10th president until 2008, when he resigned from power to avoid being impeached. He currently lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates and is wanted in Pakistan for alleged crimes, including high treason. His critics accuse him of arresting several judges in 2007 and suspending the country’s constitution.

On Tuesday, Musharraf spoke on the flagship news program of Hum News, a 24-hour news channel headquartered in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Speaking in Urdu on a phone line from Dubai, Musharraf praised the current Pakistani government of President Imran Khan for launching a crackdown on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) the militant group that is believed to be responsible for killing more than 40 Indian soldiers in Indian-administered Kashmir. The attack sparked a tense standoff between India and Pakistan, as the two countries engaged in aggressive military maneuvers against each other. “This constitutes a step forward”, said Musharraf, referring to the JeM crackdown. “It is a terrorist organization and they tried to assassinate me with a suicide attack”, he added, referring to an attack on his presidential convoy in 2003, which has been blamed on JeM.

In early 2002, Musharraf officially banned the JeM and arrested some of its leaders, after the group participated in two high-profile attacks in Indian Kashmir. But all JeM leaders were eventually freed, after the courts decided that the government had failed to provide sufficient evidence of their participation in terrorism. Musharraf told Hum News that he eventually lost interest in cracking down on JeM. When asked by the reporter why his government did not take further action against the group, Musharraf said that “those were different times”. Instead of stopping groups like JeM, both Pakistan and India used them to carry out a “clandestine struggle” against each other, said Musharraf. Groups like JeM “carried out bombings in each other’s territory”, said the former president, adding that Pakistan’s “intelligence agencies were involved in it”. Both India and Pakistan thus used militant groups, including JeM to carry out “tit-for-tat” operations targeting each other, he concluded. The former Pakistani leader went on to say that he was “very pleased to see the [Pakistani] government adopting a strict policy” against JeM.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 March 2019 | Permalink

Holland recalls Iran ambassador after Tehran expels Dutch diplomats

Holland embassy IranHolland said on Monday that it had recalled its ambassador from Tehran after Iran expelled two Dutch diplomats, in a deepening dispute involving the assassination of two Dutch citizens by alleged Iranian agents. In July of last year, Holland announced its decision to expel two Iranian diplomats from The Hague, but did not explain the reason for the expulsions. In January of this year, the Dutch Foreign Ministry confirmed that the diplomatic expulsions were in retaliation to the assassination of two Dutch nationals of Iranian background. One of the victims, Mohammad-Reza Kolahi, was shot dead in the head at point-blank range by two assailants in December 2015 in Almere, a coastal town 25 miles east of Amsterdam. Nearly two years later, in November 2017, another man, Ahmad Mola Nissi, was shot in the head in broad daylight in The Hague. Both men were members of Iranian militant anti-government groups that the Iranian state accuses of terrorism and crimes against the state.

On Monday, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok informed the Dutch House of Representatives in The Hague that Tehran had informed his Ministry on February 20 that two Dutch diplomats would be expelled from Holland’s embassy in the Iranian capital. The two diplomats, who have not been named, were ordered to leave the country by Monday, March 4. Later on Monday, Bahram Ghasemi, spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that “two of the diplomats of the Netherlands embassy in Tehran were considered undesirable elements in the framework of a retaliatory measure and were asked to leave the country”. The Iranian move was not made public until last Monday. Blok wrote to the House of Representatives that, in response to Tehran’s move, the Dutch government had decided to recall its ambassador to Iran “for consultations” on how to proceed. Blok noted in his letter that Iran’s decision to expel the Dutch diplomats was “unacceptable and damaging to the bilateral relations between the two countries”.

Late on Monday, the Dutch government also summoned the Iranian ambassador in order to protest the expulsions of its diplomats from Tehran. It was also reported in the Dutch media that a series of financial sanctions imposed on Iran by Holland and its European Union partners in June —presumably over the alleged assassinations that took place on Dutch soil— would remain in place. The sanctions are against two individuals associated with Iranian military intelligence.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 March 2019 | Permalink

North Korea-linked hackers growing in reach and sophistication, McAfee warns

Computer hackingA computer hacking group with links to the North Korean government has a wider reach and is more sophisticated than was initially believed, according to the computer security firm McAfee. The group, dubbed Lazarus by cybersecurity experts, is believed to be connected with Guardians of Peace, the hacker team that orchestrated the 2014 attacks on Sony Pictures Entertainment. The company drew the ire of the North Korean government for producing The Interview, a black comedy based on a fictional attempt by two Americans to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Known collectively as ‘the Sony Pictures hack’, the attacks included the compromise of internal documents and unreleased copies of films produced by Sony, as well as personal attacks on Sony executives and members of their families. There were also attempts to damage Sony’s digital infrastructure, which cost the company an undisclosed amount in damages, believed to be in the millions of dollars.

In February of last year, the computer security software company McAfee said that Lazarus was behind an ongoing campaign targeting global banks and bitcoin users. On Sunday, the California-based firm said that Lazarus was responsible for what its experts call Operation SHARPSHOOTER, a widespread effort to compromise key industries across several continents. Speaking at the RSA IT security conference in San Francisco, McAfee experts said that SHARPSHOOTER began as early as September of 2017, and that it was first detected in December of 2018. By that time, said McAfee, around 80 firms and organizations had been targeted by Lazarus. But in recent months, it has become clear that SHARPSHOOTER is “more extensive in complexity, scope and duration” than previously thought, according to McAfee experts. They added that they drew this conclusion based on “command-and-control serve code” data that was made available to them by an unnamed “government entity”. This is the type of forensic data that is customarily seized by government agencies and is rarely made available to cybersecurity researchers in the private sector, said the McAfee representatives. This “non-typical access” afforded McAfee technical experts “a rare opportunity” to examine “the inner workings [of Lazarus’] cyberattack infrastructure”, they added.

As a result, the company’s “confidence levels are now much higher” that Lazarus is targeting key agencies and industries, including government organizations involved with national defense, energy and critical infrastructure. Most of Lazarus’ targets are in the United States, Germany and Turkey. But smaller attacks have been detected in Asia and Africa, in countries such as the Philippines and Namibia. Many attacks begin with so-called ‘spearphishing’ attempts, which target particular employees of agencies or firms. These attacks center on emails that are “masked as extremely convincing job recruitments”. The emails contain links to Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF files on popular file-sharing platforms like DropBox, which are infected with malware, said McAfee.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 March 2019 | Permalink