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

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

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

Group of 13 North Korean defectors say they were ‘forcibly kidnapped’ by South

Pyongyang Restaurant in Jakarta, IndonesiaA group of 12 female North Korean restaurant workers and their male manager claim that their widely advertised defections in 2016 were fake, and that they were in fact abducted by South Korea’s spy services. The North Korean government maintains a chain of North Korea-themed restaurants throughout Asia, which operate as popular tourist attractions across Southeast Asia. The state-owned restaurants help provide the cash-strapped regime in Pyongyang with desperately needed foreign funds. The North Korean staff —almost all of them female— who work at these restaurants are carefully vetted and chosen to represent the reclusive regime abroad. Some observers claim that these restaurants serve “as a main front to conduct intelligence gathering and surveillance [against foreign] politicians, diplomats, top corporate figures and businessmen”.

In April of 2016, the entire staff of a North Korean restaurant in the Chinese city of Ningbo defected. They disappeared all of a sudden, and reappeared a few days later in South Korean capital Seoul, where South Korean authorities held a press conference. The South Koreans told reporters that the 13 North Koreans had decided to defect after watching South Korean television dramas, which allegedly caused them to lose faith in the North Korean system of rule. But Pyongyang dismissed the defections as propaganda and claimed that its citizens had been abducted by South Korean intelligence.

Now in a shocking interview published by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, Ho Kang-il, the male manager of the North Korean restaurant in Ningbo said that he and his staff had been forcibly taken to South Korea. Ho told Yonhap that he had been approached by officers of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) who tried to entice him to defect to South Korea. They told him that he could open a restaurant if he chose to lead a new life in the south. Initially Ho said he was interested in the offer. But when he appeared to change his mind, the NIS officers threatened to inform the North Korean embassy in China that he had been speaking with them. Ho also said that the NIS officers blackmailed his staff at the restaurant using similar methods. Consequently, all 13 of them decided to cooperate with the NIS, as they “had no choice but to do what they told [us] to do”, said Ho.

On Sunday, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea, Ojea Quintana, said during a press conference that the UN was concerned about the allegations made by Ho. He also said that some of the North Korean defectors had told UN personnel that they left China without knowledge of where they were being taken by South Korean intelligence. Quintana concluded his remarks by calling for a “thorough investigation” into the alleged abductions of the North Koreans.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2018 | Permalink

Was Dubai ruler’s daughter kidnapped by UAE and Indian Special Forces?

Sheikha LatifaThe international advocacy group Human Rights Watch has joined calls for information on the whereabouts of Sheikha Latifa, a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, who some say was abducted in international waters by Emirati and Indian special forces. Princess Latifa, 32, is the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai and Prime Minister of the UAE. But she has fallen out with the royal family and has repeatedly issued public calls for democratic reforms and more rights for women. In 2002, when she was just 18, she attempted to leave the UAE but was forcibly repatriated by her father’s bodyguards. In recent years, Princess Latifa has continued to vocalize her opposition to her father’s rule, whom she has accused of deploying “death squads” to suppress dissent within the UAE royal family.

It is believed that on February 24, Princess Latifa was joined by Tiina Jauhiainen, a Finnish martial arts instructor who has lived and worked in the Middle East, with the aim of implementing an elaborate escape plan. The two women traveled to neighboring Oman and used jet skis to transport themselves to international waters. There they boarded a yacht captained by Hervé Jaubert, a French former intelligence officer who also has United States citizenship. Jaubert became internationally known in 2009 for escaping from the UAE without a passport, after authorities there accused him of owing money to investors. Jaubert’s yacht, The Nostromo, sailed from the Arabian Gulf toward India with the two women and three Filipino crew members onboard. On February 26, Princess Latifa posted several messages on social media, including a video in English, explaining her reasons for leaving her home country. But soon afterwards, The Nostromo went missing while sailing toward the coastal Indian state of Goa. It didn’t reappear again until March 20, when it sailed for Sri Lanka with its captain and crew, but without the two women on board.

Jaubert has since told reporters that his ship was intercepted in international waters by “two unmarked speedboats” carrying between six and eight commandos. They used stun guns and smoke grenades to neutralize the yacht’s crew, which they proceeded to handcuff and blindfold. The soldiers then took the two women. Notably they spoke to Princess Latifa in English, prompting Jaubert to conclude that they were Indian, not Arab. Some reports later claimed that a minimum of five Indian and Emirati warships, as well as two military airplanes and a helicopter, participated in the attack on The Nostromo. Jauhiainen, who was eventually released and is now back in Europe, confirmed Jaubert’s account.

But the Indian authorities have rejected these claims, arguing that they have no knowledge of such a military or paramilitary operation off the coast of Goa. Human Rights Watch recently issued a formal call on the Indian and Emirati governments to reveal the precise whereabouts of Princess Latifa, who has not been seen since the raid. “Failure to disclose the whereabouts and status of the princess could qualify as an enforced disappearance, given the evidence suggesting that she was last seen as UAE authorities were detaining her”, said the international advocacy group. The government of the UAE has not responded to media requests for comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 May 2018 | Permalink

Saudi government secretly abducting its critics from abroad, say dissidents

Salman of Saudi ArabiaAt least three prominent Saudi dissidents living in Europe, who openly criticized Saudi Arabia’s system of government, have been illegally abducted by the country’s monarchy in the past two years, according to a report by the BBC. All three, who are members of the Saudi royal family, are missing, believed to be dead or held against their will in Saudi Arabia. But the country’s government will not comment on their fate.

According to the BBC World Service, one of the missing dissidents is Prince Turki bin Bandar, a former major in the Saudi police force. In 2010, the prince began falling out with the Saudi royal family over a disputed inheritance. He was reportedly arrested and imprisoned. Once released from prison, in 2012, he moved to France, from where he began criticizing the Saudi government by posting videos and messages on social media. But his messages calling for political reform and an end to corruption in Saudi Arabia stopped in the summer of 2015 when, according to his friends, he disappeared. One of them, the blogger Wael al-Khalaf, told the BBC that Prince Bandar was visiting Morocco where he was detained following a request by the Saudi government. It is believed that he was then deported to Saudi Arabia, where he remains today, almost certainly against his will.

Another Europe-based Saudi royal, Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, has been missing since 2015. His disappearance came after a year-long social-media campaign in which he called for the prosecution of senior Saudi officials for backing the overthrow of the now deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. In September 2015, shortly before his disappearance, Prince Nasr had publicly endorsed two anonymous open letters —allegedly written by a Saudi prince— calling for the violent overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. According to the BBC, Prince Nasr was the only Saudi royal to publicly and openly endorse the letters. He then disappeared and is presumed to be in Saudi Arabia.

The third case, that of Prince Khaled bin Farhan, is more complicated. The prince was living in Switzerland and was a prominent figure among Saudi exiles calling for political reforms in their homeland. In 2003, he took a flight from Milan to Rome on a private jet, which, according to the BBC, had been provided to him by a Russian-Italian company seeking to strike a business deal with him. But Prince Farhan alleges that the trip was a ruse, and that the jet took him instead to Saudi Arabia, where he was imprisoned. Seven years later, the Saudi government allowed him to seek medical treatment in the United States. But when he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, the prince immediately filed a criminal complaint against his abductors in the Swiss courts. Amazingly, in 2016 he was convinced by the Saudi government in Paris, where he was living at the time, to use a Saudi government plane to visit his ailing father in Cairo, Egypt. But, predictably, the airplane took him and his 18-member entourage —which included non-Saudi citizens— to Riyadh. When the jet landed, Prince Farhan was “dragged […] from the plane” by heavily armed guards while “screaming at his team to call the US embassy”, according to two members of his entourage who spoke anonymously to the BBC.

The two anonymous sources told the British broadcaster that they had their passports taken away and were kept in a hotel for three days without being allowed to use a telephone to contact their family abroad or their country’s embassy in Saudi Arabia. They were then allowed to “fly to a destination of their choice” with their expenses paid by the Saudi government. The BBC said it contacted the Saudi government seeking information about the three missing royals, but Saudi officials declined to respond to questions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2017 | Permalink

Soviet memoirs suggest KGB abducted and murdered Swedish diplomat

Raoul WallenbergThe recently discovered memoirs of a former director of the Soviet KGB suggest that a senior Swedish diplomat, who disappeared mysteriously in the closing stages of World War II, was killed on the orders of Joseph Stalin. The fate of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg is one of the 20th century’s unsolved espionage mysteries. In 1944 and 1945, the 33-year-old Wallenberg was Sweden’s ambassador to Budapest, the capital of German-allied Hungary. During his time there, Wallenberg is said to have saved over 20,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi concentration camps, by supplying them with Swedish travel documents, or smuggling them out of the country through a network of safe houses. He also reportedly dissuaded German military commanders from launching an all-out armed attack on Budapest’s Jewish ghetto.

But Wallenberg was also an American intelligence asset, having been recruited by a US spy operating out of the War Refugee Board, an American government outfit with offices throughout Eastern Europe. In January of 1945, as the Soviet Red Army descended on Hungary, Moscow gave orders for Wallenberg’s arrest on charges of spying for Washington. The Swedish diplomat disappeared, never to be seen in public again. Some historians speculate that Joseph Stalin initially intended to exchange Wallenberg for a number of Soviet diplomats and intelligence officers who had defected to Sweden. According to official Soviet government reports, Wallenberg died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947, while being interrogated at the Lubyanka, a KGB-affiliated prison complex in downtown Moscow. Despite the claims of the official Soviet record, historians have cited periodic reports that Wallenberg may have managed to survive in the Soviet concentration camp system until as late as the 1980s.

But the recently discovered memoirs of Ivan Serov, who directed the KGB from 1954 to 1958, appear to support the prevalent theory about Wallenberg’s demise in 1947. Serov led the feared Soviet intelligence agency under the reformer Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin in the premiership of the USSR. Khrushchev appointed Serov to conduct an official probe into Wallenberg’s fate. Serov’s memoirs were found in 2012 by one of his granddaughters, Vera Serova, inside several suitcases that had been secretly encased inside a wall in the family’s summer home. According to British newspaper The Times, the documents indicate that Wallenberg was indeed held for two years in the Lubyanka, where he was regularly interrogated by the KGB. The latter were certain that the Swedish diplomat was an American spy who had also been close to Nazi Germany’s diplomatic delegation in Hungary. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin considered exchanging him for Soviet assets in the West. But eventually Wallenberg “lost his value [and] Stalin didn’t see any point in sending him home”, according to Serov’s memoirs. The KGB strongman adds that “undoubtedly, Wallenberg was liquidated in 1947”. Further on, he notes that, according to Viktor Abakumov, who headed the MGB —a KGB predecessor agency— in the mid-1940s, the order to kill Wallenberg came from Stalin himself.

In 2011, Lt. Gen. Vasily Khristoforov, Chief Archivist for the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), one of two successor agencies to the old Soviet KGB, gave an interview about Wallenberg, in which he said that most of the Soviet documentation on the Swedish diplomat had been systematically destroyed in the 1950s. But he said that historical reports of Wallenberg’s survival into the 1980s were “a product of […] people’s imagination”, and insisted that he was “one hundred percent certain […] that Wallenberg never was in any prison” other than the Lubyanka. An investigation by the Swedish government into the diplomat’s disappearance and eventual fate is ongoing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2016 | Permalink