Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Mohammed bin Salman04. Unprecedented security changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Analysts agree that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its most important political changes in generations. On November 4, 2017, nearly 50 senior Saudi officials, including at least 11 princes, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, were suddenly fired or arrested. A royal decree issued on that same evening said that the arrests were carried out by a new “anti-corruption committee” led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne. The king and his son appear to be in the process of removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the Kingdom’s security services, which they now control almost completely. Earlier in the year, the BBC alleged that Saudi security services were secretly abducting Saudi dissidents from abroad and jailing them in Saudi Arabia. Also in November, Saudi Arabia was seen to be behind a failed attempt by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri —a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen— to resign while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. There were allegations that Hariri was under arrest by the Saudis, who objected to the presence of Hezbollah members in his cabinet. But Hariri later returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.

03. Extraordinary transformation of the intelligence landscape in South Korea. Developments in North Korea have been at the forefront of security reporting in recent months. But reports from the Korean Peninsula have largely ignored the dramatic changes Moon Jae-intaking place in the intelligence infrastructure of South Korea, which are arguably as important as developments north of the 38th parallel. In June, the new center-left government of President Moon Jae-in banned the powerful National Intelligence Service (NIS) from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering. The move came after a lengthy investigation concluded that the NIS interfered in the 2012 presidential elections and tried to alter the outcome in favor of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, using 30 dedicated teams of officers for that purpose. In November, three former NIS directors were charged with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid Park, who has since been impeached and is now facing a lengthy prison sentence.

02. Turkey’s fallout with the West is affecting spy relations. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. However, rising tensions in the country’s domestic political scene are negatively affecting Ankara’s relations with its Western allies, particularly with Germany and the United States. Last month, Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who Ankara says helped orchestrate the failed July 2016 military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Washington flatly denies these allegations. In May, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused “the secret services of [Western] countries” of “using journalists and also bloggers [as spies] in Turkey”. Earlier in the year, a German report claimed that the Turkish state had asked its diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in order t to identify those opposed to the government of President Erdoğan. In some cases, Turkish spies have asked their Western European counterparts to help them monitor the activities Turkish expatriates, but such requests have been turned down. Nevertheless, there is increasing unease in Western Europe as Turkey intensifies its unilateral intelligence activities aimed at monitoring political dissent among Turkish communities abroad.

01. With America divided, Russian spies make dramatic post-Cold War comeback. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for the once all-powerful Russian spy agencies. But, if CIA and FBI assessments are correct, the bitterly divisive state of American politics gave Russian spooks a chance for a dramatic comeback. Using a mixture of human and online intelligence operations, Russian spies helped drive a wedge between the White House and the US Intelligence Community. American intelligence agencies are tasked with providing information to Putin and Trumpassist policy-makers, including the president. So when the CIA and the FBI conclude that the Russian government launched an extensive and sophisticated campaign to undermine the 2016 US presidential election, one expects the president to take that advisement under serious consideration. However, the US leader has openly dismissed the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community and has publicly stated that he believes President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that his country did not meddle in the US election.

What we have here, therefore, is a US president who sees the Kremlin as more trustworthy than his own Intelligence Community. This is a remarkable, unprecedented state of affairs in Washington, so much so that some CIA officials have reportedly questioned whether it is safe for them to share information about Russia to President Trump. Throughout that time, the FBI has been conducting an extensive counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the president’s campaign team and the Kremlin. As intelNews has noted before, the FBI probe adds yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. The state of Russian politics may be uncertain, and the country’s economy in bad shape. But Russian spooks can look back to 2017 as the year in which they made an unexpected comeback, scoring a dramatic victory against their decades-old rival.

This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 03 January 2018 | Permalink

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Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be posted tomorrow.

07. 2017 was marked by high-profile assassinations and suspicious deaths. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, and suspicious deaths in 2017. In January, Brazilian authorities launched an investigation into a suspicious plane crash that killed Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki, who died while leading the largest corruption probe in the nation’s history, involving government officials and two giant companies. In February, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading member of Open Russia, a think tank founded by Russian oligarchs opposed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, nearly died Kim Jong-namas a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Also in February, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia by two female assassins, who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Some alleged that Kim, who was a critic of his brother’s policies in the DPRK, had made contact with US intelligence prior to his assassination. In March, the Israeli military alleged that Amine Badreddine, 55, an explosives expert and senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah, was murdered by his own people while fighting in Syria. Allegedly the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Syrian Civil War. In October, Malta’s best known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose reporting about offshore tax evasion revealed in the Panama papers prompted a major political crisis in Malta, was killed when the rented Peugeot 108 car she was driving exploded near her home in central Malta. Eyewitnesses said that the explosion was so powerful that it tore apart the vehicle and was heard from several miles away. Finally, in November, Zhang Yang, one of the highest-profile generals in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, committed suicide according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang had seen a meteoric rise to power, but unceremoniously fell from grace as a result of President Xi Jinping’s nationwide campaign against corruption.

06. CIA ends its support for opposition rebels in Syria. In February, the White House instructed the CIA to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move ended a policy that begun under US President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Some analysts warned that the decision by the White House to terminate US Milo Dukanovicsupport for the rebels could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations. In August, there were reports that US troops exchanged fire with former FSA rebels in Manbij, a Syrian city located a few miles from the Turkish border.

05. Britain accused Russia of trying to kill Montenegro prime minister. In late 2016, authorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro alleged that “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister,  Milo Dukanović, and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. Remarkably, in March of 2017, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview that Russian spies may have indeed orchestrated the failed attempt to kill Dukanović, as part of a broader plan to prevent the former Yugoslav republic from entering NATO. It is not every day that a senior cabinet official of a NATO member-state accuses the Kremlin of carrying out an assassination attempt against a European head of state.

This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 02 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; parts two and three will be posted on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

khalifa haftar10. Saudis, Israelis, are illegally funding a CIA-backed warlord in Libya. The strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under CIA protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to launch his military campaign. American legal experts, including a former special counsel to the United States Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accuse Haftar of ordering his troops to commit war crimes. But there is much evidence to suggest that Israeli, Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies are illegally breaking a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Libya and arming Haftar with advanced weaponry.

09. Why are American, Canadian diplomats in Havana going deaf? In 2015, relations between Cuba and the United States experienced an unprecedented rekindling, which culminated with the reopening of the US embassy in Havana after more than half a century. But in the past year, US authorities became enraged with the Cuban government after American diplomats reportedly suffered hearing loss and brain trauma as a result of a mysterious so-called “covert sonic weapon” that was directed against the American embassy. The US State Department blamed Cuba for the incident, but some believe that US embassy Cubathe alleged device may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities. In October, the White House expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the US in response to the incident. But the question of what harmed the health of at least 20 employees at the US embassy in Havana remains largely unanswered.

08. Role of spies in German-Swiss economic war revealed. In the wake of the Panama and Paradise leaks, offshore tax havens have faced intensifying worldwide calls for the introduction of transparency and accountability safeguards. Predictably, they are resisting. In April of 2017, German authorities announced the arrest of an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) in Frankfurt. It appears that the Swiss man, identified only as Daniel M., was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to prevent German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. It is believed that he was arrested while monitoring German efforts to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. A few months after Daniel M.’s arrest, Germany announced an unprecedented investigation into three more officers of the NDB, on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks.

This is part one in a three-part series. Part two is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 01 January 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: Egyptian Islamist group is emerging as ISIS’ most powerful branch

Wilayat SinaiThrough a series of meticulously planned terrorist strikes and assassinations, Wilayat Sinai has emerged as the strongest international arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to some experts. Known officially as ISIS – Sinai Province, Wilayat Sinai claimed responsibility for the October 2015 downing of Metrojet Flight 9268. All 224 passengers and crew, most of them Russians, died when the plane blew up in midair over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The incident marked the worst aviation disaster in Russian history. The same group, Wilayat Sinai, was behind last month’s attack on the Al Rawda Sufi mosque in bir al-Abed, Egypt. The massacre resulted in the deaths of 311 people, making it the worst terrorist attack in the history of modern Egypt.

According to leading Israeli defense and security expert Amos Harel, Wilayat Sinai’s most recent strike demonstrates that, aside from operational expertise, the group also possesses formidable intelligence collection capabilities. In an article published on Tuesday in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Harel focuses on the group’s assassination attempt against Egyptian Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel-Ghaffar. The attack took place on December 19 at the Al-Arish military airport in north Sinai. Wilayat Sinai guerrillas fired an antitank missile at a parked Egyptian Air Force helicopter, which had just transported the two ministers to the area. Footage of the attack, released last week by ISIS, shows the helicopter exploding after being hit by the missile. Three people died in the attack, a security guard, a helicopter pilot, and a senior aide to Defense Minister Sobhy. Although neither minister was harmed in the attack, that is not the point, says Harel, and points to the fact that the officials’ trip to northern Sinai was part of a surprise visit, which had not been announced in advance. It seems, therefore, says Harel, “that Wilayat Sinai obtained intelligence information that exposed the minister[s] to attack”.

Interestingly, the group’s membership is not large. American and other Western intelligence sources estimate that its armed nucleus consists of no more than a thousand fighters. However, Wilayat Sinai members have access to advanced weaponry, which is routinely smuggled into Egypt from Libya and the Sudan. It is thus the weaponry, coupled with advanced organization and intelligence capabilities, that makes Wilayat Sinai so dangerous, says Harel. In the past three years, the militant group has killed in excess of 1,500 people in Egypt. But as its attacks become increasingly surgical and sophisticated, Egypt may be forced to respond with increasing firepower, which could further-destabilize the volatile Sinai region. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces are preparing for the possibility of cross-border raids by Wilayat Sinai, warns Harel. The Egyptian-Israeli border region could become the next front in the war against ISIS.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 December 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: Dozens of royals arrested in weekend raids throughout Saudi Arabia

King Salman with Crown Prince MohammedDozens of Saudi senior figures, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, have been fired or arrested, as the king and his son appeared to be removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the security services. The unprecedented arrests took place without warning less than two hours after state-run media announced the creation of a new “supreme committee to combat corruption”. A royal decree issued on the same day named the head of the committee as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne.

By Saturday night, nearly 50 senior officials, including at least 11 princes, had reportedly been fired or arrested. The substantial list features four current and at least 20 former ministers, most of them members of the Saudi royal family. Reports from Riyadh said that among those arrested were Saleh Abdullah Kamel, chairman of the General Council for Islamic Banks, Arab media baron Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and one of the world’s wealthiest people. Prince Alwaleed is a major investor in technology companies such as Twitter and Apple, and is seen as a high-profile social reformer in the kingdom.

More importantly, Saturday saw the firing of Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah from the post of Minister of the Saudi Arabian National Guard Forces. He was replaced by Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, who until last week served as one of Prince Mutaib’s subordinates. The royal palace offered no precise explanation for the removal of Prince Mutaib and the three other government ministers. A statement released to the media said that the new effort against corruption was prompted by “the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds”. But there was no direct mention of Prince Mutaib in the statement, and no charges of corruption against him were made public. It is possible that the prince’s firing may not be directly related to the anticorruption drive.

However, few Saudi observers will believe that a genuine anticorruption crusade was behind last weekend’s arrests of senior officials. In a country were nepotism and corruption are not simply endemic, but serve as the driving engine of the economy, virtually nobody believes that the system can be reformed from within. Moreover, it cannot possibly be reformed by the royal family, which is the most prolific source of corruption in the oil-rich kingdom. So what exactly is going on?

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Analysis: Despite tragic deaths, New York attack reveals a weakened ISIS

Lower Manhattan attackNews reports hastened to describe Tuesday’s atrocity in Lower Manhattan as “the worst terror attack in New York since September 11, 2001”. The comparison may be numerically accurate. Moreover, the deaths caused by the attack are nothing short of tragic. But if the Islamic State’s deadliest response to its retreat in the Middle East is a clumsy truck driver armed with a pellet gun, then Americans have little to fear from the terrorist group.

For months now, Western counter-terrorism experts have been bracing for a change of tactics by the Sunni group, which in 2014 controlled territory in Iraq and Syria equal to the size of England. The prevailing theory in security circles is that, as the Islamic State is forced to retreat in the Middle East, it will unleash waves of sleeper cells against Western targets abroad. This concern is logical, given the militant group’s obsession with its public image. At every turn since its dramatic rise in 2013, the Islamic State has consciously tried to project an appearance of strength that is far greater than its actual capabilities. In its public statements, the group has consistently extolled its ability to strike at distant targets regardless of its territorial strength in the Middle East. This applies especially to attacks by the Islamic State in Europe, which have tended to come in response to intense media speculation that the group’s territorial hold may be weakening.

One presumes that a terrorist attack in New York, a symbolic site in the ‘war on terrorism’, would aim to do just that: namely project an image of continuing strength and convince global audiences that the group remains potent. Yet, despite the tragic loss of eight lives, Tuesday’s attack in Manhattan did nothing of the sort.

To begin with, an attack on cyclists with a rented utility vehicle is hardly ground-breaking at this point. In the past 18 months, we have seen similar types of attacks in London (on two separate occasions), in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas mall, in downtown Berlin, and in Nice, where a 19-ton cargo truck was used to kill 86 people. Terrorist groups are by nature conservative in their operations, preferring to use low-tech, time-tested methods to dispense violence, rather than risk failure by breaking new ground. But at a time like this, when the very existence of the Islamic State hangs in the balance, one would think that the group would consciously try to intimidate its opponents by showing off some kind of revolutionary new weapon. That did not happen on Tuesday.

Additionally, the perpetrator of the attack, Uzbek immigrant Sayfullo Saipov, is hardly an inspiring figure for Islamic State supporters. After running over a group of unsuspecting cyclists, the 29-year-old Florida resident clumsily smashed his rented truck head-on into a vehicle that was far larger and heavier than his own, thus completely destroying his vehicle’s engine and effectively disabling his only weapon. He then jumped out of the truck, apparently wielding a pellet gun and a paintball gun. Mobile phone footage captured from a nearby building shows Saipov walking in a disoriented manner through Manhattan traffic before being shot by police officers. If —as it seems— the Islamic State was behind that attack, it would mean that modern history’s most formidable terrorist group failed to get a pistol in a country where firearms are in some cases easier to secure than nasal decongestant.

Choice of weapon aside, one does not need to be a counter-terrorism expert to conclude that Saipov lacked basic operational and planning skills. His attack behavior shows that he had failed to carry out even rudimentary prior reconnaissance of the area where he launched his attack. He even appears to have failed to read Tuesday’s New York Post. Had he done so, he would have known that the heavily attended annual Village Halloween Parade was scheduled to take place on the very same street, just two hours after he launched his deranged attack.

Once again, the question is: if the Islamic State does not utilize its deadliest and most capable operatives now, when its very existence in its Middle Eastern stronghold is being directly challenged, then when will it do so? By all accounts, the militant group’s leaders are well-read on recent history. They are therefore fully aware that, in the post-9/11 age, clumsy, low-tech, limited terrorist strikes by lone-wolf operatives lack the capacity to intimidate civilian populations, especially in New York.

Western counter-terrorism agencies and citizens alike should remain vigilant; but early evidence shows that the Islamic State is simply too weak to launch sophisticated, large-scale strikes against Western targets abroad. As I have argued before, the threat level would change if the militant group acquires chemical weapons or other tools of mass terrorism. For now, however, it is safe to state that the Islamic State’s capabilities do not pose anything close to an existential threat to the West.

► About the author: Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis is Associate Professor in the Intelligence and National Security Studies program at Coastal Carolina University. Before joining Coastal, Dr. Fitsanakis built the Security and Intelligence Studies program at King University, where he also directed the King Institute for Security and Intelligence Studies. He is also deputy director of the European Intelligence Academy and senior editor at intelNews.org.

Analysis: West should prepare for chemical attacks by the Islamic State

Biochemical terrorismA German newspaper reported last week that at least one European intelligence agency has already warned that the Islamic State is exploring the use of chemicals for attacks in Europe. Such an eventuality would be a radical departure from prior attacks by the Islamic State in the West. In the past, the militant group has shown a strong preference for low-tech means of dispensing violence, such as firearms, vehicles and knives. But it has utilized chemical substances in Iraq and Syria, and its technical experts have amassed significant knowledge about weaponized chemicals.

Last week, several European and American counter-terrorism experts participated in a bioterrorism preparedness exercise in Berlin. Codenamed WUNDERBAUM, the exercise was one of several anti-terrorism drills that have taken place in the German capital this year alone. But last week’s drill was the first with an exclusive focus on preparing for a bioterrorist attack. German authorities insisted that the drill was not sparked by concrete intelligence of a pending biological or chemical attack. But the Berlin-based national newspaper Die Welt claimed on Friday that it had information about at least one such warning by a European intelligence agency. The paper did not name the agency, but said that “a foreign intelligence agency” had warned European security authorities of a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State using chemical weapons. According to Die Welt, the warning was “explicit” and cautioned that the Sunni militant group may be preparing to use improvised bombs utilizing chemicals, including toxic gasses. The warning was communicated to European intelligence agencies, including Germany’s said Die Welt.

How likely is such a scenario? Terrorist groups tend to be conservative in their use of lethal technologies. They typically opt for time-tested methods using explosives or firearms, because these have a higher of success in comparison to more sophisticated, hi-tech weapons. The latter are also more expensive to build and require scientific and technical capabilities that are not typically available to terrorist organizations. Militants are usually strapped for cash, and are not science-savvy, so exceptions to this general trend are rare. But the Islamic State is different. Read more of this post