Austria arrests second spy for Russia in a week: media reports

BVT AustriaAuthorities in Austria have arrested a second alleged spy for Russia in a week, according to media reports. Several Austrian news outlets reported on Monday that police had arrested an Austrian counterintelligence officer on suspicion of passing classified information to Russian intelligence. The news follows reports late last week of the arrest of an unnamed retired colonel in the Austrian Army, who is believed to have spied for Russia since 1988. As intelNews reported on Monday, the unnamed man worked at the Austrian Armed Forces’ headquarters in Salzburg. He is believed to have been in regular contact with his Russian handler, known to him only as “Yuri”, who trained him in the use of “sophisticated equipment” for passing secret information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

On Monday, the Vienna-based newspaper Kronen Zeitung, said that a second Austrian man had been arrested on suspicion of carrying out espionage for Moscow. The man was identified in Austrian news reports only as “O.”, due to strict restrictions imposed on media in the country. But the Kronen Zeitung said that the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had confirmed the reports of the arrest of the second alleged spy. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, the second individual was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest this week. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details about this latest case have been made available.

No information is available about the kind of information that the suspect is believed to have shared with Moscow. Furthermore, statements from Austrian officials do not mention any connection between the arrest of “O.” and the arrest of the retired Army colonel that took place last week. The Kronen Zeitung notes that, if found guilty of espionage, “O.” will face a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars. The embassy of Russia in Vienna refused to respond to questions about the arrest of “O.” on Monday night.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 November 2018 | Permalink

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Austria summons Russian ambassador over arrest of alleged army spy

Sebastian Kurz Mario KunasekThe Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Russian ambassador to Vienna on Friday, following the arrest of a retired Austrian Army colonel who allegedly spied for Moscow for more than two decades. The news was announced on Friday by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at an emergency news conference in Vienna. He did not reveal the alleged spy’s identity, but said that he had been taken into custody as Austrian counterintelligence were investigating the extent of the security breach he caused.

However, according to the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s highest-circulation newspaper, the suspect is a 70-year-old Army colonel who recently retired after a long military career. He reportedly worked at one of the Austrian Armed Forces’ two headquarters, located in the western city of Salzburg. The unnamed man is believed to have spied for Russia from the early 1990s until his arrest last week. The Kronen Zeitung said that the retired Army colonel was in regular contact with his Russian handler, known to him only as “Yuri”. The Russian handler reportedly trained him in the use of “sophisticated equipment”, which he used to communicate information to Moscow. He is thought to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces. Austrian media reported that the alleged spy was paid nearly $350,000 for his services to Moscow. According to Austria’s Minister of Defense Mario Kunasek, the arrest came after a tip given to the Austrian government “a few weeks ago” by an unnamed European intelligence agency. He also said that Austrian security services were looking into the possibility that the suspect may have been part of a larger spy ring working for Moscow.

The incident has strained relations between Austria and Russia. In the past decade, Austria —which is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization— has been seen by observers as a rare ally of Moscow inside the European Union. Unlike the vast majority of European Union countries, Austria chose not to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of former Russian double spy Sergei Skripal in March of this year. In August, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the wedding of his personal friend, Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. But Mrs. Kneissl has now canceled a planned visit to Moscow in December in response to last week’s spy scandal. Speaking in Moscow on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Austria’s accusations as “unfounded” and “unacceptable”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 November 2018 | 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

More spies now in Brussels than Vienna, Austrian intelligence chief says

Peter GridlingThe head of Austria’s counterintelligence agency has said that Brussels has now replaced Vienna as Europe’s spy capital. For nearly a decade, this blog has published expert commentary that points to the Austrian capital being the world’s busiest spy den. In 2009, German broadsheet Die Welt explained that Vienna had “the highest density of [foreign intelligence] agents in the world”. The reasons for this are partly historic: during the Cold War, the center of Vienna was located less than an hour’s drive from the Iron Curtain, making it a central location for East-West spy intrigue. Additionally, Austria boasted then, and boasts today, an efficient transportation network that connects it to both Western and Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, Vienna hosts the headquarters of several important international agencies, including the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). This gives dozens of countries the opportunity to station in Vienna large numbers of diplomats, in addition to those who staff their embassies there. Consequently, it is estimated that the Austrian capital today hosts nearly 20,000 foreign diplomats, which is a substantial number for such a small country with a permanent population of less than 9 million. Experts believe that around half of these foreign diplomats are in fact connected to a foreign intelligence agency.

But in a rare public appearance on Thursday, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said that Vienna no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. Gridling heads the Vienna-based Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He was speaking during the official presentation of the BVT’s annual Constitutional Protection Report for 2017, which was held at the headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Gridling told reporters that the number of foreign intelligence operatives pretending to be diplomats posted in the Austrian capital remained significant, and that Austria as a whole was still “a favored area of operations” by the world’s intelligence agencies. However, he added that Vienna had now been overtaken by the Belgian capital Brussels as the spy capital of Europe. Gridling said that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was now a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital.

Gridling thus appears to concur with numerous intelligence experts and practitioners, among them Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), who have claimed since 2009 that Brussels is home to more spies than any other city in the world. When asked to specify the number of foreign intelligence operatives that are active in Vienna, Gridling said it was “in the neighborhood of hundreds of people, but certainly fewer than 1,000”. The Austrian counterintelligence chief declined calls to provide further elaboration on the mater.

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

Austrian court acquits Kazakh security officials in double-murder trial

Vadim Koshlyak and Alnur MusaevKazakhstan’s former spy chief and a former presidential bodyguard have been acquitted by an Austrian jury, five months after a co-defendant in their double-murder trial, who was also the Kazakh president’s former son-in-law, was found dead in his Vienna cell. As intelNews has written before, the case centers on the 2007 disappearance of Aybar Khasenov and Zholdas Timraliyev, both of them senior executives of JSC Nurbank, one of Kazakhstan’s largest private banking institutions. Their bodies were found in May of 2011 in a dumping site in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest urban center. They had been stuffed in large metallic barrels filled with lime. Both had been tortured and one of them had been raped prior to being killed.

The Kazakh regime of autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev accused Rakhat Aliyev of the murder of the two executives. Aliyev, who was Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, had served for years as Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister before being appointed director of the country’s intelligence agency, the National Security Committee, also known as KNB. In 2007, however, Aliyev, who by that time was serving as Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Vienna, divorced the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. He subsequently fell out with the presidential family in spectacular fashion. He was almost immediately stripped of his government positions, including the title of ambassador, and issued with an arrest warrant, while the Kazakh authorities demanded that Austria surrender him to Astana.

However, Austrian authorities rejected two extradition requests by the Kazakhs and decided instead to investigate the case for themselves. They soon arrested Aliyev along with two of his alleged accomplices in the murder of the Nurbank executives. The two, Vadim Koshlyak, a former bodyguard of Nazarbayev, and Alnur Musaev, who like Aliyev is a former director of the KNB, were also residing in Vienna at the time. All three were taken to prison while the Austrian authorities investigated the murders. The plot thickened in February of this year, however, when Aliyev was found hanged in his Vienna cell. The official verdict was suicide, but Aliyev’s family and lawyers have rejected it and they, along with many other exiled critics of Nazarbayev’s regime, have raised questions about possible complicity of the KNB in the killing. As intelNews reported back in 2009, a Kazakh intelligence operative was arrested by Austrian authorities in 2008, as he was trying to kidnap Musaev.

The trial of the two surviving defendants, Koshlyak and Musaev, opened in April of this year in Vienna amidst tight security, involving dozens of judicial guards. Over sixty witnesses testified either in person or via video-link, many of them in disguise in order to conceal their identities. The BBC described the court proceedings as “the most complex and unusual Austria has seen”. Both defendants pleaded not guilty, while their lawyers said they had been framed by the corrupt Kazakh government because they were friends of the late Aliyev. They also said that Kazakh authorities had provided the Austrian prosecutors with false evidence designed to convict Koshlyak and Musaev.

On Friday last week, Musaev was fully acquitted by the jury while Koshlyak was sentenced to two years in jail, of which 14 months were suspended. In accordance with Austrian judicial procedure, the jury gave no reasoning for its decision. The prosecutors said that they plan to appeal the decision.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 July 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/07/14/01-1734/

Austria probes gruesome murders with alleged Kazakh spy link

Vadim Koshlyak and Alnur MusaevBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
An Austrian court is hearing testimony this week on a gruesome murder case, allegedly by former officials in Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency, one of whom was found dead in his Vienna prison cell in February. The case, which resembles a Hollywood film plot, centers on the disappearance of two bank executives: Aybar Khasenov and Zholdas Timraliyev, both employees of JSC Nurbank, one of Kazakhstan’s largest private banking institutions, vanished without trace in 2007. Their bodies were found in May of 2011 in a dumping site in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest urban center. They had been stuffed in large metallic barrels filled with lime. Both had been tortured and one of them had been raped prior to being killed.

The Kazakh government of authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev accused Rakhat Aliyev of the murder of the two executives. Aliyev, who was Nazarbayev’s former son-in-law, had served for years as Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister before being appointed director of the country’s intelligence agency, the National Security Committee, also known as KNB. In 2007, however, Aliyev, who by that time was serving as Kazakhstan’s ambassador in Vienna, divorced the president’s eldest daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. He then fell out with the presidential family in spectacular fashion. He was almost immediately stripped of his government positions, including the title of ambassador, and issued with an arrest warrant, while the Kazakh authorities demanded that Austria surrender him to Astana.

However, Austrian authorities rejected two consecutive extradition requests by the Kazakhs and decided instead to investigate the case for themselves. They soon arrested Aliyev along with two of his alleged accomplices in the murder of the two Nurbank executives. The two, Vadim Koshlyak, a former bodyguard of Nazarbayev, and Alnur Musaev, who like Aliyev is a former director of the KNB, were also residing in Vienna at the time. All three were taken to prison while the Austrian authorities investigated the murders. The plot thickened in February of this year, however, when Aliyev was found hanged in his Vienna cell. The official verdict was suicide, but Aliyev’s family and lawyers have rejected it and they, along with many other exiled critics of Nazarbayev’s regime, have raised questions about possible complicity of the KNB in the killing. As intelNews reported back in 2009, a Kazakh intelligence operative was arrested by Austrian authorities in 2008, as he was trying to kidnap Musaev.

The trial of the two surviving defendants, Koshlyak and Musaev, opened on Monday in Vienna amidst tight security, involving dozens of judicial guards. Over sixty witnesses are scheduled to testify either in person or via video-link, many of them wearing disguises so as to conceal their identities.

Analysis: Europe’s ‘spy capital’ struggles to police espionage, terrorism

Vienna, AustriaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
Throughout the Cold War, Vienna was Europe’s busiest ‘spy hub’ linking East and West. Little has changed today, as the Austrian capital is still believed to feature “the highest density of [foreign spies] in the world”. A recently published book estimated that there are 7,000 spies among the 17,000 accredited diplomats who live and work in Vienna, a city of fewer than 2 million inhabitants. International spies have taken advantage of Austria’s relatively liberal espionage laws and have operated with near-unparalleled ease in the central European country for over 200 years. But now the country’s Ministry of Interior is seeking to terminate Austria’s liberal espionage regime and has initiated a plan to give local authorities more counterintelligence powers. Supporters of the proposal argue that Austria has “the most permissive spying laws in Europe”, which allow foreign agents to operate on Austrian soil with a high degree of impunity. This is because, under Austrian law, intelligence activities are not considered criminal unless they target the host country. For this reason, American, Russian, German, French, and other intelligence agencies have for years used Vienna as a base for recruiting agents and collecting intelligence. Supporters of the Interior Ministry’s proposal argue that the current legal regime has been used to harm the national interests of Austria and the security of the European Union —a reference to recent claims in the Austrian media that the United States National Security Agency has been spying on the United Nations headquarters in Vienna. Additionally, Austrian authorities say they are now worried about local Muslims who have been radicalized and have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. The government estimates that at least 140 Austrian Muslims have made the trip to the Middle East to join the militant organization. Austria’s counterterrorist agency, the BVT, said in its annual report for 2014 that another 60 radical Muslims had returned to Austria from the Middle East since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Interior Ministry spokesman Alexander Marakovits told Bloomberg that Austrian security services are “having a hard time doing their job the way they are expected to do”. Read more of this post