Senior Belgian counterintelligence officer arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia

NATO HQ BrusselsA senior counterintelligence official in Belgium’s external intelligence service is under house arrest on suspicion of sharing classified documents with Russian spies, according to a Belgian newspaper. Additionally, the chief of the agency’s counterintelligence directorate has been barred from his office while an internal investigation is underway on allegations that he illegally destroyed government documents. These allegations surfaced last Thursday in a leading article in De Morgen, a Flemish-language daily based in Brussels.

Citing anonymous sources from the General Information and Security Service —Belgium’s military intelligence agency— the paper said that the arrestee has the equivalent rank of major in the General Intelligence and Security Service. Known as GISS, the agency operates as the Belgian equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency or Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service —better known as MI6. GISS officers collect information abroad and are not permitted to operate within Belgium’s borders. The man, a career counterintelligence official, is suspected of having passed secrets to Russia with the help of a woman who claims to be Serbian, but who is in fact believed to be an operative for Russian intelligence. It is not known whether the compromised information included secrets involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Belgium is a founding member. In the same article, De Morgen also said that Clement Vandenborre, who serves as chief of GISS’s counterintelligence directorate, has been barred from his office while an investigation is taking place into allegations of mismanagement. He is also accused of having shredded classified government documents without permission. It is not believed that this case is connected with the alleged Russian penetration.

De Morgen quoted a spokesperson for Belgium’s Ministry of Defense, who confirmed that an investigation into alleged foreign espionage targeting a GISS employee was underway, but added that “no comment” would be made on the subject so as “not to hinder” the probe. Ironically, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported last week that the European Union’s diplomatic agency warned officials in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, including from Russia and China. The warning, issued by the European Union’s diplomatic agency, the European External Action Service (EEAS), said that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” were operating in Brussels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 February 2019 | Permalink

Hundreds of foreign spies in Brussels, European diplomatic agency warns

European Commission buildingThe European Union’s diplomatic agency has warned officials who are active in Belgium to watch out for “hundreds of spies” from various foreign countries, according to a German news report. The report appeared last weekend in Germany’s Welt am Sonntag newspaper, which cited a report from the European External Action Service (EEAS). Based in Brussels, the EEAS operates as the European Union’s diplomatic agency and is headed by Federica Mogherini, an Italian former government minister who has been serving as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy since 2014.

According to Die Welt, the EEAS estimates that “approximately 250 Chinese and 200 Russian spies” are operating in Brussels. Most of these intelligence officers are allegedly embedded in their countries’ embassies, trade missions, cultural centers and other outreach facilities in the Belgian capital. There are also many intelligence operatives from Western agencies, including those of the United States, as well as from Iran, Turkey and Morocco, among other foreign nations. The report in Die Welt adds that the EEAS advised European Union diplomats to avoid certain establishments in the European Quarter of Brussels, which are believed to be heavily frequented by international spies. Among them are “a popular steakhouse and café” that are “within walking distance of the Berlaymont building” —the headquarters of the European Commission. The same building houses the offices of the EEAS.

Such warnings are not new. In June of last year, Peter Gridling, head of Austria’s main counterintelligence agency, said during a rare public appearance that Vienna —the spy capital of the world— no longer topped the list of preferred destinations for the world’s spies. He said that the Austrian capital had been overtaken by Brussels as the spy capital of Europe and added that, according to his agency’s calculations, there was a greater density of spies in Brussels than in any other European capital. 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”. In 2012, Alain Winants, former Director of Belgium’s State Security Service (SV/SE), claimed that Brussels was home to more spies than any other city in the world.

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

Israel says it foiled Iranian-sponsored bomb attack in France

MossadIsrael helped foil an alleged Iranian-sponsored bomb attack in Paris, which involved arrests of several Iranian agents and at least one diplomat in France, Belgium and Germany, according to media reports. As intelNews reported earlier this month, the arrests began on June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group with roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government.

On Thursday, authorities in Israel announced the lifting of a blanket censorship decree that prevented local media from discussing the country’s role in helping the Europeans foil the alleged bomb attack in Paris. According to Israel’s Channel 2, a private television station based in Jerusalem, the Iranian attack was prevented after the Israeli agency Mossad detected the whereabouts of several suspects involved in it. The Mossad then supplied Germany, Belgium and France with intelligence that led to the arrests of some of those suspects. However, Channel 2 said that the Israeli government did not give a reason for the initial censorship imposed on the country’s media, nor did it explain why it had decided to lift it. On July 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hint that Israel had a role in the foiling of the alleged bomb attack in Paris. Speaking during a commemoration ceremony in Acre, Israel, Netanyahu said it was “no coincidence” that the attack in Paris had been stopped. But the Israeli leader did not expressly indicate that the Mossad had a role in the operation.

Following news of the arrests in Europe, the Iranian government said that it had no connection to the alleged plot in Paris and called the incident a “false flag” operation staged by Tehran’s enemies at home and abroad.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2018 | Permalink

Iran sleeper cell agents, including diplomat, arrested in three European countries

National Council of Resistance of IranAn Iranian diplomat and members of what authorities described as an “Iranian sleeper cell” were arrested this week in Belgium, Germany and France, as they were allegedly planning to a bomb a high-level meeting in Paris. The arrests came after a complex investigation by several European intelligence agencies and were announced by Belgium’s Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon.

The operation against the alleged sleeper cell began on Saturday, June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group stopped a Mercedes car in Brussels. The car was carrying a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, named in media reports as Amir S., 38, and Nasimeh N., 33. According to the Belgian Ministry of the Interior, Nasimeh N. was found to be carrying 500 grams of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive and a detonator inside a toiletries bag. On the following day, Sunday, July 1, German police arrested Assadollah A., an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. According to reports, the diplomat was driving a rental car in the southeastern German state of Bavaria, heading to Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the other three arrests.

The four detainees were in contact with each other and were allegedly working for the Iranian government. All four have been charged with an alleged foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place last Saturday, June 30, in a Paris suburb. The National Council of Resistance of Iran is a France-based umbrella group of Iranian dissidents, led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations from exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups.

Until 2009, the European Union and the United States officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred of the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US. According to Belgian authorities, the four members of the Iranian sleeper cell were planning to bomb the MEK-sponsored NCRI meeting in Paris under instructions by the Iranian government. Conference participants included over 30 senior US officials, including US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Belgium’s Interior Minister Jambon praised the country’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies for foiling the alleged bomb plot in Paris. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, dismissed claims of an Iranian sleeper cell as “fake news” and described reports of a foiled bomb attack as “a sinister false flag plot”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 July 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

Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

Iran sentences professor at Belgian university to death for spying

Ahmadreza DjalaliAn Iranian scientist who works at a university in Belgium has been sentenced to death in Iran, allegedly for spying. According to his family and his employer in Belgium, Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali is currently in prison in Tehran. Dr. Djalali, 45, is professor of disaster medicine at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), a Dutch-speaking university located in the Belgian capital. For the past few years, Dr. Djalali has been based in Italy, where he teaches in the VUB’s European Master’s program in Disaster Medicine. According to an announcement on the VUB’s website, Dr. Djalali is now awaiting execution, which has been scheduled to take place later this month.

It is believed that the professor was arrested in April of last year, while visiting his family in Iran. But his family in Europe chose not to publicize his arrest, in hopes of getting him released. They spoke to the media only after Dr. Djalali was given a death sentence last week. The reason for the scientist’s arrest has not been made clear, but it is thought to relate to his collaboration with other researchers in Belgium and Italy, some of whom are Israeli citizens. Iran considers Israel an “enemy entity” and does not allow its citizens to interact with Israeli citizens. Officials at VUB claim that Dr. Djalali is has not been involved in political campaigns or discussions, and that his contacts with foreign scientists are solely research-driven.

According to his family, Dr. Djalali has protested his detention by launching hunger strikes on three separate occasions, which have severely affected his health. He also claims that he was not allowed access to lawyers and that he was not given a trial. Instead, he said he was interrogated and forced to sign a confession admitting to an offence that he does not recognize. Iranian authorities have refused comment on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 07 February 2017 | Permalink