Mossad helped Syrian intelligence official flee to Austria, despite alleged crimes

BVT AustriaA SYRIAN INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL, who was denied political asylum in France due to claims he committed serious war crimes, received protection from Austria with assistance from Israel, according to a report. This was revealed on Sunday by British newspaper The Telegraph, which said it had been given the information by “a judicial source”.

The Syrian official in question is Khaled al-Halabi, a former Brigadier General in the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate (MID). He served as head of the MID in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa amidst the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011. But in 2013, as the civil war became fiercer, al-Halabi defected from Syria and took his family to France, where applied for political asylum.

Two years later, al-Halabi was notified by the French authorities that his application for political asylum had been denied, due to serious concerns that he had been involved in criminal acts against opponents of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, soon after being notified that his application for asylum had been rejected, al-Halabi mysteriously disappeared from France, and was never seen there again.

According to The Telegraph, while waiting for a decision from the French authorities in regards to his application for asylum, al-Halabi was negotiating with the Israeli external intelligence agency, the Mossad. The Israeli spy agency allegedly whisked al-Halabi away from France and took him to nearby Austria. Once there, al-Halabi went into the custody of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), Austria’s primary intelligence agency.

In December of 2015, al-Halabi was granted asylum in Austria, and today he is believed to live in Vienna, in a four-bedroom apartment provided to him by the Austrian government. The decision by the Austrian government to give the former Syrian spy official asylum made headlines in Austria in October, causing significant controversy. This is because at least one lawsuit has been filed against al-Halabi for his alleged participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Syrian Civil War, according to The Telegraph.

But the alleged involvement of the Mossad in al-Halabi’s case was not known until last Sunday. If true, the Mossad’s role in this case could signify that al-Halabi had established a relationship with the Israeli spy agency prior to his defection from Syria in 2013. According to the Austrian press, al-Halabi denies that he was involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 December 2020 | Permalink

Austrian government signals major overhaul of spy service, following Vienna attack

BVT AustriaAUSTRIAN GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS SIGNALED on Thursday the beginning of a major overhaul of the country’s intelligence community, in response to this week’s terrorist attack in Vienna, which killed four people. Another 20 people were wounded by a lone gunman, who used an automatic weapon to spread panic in the Austrian capital before he was shot dead by Austrian police.

The gunman was later identified as Kujtim Fejzulai, an Austrian citizen of Albanian extraction, who was born in North Macedonia and held citizenship there too. The shooter was known to Austrian authorities, as he had been previously convicted of trying to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State. He had been imprisoned as an Islamic radical, but had been released after allegedly duping Austrian judges, who believed he had reformed.

In the days following the attack, it emerged that Slovakian authorities had notified Austrian security agencies in July that Fejzulai had tried to purchase ammunition in Slovakia. On Wednesday, Austria’s Director General for Public Security, Franz Ruf, said that Austrian intelligence authorities “sent questions back to Bratislava”, but then there had been a “breakdown” in the system. Austrian Minister of the Interior Karl Nehammer added that “something apparently went wrong with the communication in the next steps”.

Nehammer and others, including Austrian Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, called for the establishment of an independent commission to examine the Fejzulai case and “clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law”. The Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said on Thursday that the country did not have “all the legal means necessary to monitor and sanction extremists”, adding that he would initiate the creation of a panel that would supervise a “realignment” of the intelligence agencies. He was referring to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known by the initials BVT. He did not provide details.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 November 2020 | Permalink

Austrian financier dubbed ‘world’s most wanted man’ worked for several agencies

Jan Marsalek

AN AUSTRIAN FINANCIER, WHO disappeared and is wanted by Western spy agencies in connection with a massive financial scandal in Germany, may have worked for several spy agencies simultaneously, according to reports. Jan Marsalek, dubbed by some as “the world’s most wanted man”, is connected with the sudden collapse of Wirecard AG in Germany last month.

Wirecard (est. 1999) was a German provider of financial services, such as mobile phone payment processing and other electronic payment transaction systems. The company also issued physical and virtual credit and pre-paid cards. But on June 25 of this year the company declared insolvency, after an audit revealed that nearly €2 billion ($2.3 billion) in cash deposits were missing from its accounts. Soon afterwards the company’s shares lost over 70 percent of their value and its management team, including its chief executive officer, Markus Braun, stepped down. Braun was eventually arrested. But Marsalek, who had worked as Wirecard’s chief operating officer since 2010, was nowhere to be found.

Marsalek, 40, was also in charge of Winecard’s operations in Asia and specifically the Philippines, where the fictitious €2 billion had reportedly been deposited. On June 18, after getting fired from his job, Marsalek told colleagues that he was leaving immediately for Manilla, in order to track down the missing funds and clear his name. However, he never arrived there, as he seemed to disappear into thin air on the way. An investigative report by The Financial Times revealed that Marsalek never made use of his airline ticket to the Philippine capital, and that the immigration records that showed him entering the country and then flying from there to China had been forged. This was later confirmed by the Philippines government.

Last Thursday, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that, according to some German lawmakers, Marsalek may have operated as an informant for the Austrian Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT). The paper cited a number of German lawmakers, who said they were told during a briefing of the German Parliament’s Committee on Intelligence Oversight that Marsalek probably worked “for several intelligence agencies at the same time” prior to his disappearance. The lawmakers did not provide details of these allegations. Meanwhile, Marsalek’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 November 2020 | Permalink

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

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

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