US offensive cyber campaign disabled Iran’s strike capabilities, say sources

IRGC IranThe Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still recovering from the damage it suffered by an offensive American cyber campaign against it that took place in June, according to sources. The attack allegedly degraded the IRGC’s ability to strike at oil tankers and other ships in the Persian Gulf. The New York Times said on Thursday that the cyber attack took place on June 20, hours after United States President Donald Trump called off airstrikes on Iran. The White House had considered launching the airstrikes in retaliation against the downing of an American surveillance drone by Iranian forces and their alleged use of limpet mines against commercial oil tankers by the IRGC the previous month.

The paper did not reveal details of the cyber campaign, but said it did not target any part of Iran’s missile or other defense programs. Its mission was to degrade the covert strike capabilities of the IRGC, which operates in a paramilitary capacity and is not supervised by the military. Washington blamed the IRGC for the limpet mine attacks against oil tankers, and expressed concerns that they would continue. The cyber attack corrupted the computer databases and communications networks that the IRGC uses to co-ordinate covert operations at sea, and resulted in the temporary cessation of IRGC attacks on oil tankers, said The Times.

The June 20 cyber attacks were not meant to be permanent but their effects have endured much longer than was expected, according to the paper. It cited claims by anonymous senior American officials that the IRGC is “still trying to repair critical communications systems and has not recovered the data lost in the attack”. It is also worth noting that, according to US sources, Iran did not escalate its own cyber attacks against Western targets in retaliation to the American cyber campaign against the IRGC.

However, according to The Times, some American officials have expressed doubts about the wisdom and long-term impact of the cyber operation. They claim that the cyber attack gave the Iranians the opportunity to collect valuable information about US cyber capabilities. It also allowed them to detect and fix their vulnerabilities so that they are now better able to defend against future cyber attacks. Lastly, the attacks neutralized IRGC communications networks, which the US had penetrated and was collecting vital intelligence from, they argue.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2019 | Permalink

‘Unusual’ high-level meeting held at CIA headquarters to discuss Iran, say sources

CIA headquartersAn untypical high-level meeting was convened at the headquarters of the United States Central Intelligence Agency last week to discuss Iran, according to NBC News. The meeting, which NBC described as “highly unusual” was convened by President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton. Participants allegedly included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joe Dunford. Citing “six current US officials”, NBC said the meeting was held at 7 a.m. on Monday, April 29, in Langley, Virginia.

The list of participants refers to a high-level national security meeting. These are almost always held at the White House —typically in the Situation Room— says NBC. In general, it is extremely rare for senior White House officials, like Bolton, or members of the Cabinet, like Pompeo, to participate in meetings at CIA headquarters. It is also worth noting that, according to NBC’s sources, the meeting was not related to Washington’s recent decision send the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Middle East. This leaves two options, according to the NBC report: first, that the meeting concerned a “highly sensitive covert action” involving Iran or an Iranian proxy, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. It could have been an update on an existing CIA operation, or a description of options for an impending operation. Alternatively the meeting could have been called due to a disagreement between the CIA and the White House about the results of an intelligence assessment or estimate about Iran.

NBC said it contacted the National Security Council to inquire about the April 29 meeting, but a spokesperson refused to comment. Meanwhile, Pompeo abruptly canceled the final leg of a four-nation tour of Europe on Thursday and returned to Washington, reportedly in light of heightening tensions between Washington and Tehran. Also on Thursday, the Iranian government described the Trump administration’s decision to deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Middle East as “an action of psychological warfare” against the Iranian people. Late on Thursday, President Trump urged Iran to reach out to him: “What I would like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me”, said the US leader during a press conference at the White House. Iranian officials did not immediately respond to his comments.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 10 May 2019 | Permalink

Israeli team spotted in Gaza was installing advanced surveillance system, says Hamas

IDF Gaza Strip HamasAn undercover Israeli team that clashed with Hamas in Gaza on November 11 —an incident that brought the region to the brink of war— was installing an advanced surveillance system, according to Palestinian sources. Local media reports said that the Israeli undercover team —believed to be members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)— killed seven members of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas’ armed wing. The IDF troops eventually escaped into Israel with the help of air support, having lost one team member. The incident was followed by a barrage of nearly 500 rockets and mortars fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. The Israelis responded by firing more than 160 missiles that fell throughout the Palestinian enclave. Hostilities were halted on November 13, when Hamas declared a unilateral ceasefire brokered by Egypt. The incident prompted the resignation of Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman, and may bring about early parliamentary elections in the Jewish state.

In the ensuing political crisis, little has been said about the reason for the Israeli undercover incursion into Gaza. The IDF has refused to comment on the team’s mission, admitting only that its troops “operated […] in the Gaza Strip”. It is believed that the members of the undercover team were dressed in civilian clothes and that at least two of them were disguised as women. After entering Gaza in a civilian Volkswagen vehicle, they drove to Khan Yunis, a city in the south of the Strip, near the Egyptian border. It was there that they were discovered by the al-Qassam Brigades, who stopped them at a checkpoint, asking for identification. The Israeli team killed at least one Palestinian at the checkpoint by shooting him with a silenced gun. Following a high-speed car chase, they left via helicopter after their pursuers were killed by Israeli tank and aircraft fire. Their abandoned Volkswagen car was then blown up by an Israeli fighter jet.

Speaking on Saturday at a media conference held in Gaza City, and aired live on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, Hamas’ Gaza City Deputy Chief Khalil al-Hayya claimed that the Israeli undercover incursion was significant. Had it been successful, said al-Hayya, the IDF would have “achieved a major security breakthrough” by installing a new, state-of-the-art surveillance system. Had it been able to “install the surveillance equipment”, the undercover team would have given Israel the ability “to kill, hack and abduct”, and it would have “possibly made it easy for [Israel] to discover tunnels and other” activities pursued by Hamas, according to the Palestinian side. Video footage aired by Al-Aqsa TV on Sunday showed what the television station said was remnants of “surveillance devices” left behind by the IDF undercover team. Al-Hayya finished his statement on Saturday with a warning, saying that “penetrating the security of the Gaza Strip will not be an easy task”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 November 2018 | Permalink

Russian spy may have been poisoned by nerve agent smeared on car’s door handle

Sergei SkripalThe nerve agent that poisoned a Russian double spy in England last week may have been smeared on his car’s door handle, according to sources. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, are in critical condition after being poisoned on March 4 by unknown assailants in the English town of Salisbury. Skripal, a Russian former military intelligence officer, has been living there since 2010, when he was released from a Russian prison after serving half of a 13-year sentence for spying for Britain. The British government said on Monday that it believes Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent, thought to have been built in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Britain’s counterterrorism experts continue to compile evidence on the case. Moscow denies any involvement.

On Tuesday, Neil Basu, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Service, which houses Britain’s counterterrorism force, said that the investigation into the Skripals’ poisoning was complex and painstaking. Speaking to reporters in London, Basu said that hundreds of witnesses had been contacted and nearly 400 items had been collected from various crime scenes that related to the March 4 attack on the two Russians. He added that investigators were still looking into the whereabouts of the Skripals during a 40-minute period when they were driving in Mr. Skripal’s car. According to British newspaper The Daily Mail, Mr. Skripal’s dark red BMW is now “at the center of the investigation” into his poisoning. There are claims, said the paper, that the former spy and his daughter came in physical contact with the nerve agent by touching the door handles of the BMW as they entered the car on the evening of March 4. Some investigators appear to believe that the nerve agent may have been smeared on the car’s door handles.

The Metropolitan Police are now appealing for witnesses who may have seen the Skripals driving around downtown Salisbury in the red BMW, or arriving at the car park of Sainsbury’s, part of a British nationwide supermarket chain, on the early afternoon of March 4. Basu said that it was not known whether the pair met anyone during those 40 minutes. The police spokesman said that the Skripals were still fighting for their lives at a local hospital. He added that the inquiry into their poisoning would “take many weeks”.

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

UK blames Russia, says it will not invoke NATO Article 5 in attack on ex-spy

Theresa MayThe British prime minister said on Monday that it was “highly likely” the nerve agent used to attack a Russian defector in England last week was developed by Russia. But sources in London told the BBC that the British government would not invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. Theresa May was referring to an assassination attempt carried out on March 4 by unknown assailants against former KGB Colonel Sergei Skripal. The 66-year-old former spy and his daughter were found in a catatonic state in the town of Salisbury. It was later determined that they were attacked with a nerve agent.

Speaking in the British House of Commons, Mrs. May said that “world-leading experts” in chemical weapons had concluded Mr. Skripal had been attacked with a “military-grade nerve agent”. It was, she added, part of a group of nerve agents developed by the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, known collectively as novichok (newcomers). The existence of these nerve agents took place in secret, but was later revealed by Russian government agents who defected to the West. British officials also disclosed yesterday that the British Foreign Office summoned the Russian Ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, to seek an explanation about the attack. Additionally, London has called on Moscow to provide a “full and complete disclosure” of its novichok nerve agent program to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an intergovernmental agency based in the Netherlands, which oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Meanwhile NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday that the alliance viewed the use of a military-grade nerve agent on British soil as “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and that it was in contact with British officials about the matter. But British government officials told the BBC that London had no intention of invoking Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires all member-states to rally to the defense of a member under attack. The only time that Article 5 has been invoked by a member was by the United States, in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. In Washington, White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday that the United States was “monitoring the incident closely” and took it “very seriously”. Mrs. Sanders described the attack on Mr. Skripal as “reckless, indiscriminative and irresponsible”, and extended the American government’s “support […] to our closest ally”, the United Kingdom. But she refused to respond to questions about whether the Russian government was behind the attack, saying that British experts were “still working through […] some of the details” of the case.

On Monday, during an official visit to the southern region of Krasnodar, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked by a BBC reporter to comment on the attack on Skripal. He responded to the British reporter saying that the government in London would first have to “sort this out for yourselves first, then come talk to us”. He then walked away. Commenting from Moscow on Mrs. May’s allegations, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that her statement in the British Parliament had been “a circus show”.

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

British intelligence to tighten security protection for Russian defectors

MI6The British secret services have begun tightening the physical security of dozens of Russian defectors living in Britain, a week after the attempted murder of former KGB Colonel Sergei Skripal in southern England. The 66-year-old double spy and his daughter, Yulia, were found in a catatonic state in the town of Salisbury on March 4. It was later determined that they had been attacked with a nerve agent. Russian officials have vehemently denied that the Kremlin had any involvement with the brazen attempt to kill Skripal. But, according to The Times, the British intelligence community has concluded that Skripal and his daughter were attacked on Moscow’s orders —most likely the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, where Skripal worked until his arrest for spying for Britain in 2004.

Citing an unnamed source from Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, The Times said that initial assessments of Skripal’s poisoning were damning for Britain’s intelligence community. They raised questions, said the source, about the ability of Britain’s two primary spy agencies, the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), to provide security to their assets. The source told The Times that it was “impossible to reduce […] to zero” the risk of serious physical harm against individuals like Skripal, and before him Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was poisoned to death in London in 2006. But the attack on Skripal is being viewed as an intelligence failure, said the source, and part of the response to it involves a comprehensive review of risk to British-based Russian double spies and defectors from “unconventional threats”. The latter include attacks with chemical and radiological weapons, said The Times.

The report came as another British-based Russian defector, Boris Karpichkov, told The Daily Mirror newspaper that the Kremlin has tried to poison him three times since 2006. Karpichkov, 59, joined the KGB in 1984, but became a defector-in-place for Latvian intelligence in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He claims to have also spied on Russia for French and American intelligence. In 1998, carrying two suitcases filled with top-secret Russian government documents, and using forged passports, he arrived in Britain with his family. In 2006, while living in the UK, Karpichkov says he was warned by MI5 to leave the country because his life may be in danger. He temporarily relocated to New Zealand, where he says he was attacked with an unidentified nerve agent. He told The Mirror that he lost nearly half his weight during the following weeks, but survived due to good medical care. However, he was attacked again, he said, four months later, while still living in New Zealand.

Karpichkov told The Mirror he had been warned that his name was on a shortlist of eight individuals that the Kremlin wanted to kill. He also claimed that he was told by a source to watch out for people carrying electronic cigarettes, because Russian intelligence had developed nerve-agent weapons that were disguised as e-cigarette devices.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 March 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: All evidence points to professionals behind Skripal poisoning

Skripal SalisburyMost state-sponsored assassinations tend to be covert operations, which means that the sponsoring party cannot be conclusively identified, even if it is suspected. Because of their covert nature, assassinations tend to be extremely complex intelligence-led operations, which are designed to provide plausible deniability to their sponsors. Consequently, the planning and implementation of these operations usually involves a large number of people, each with a narrow set of unique skills. But —and herein lies an interesting contradiction— their execution is invariably simple, both in style and method. The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal last Sunday in England fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert operation in almost every way.

Some have expressed surprise that Skripal, a Russian intelligence officer who was jailed in 2004 for selling Moscow’s secrets to British spies, would have been targeted by the Russian state. Before being allowed to resettle in the British countryside in 2010, Skripal was officially pardoned by the Kremlin. He was then released from prison along with four other Russian double agents, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover spies who had been caught in the United States earlier that year. According to this argument, “a swap has been a guarantee of peaceful retirement” in the past. Thus killing a pardoned spy who has been swapped with some of your own violates the tacit rules of espionage, which exist even between bitter rivals like Russia and the United States.

This assumption, however, is baseless. There are no rules in espionage, and swapped spies are no safer than defectors, especially if they are judged to have caused significant damage to their employers. It is also generally assumed that pardoned spies who are allowed to resettle abroad will fade into retirement, not continue to work for their foreign handlers, as was the case with Skripal, who continued to provide his services to British intelligence as a consultant while living in the idyllic surroundings of Wiltshire. Like the late Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London of radioactive poisoning in 2006, Skripal entrusted his personal safety to the British state. But in a country that today hosts nearly half a million Russians of all backgrounds and political persuasions, such a decision is exceedingly risky.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police Service announced that Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia, 33, had been “targeted specifically” by a nerve agent. The official announcement stopped short of specifying the nerve agent used, but experts point to sarin gas or VX. Both substances are highly toxic and compatible with the clinical symptoms reportedly displayed by the Skripals when they were found in a catatonic state by an ambulance crew and police officers last Sunday. At least one responder, reportedly a police officer, appears to have also been affected by the nerve agent. All three patients are reported to be in a coma. They are lucky to have survived at all, given that nerve agents inhaled through the respiratory system work by debilitating the body’s respiratory muscles, effectively causing the infected organism to die from suffocation.

In the past 24 hours, at least one British newspaper stated that the two Russians were “poisoned by a very rare nerve agent, which only a few laboratories in the world could have produced”. That is not quite true. It would be more accurate to say that few laboratories in the world would dare to produce sarin or VX, which is classified as a weapon of mass destruction. But no advanced mastering of chemistry or highly specialist laboratories are needed to manufacture these agents. Indeed, those with knowledge of military history will know that they were produced in massive quantities prior to and during World War II. Additionally —unlike polonium, which was used to kill Litvinenko in 2006— nerve gas could be produced in situ and would not need to be imported from abroad. It is, in other words, a simple weapon that can be dispensed using a simple method, with little risk to the assailant(s). It fits the profile of a state-sponsored covert killing: carefully planned and designed, yet simply executed, thus ensuring a high probability of success.

By Wednesday, the British security services were reportedly using “hundreds of detectives, forensic specialists, analysts and intelligence officers working around the clock” to find “a network of highly-trained assassins” who are “either present or past state-sponsored actors”. Such actors were almost certainly behind the targeted attack on the Skripals. They must have dispensed the lethal agent in liquid, aerosol or a gas form, either by coming into direct physical contact with their victims, or by using a timed device. Regardless, the method used would have been designed to give the assailants the necessary time to escape unharmed. Still, there are per capita more CCTV cameras in Britain than in any other country in the world, which gives police investigators hope that they may be able to detect the movements of the attackers. It is highly unlikely that the latter remain on British soil. But if they are, and are identified or caught, it is almost certain that they will be found to have direct links with a foreign government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 March 2018 | Permalink