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

British intelligence already sees Kremlin behind ex-spy’s poisoning, say sources

Sergei SkripalBritain’s counterintelligence service is nearing the conclusion that a foreign government, most likely Russia, tried to kill a Russian double spy and his daughter, who are now fighting for their lives in a British hospital. Sergei Skripal, 66, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, 33, are said to remain in critical condition, after falling violently ill on Sunday afternoon while walking in downtown Salisbury, a picturesque cathedral city in south-central England. Skripal arrived in England in 2010 as part of a large-scale spy-swap between the United States, Britain and Russia. He was among four Russian citizens that Moscow released from prison and allowed to resettle in the West, in exchange for 10 Russian deep-cover intelligence officers, who had been arrested earlier that year by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States.

Since Skripal’s poisoning made headlines on Monday morning, the basic details of his story have been reported extensively. He is believed to have served in Soviet and Russian military intelligence for several decades, rising to the rank of colonel. But in 2004 he was arrested and eventually convicted by Russian authorities for spying on behalf of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He had served nearly 7 years of a 13-year sentence in 2010, when he was pardoned by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and allowed to resettle in England with his immediate family. He did so in Salisbury, where he was found in a near-fatal state last Sunday, slumped on a street bench next to his equally catatonic daughter. Inevitably, the story brought back memories of the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, who defected to Britain but was poisoned to death with a radioactive substance in 2006. His murder prompted London to expel four Russian diplomats from Britain, a move that was countered by Moscow, which also expelled four British diplomats from the country.

Despite the close parallels between Litvinenko and Skripal, the British government has not publicly blamed Russia for Sunday’s attempted killing. But according to The Times newspaper, officials at the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s counterintelligence agency, are already pointing to Russia as the culprit of the attempt on Skripal’s life. The London-based paper cited anonymous sources in Whitehall, the administrative headquarters of the British government, who said that MI5 experts were already briefing government officials about the details of the assassination attempt by Russian government agents.

Actions taken by the British government in the past 24 hours also point to Whitehall viewing the attempt on Skripal’s life as an operation sponsored by a state, most likely by Russia. The investigation of the incident is now being led by the counterterrorism branch of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. Additionally, samples of the victims’ tissue, as well as blood and other bodily fluids, have been sent for examination by toxicologists at the Ministry of Defence’s top-secret Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down. It also emerged last night that British Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called an emergency meeting of the British government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR, also known as Cobra) group, which she chairs. The group consists of cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and the leadership of the Metropolitan Police and the intelligence services, who meet to respond to developing emergencies of a national scale.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 March 2018 | Permalink

US troops in Syria battle anti-Assad rebels once funded by the CIA

US troops in SyriaAmerican troops deployed in Syria have exchanged fire with rebels that were until recently supported by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In 2013, soon after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, the then-US President Barack Obama instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. Acting on the president’s directive, the CIA promptly joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Under the project, which was codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles. But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. It soon became apparent that many Free Syrian Army soldiers approached Turkey, seeking financial income and protection. By early August, there were reports from Syria that large groups of former Free Syrian Army troops were conducting raids in northern Syria in coordination with the Turkish military.

Early on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Combined Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve told reporters that US troops in Syria had come under fire by Turkish-commanded former Free Syrian Army units. The spokesman told reporters in Kuwait City that the rebels shot at US troops in the outskirts of Manbij, a northern Syrian city of about 70,000, located a few miles from the Turkish border. The American soldiers reportedly returned fire before seeking shelter from the assault. According to the US Pentagon, the Turkish government was promptly contacted by Inherent Resolve commanders, who described the incident as “not acceptable”. Washington alleges that its troops have come under fire “multiple times” in the past month. Some of the culprits are believed to be Turkish-controlled Syrian insurgents, including former members of the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey and the US are member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But the two countries do not follow a common policy on Syria. The US Pentagon supports Kurdish insurgents in Syria, which Turkey claims are connected with Kurdish separatists inside Turkey. Washington’s official position on Kurdish separatists is that they engage in terrorism against the Turkish state.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2017 | Permalink

Cold War files show CIA support for guerrilla warfare inside USSR (Part II)

Latvia Forest BrothersThe role of the CIA in funding and helping to organize anti-Soviet groups inside the USSR has been known for decades. But, as intelNews explained in part I of this article, a batch of recently released documents, unearthed by Russian-language service of Latvian state television, sheds light into the CIA’s early understanding of the identity, strength and operations of these groups. They also contain new information about the background and structure of underground anti-Soviet groups like the Forest Brothers in Latvia.

Judging that Latvia’s anti-Soviet underground movement could be “of considerable operational value”, the CIA initiated project ZRLYNCH in the summer of 1950. Operated out of the CIA’s Munich station in Germany, ZRLYNCH was intended as a long-term project supervised by the Office of Policy Coordination, an early Cold War covert operations outfit that in 1952 was absorbed into the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. The Latvia operation was part of a wider effort by the CIA, which was aimed at subverting Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

For the first year of ZRLYNCH, the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination asked for —and received— a budget of $30,000. The top-secret document unearthed recently by Latvian state television states that the budget was to be used primarily for intelligence collection inside Soviet territory, as well as for covert operations by the Forest Brothers (for information about the group, see part I of this post). The latter were to conduct sabotage activities as part of organized guerrilla warfare. These activities are not specified in the CIA documents. By the end of the first year, it appears that the CIA had recruited three Latvian agents in Europe (one in Sweden and two in Germany), who were acting as mediators between the CIA and the Forest Brothers inside the USSR. Less than three years later, the ZRLYNCH budget had risen to $134,000, with $52,000 going toward covert —mostly psychological— operations and the rest being used to fund intelligence collection efforts. The CIA was also funding the travel expenses of leading Latvian émigré figures in the US, and was diverting tens of thousands of dollars toward Latvian émigré conferences in America, which aimed to unite the various political factions of the fragmented Latvian community in the States.

But the CIA officers behind ZRLYNCH were extremely concerned about operational security. They did not want the Kremlin finding out that the Agency was behind efforts to stir up armed resistance against Soviet power in the Baltic region. One CIA document states that there would be no tolerance for “any breaches of security” that compromised ZRLYNCH. Consequently, any action that uncovered the link between the US government and the Forest Bothers would lead “to an immediate cessation of financial support” for ZRLYNCH, states the memo.

Ultimately, ZRLYNCH failed to seriously challenge Soviet power in Latvia. Most of the members of the Forest Brothers were killed during Red Army counterinsurgency operations, and much of the organization’s structure was penetrated by agents of Soviet intelligence. Eventually, the Forest Brothers became extinct in 1957, when their last members emerged from the forest and surrendered to Latvian and Soviet authorities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 August 2017 | Permalink

Cold War files show CIA support for guerrilla warfare inside USSR (Part I)

Latvian Forest BrothersRecently declassified documents from the archive of the Central Intelligence Agency detail financial and material support given by the United States to groups of armed guerrillas in Soviet Latvia in the 1950s. The documents, initially marked ‘Top Secret’ but now declassified, show that the CIA was aware and supported the activities of an anti-Soviet guerrilla army known as ‘the Forest Brothers’. Known also as ‘the Forest Brethren’, the group was formed in the Baltic States in 1944, as the Soviet Red Army established Soviet control over the previously German-occupied states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Soviet Union had previously occupied and annexed the three Baltic countries, in a failed attempt to pre-empt Germany’s eastward military expansion. Groups like the Forest Brothers consisted of the most militant members of anti-Soviet groups in the Baltic States, many of whom were ideologically opposed to Soviet Communism.

The role of the CIA in funding and helping to organize anti-Soviet groups inside the USSR has been known for decades. But the recently released documents, unearthed by Russian-language service of Latvian state television, shed light into the CIA’s early understanding of the identity, strength and operations of these groups. They also contain new information about the background and structure of underground anti-Soviet groups like the Forest Brothers in Latvia.

The first declassified CIA document that contains information on anti-Soviet resistance in Latvia is dated November 29, 1949, and is titled “The Organization of the Underground Resistance Movement in Eastern Europe”. It was soon followed by two other documents, entitled “Latvian Resistance to Russian Occupation” and “Request for [Support] to the Latvian Resistance Movement”. The latter document was produced in mid-1950, after the CIA was able to establish contact with anti-Soviet Latvian expatriates living in Germany and Sweden. From these contacts, the CIA was able to determine that active (and possibly armed) resistance to the Soviet Red Army in Latvia was limited to approximately 5,000 individuals, many of whom conducted periodic guerrilla attacks against Soviet troops or installations. However, the CIA report said that, as of 1950, the majority of these armed guerrillas remained dormant, “waiting for a more opportune moment” to return to action. The CIA memorandum also stated that clandestine radio communication existed between the leadership of Latvia’s anti-Soviet underground in Riga and exile Latvian communities in Sweden.

Note: Part II of this report can be found here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 August 2017 | Permalink

CIA’s withdrawal from Syria could cause pro-US rebels to join Islamists, experts warn

Free Syrian ArmyThe decision by the White House to terminate American support for rebels in war-torn Syria could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations, according to experts. The United States’ support for the rebels began in secret in early 2013, after the then US President, Barack Obama, instructed the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert support to fighters in Syria. The CIA then joined forces with spy agencies from Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to assist fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. At that time, Washington saw the Free Syrian Army and forces affiliated with it as ideologically moderate. It also agreed with the group’s main aim, which was to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Codenamed TIMBER SYCAMORE, the CIA program was designed to mirror a similar project run by the US military in support of local troops fighting the Islamic State. On the one hand, the White House wanted to use the CIA’s support for the FSA to weaken militarily the regime in Damascus. On the other hand, Washington hoped that the CIA’s involvement in the region would be able to control the influx of weapons, money and fighters that were streaming in from neighboring countries. Under TIMBER SYCAMORE, for over three years, CIA personnel trained Free Syrian Army fighters in irregular warfare, while also providing them with light weaponry including machine guns, sniper rifles and off-road vehicles.

But on July 19 of this year, US President Donald Trump abruptly ended the CIA program, which he called “dangerous and wasteful”. Some observers argued that the termination of TIMBER SYCAMORE was an attempt by the Trump administration to come to an agreement with Russia on Syria. It is believed that America’s local allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also terminating their clandestine support for the Free Syrian Army, not wishing to go against the White House. This development, therefore, may signal the effective termination of substantial foreign support for the most important anti-Assad rebel group in Syria.

What does that mean for the fate of the Free Syrian Army and its thousands of fighters? Some experts say that their fate is uncertain, and warn that some of them may turn against their former benefactors. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Taylor Luck, said earlier this week that the Free Syrian Army reported 50 defections of its fighters in July. Some of these fighters, says Luck, are joining the Pentagon’s program in support of forces fighting the Islamic State, and are currently heading to the eastern and northern battlefronts. But many others are being tempted to join al-Qaeda affiliated groups, who are still fighting President Assad’s forces. Many do so for financial reasons, after seeing their CIA income suddenly disappear. Others, says Luck, are feeling very emotional and bitter against what they see as a betrayal by Washington. “We lost our brothers, our sisters, our children”, says one of these fighters, before vowing to fight Assad until the end. According to Luck’s report, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are trying to come up with ways to continue to pay the Free Syrian Army rebels, in an attempt to stop them from joining rival jihadist groups.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 August 2017 | Permalink

French spy who helped bomb Rainbow Warrior tracked down 32 years later

Christine CabonA French spy who infiltrated the environmentalist group Greenpeace and in 1985 helped bomb the organization’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, has spoken to the media for the first time. The British-based activist organization had purchased the trawler from the British government in 1977 and used it to carry out maritime research and other operations. In July 1985, the Rainbow Warrior, captained by the American environmental activist Peter Wilcox, was docked at the port of Auckland, New Zealand. It was being prepared to lead a flotilla of vessels to the French Polynesian atoll of Mororoa, in order to try to stop a planned nuclear test by the French military.

But on the night of July 10, 1985, two large explosions nearly split the ship in two, causing it to sink in less than five minutes. One of the Rainbow Warrior’s passengers, the Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira, drowned after he boarded the sinking ship in order to retrieve his cameras and lenses. Greenpeace blamed the government of France for the attack on the ship, but Paris denied any involvement. It later emerged, however, that the blasts had been caused by two plastic-wrapped explosive devices that had been placed on the exterior of the Rainbow Warrior’s engine room and on its propeller blades. The explosive mechanisms had been placed there by two divers working for the Direction Generale de la Securite Exterieure (DGSE), France’s external intelligence service. Read more of this post

Pakistani ex-troops speak about secret infiltration of Indian Kashmir

1965 Indo-Pakistani WarFifty years after the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, Pakistani former soldiers have spoken for the first time about their role in a secret effort by Pakistan to infiltrate India and incite a Muslim uprising. The conflict between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir is largely rooted in Britain’s decision to partition its former colonial possession into mainly Hindu India and Pakistan, a mostly Muslim state. As soon as the British withdrew in 1947, the two states fought a bloody war that culminated in a violent exchange of populations and led to the partition of Kashmir. Today India controls much of the region, which, unlike the rest of the country, is overwhelmingly Muslim. Indian rule survived an uprising by some of the local population in August 1965, which led to yet another war between the two countries, known as the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War.

Although Pakistan refuses to confirm that it was behind the opening shots of the war, much historical research has focused on Operation GIBRALTAR, a secret project by the Pakistani military to infiltrate Indian-controlled Kashmir and prompt the local population to start a rebellion against Indian rule. It is believed that the plan was devised and supervised by Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik, a hawkish military leader who was close to Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s military dictator who served as the country’s second president, from 1958 to 1969. Operation GIBRALTAR involved the use of between 7,000 and 20,000 men who were trained by the Pakistani Army before being sent to infiltrate Indian Kashmir in the summer of 1965. Moving mostly at night in units of no more than 200 men, the armed infiltrators sabotaged Indian transportation and communication systems in order to prevent Indian Armed Forces units from reaching the region.

Several of these men, who are today in their 60s and 70s, have been speaking to the BBC and to Pakistani newspaper The Dawn about their role in Operation GIBRALTAR. Among them is Qurban Ali, 71, who told the BBC that most of the men in his unit of 180 infiltrators were civilian recruits. Another GIBRALTAR veteran, Mohammad Nazeer, 64, who was only 14 when he was recruited, said that he and his fellow soldiers thought they were practicing maneuvers when they were moved toward the Indian border. Interestingly, the infiltrators were unaware that hundreds of other Pakistani military units were also operating in secret in Indian Kashmir.

Eventually, India was able to deploy over 100,000 soldiers in the contested region, while few among the local Muslim population joined the infiltrators of Operation GIBRALTAR. After several weeks of fighting, the two sides entered negotiations held in Soviet Uzbekistan. The outcome was the Tashkent Agreement, under which both sides agreed to withdraw to the pre-August borders. However, the fate of Operation GIBRALTAR weakened the position of Pakistan’s President Khan. He was deposed in a popular uprising in 1969 and died in 1974, aged 66, allegedly a broken man.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2015 | Permalink

Israeli nuclear whistleblower recalls his 1986 capture by the Mossad

Mordechai VanunuIsraeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who spent 18 years in prison for revealing the existence of Israel’s nuclear program, has spoken for the first time about his 1986abduction by the Mossad in Rome. Vanunu was an employee at Israel’s top-secret Negev Nuclear Research Center, located in the desert city of Dimona, which was used to develop the country’s nuclear arsenal. But he became a fervent opponent of nuclear proliferation and in 1986 fled to the United Kingdom, where he revealed the existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the The Times of London. His action was in direct violation of the non-disclosure agreement he had signed with the government of Israel; moreover, it went against Israel’s official policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’, which means that the country refuses to confirm or deny that it maintains a nuclear weapons program.

Soon after Vanunu settled in London, the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad began making plans to capture him. The spy agency sent one of its American-born female officers, Cheryl Bentov, to befriend Vanunu. The decision was taken after Mossad psychologists determined that Vanunu was lonely and longed for female companionship. Masquerading as an American tourist by the name of ‘Cindy’, Bentov convinced Vanunu to go with her on Vacation to Rome, Italy. Soon after the couple arrived in the Italian capital, Vanunu was abducted by a Mossad team who injected him with a paralyzing drug before taking him away in a van. Vanunu was then transferred onboard the INS Noga, an Israeli signals-intelligence ship masquerading as a merchant vessel, which transported him to Israel. He was convicted to 18 years in prison and was released in 2004, after having spent 11 years in solitary confinement.

On Wednesday, Israel’s Channel 2 television showed excerpts of Vanunu’s first-ever interview to an Israeli media outlet. The interview, which is to be aired in full on Friday, includes Vanunu’s personal account of his capture by the Mossad. He told the interviewer that ‘Cindy’ first spoke to him as she walked alongside him while the two of them were crossing a London street. But he said that it was he who “initiated the relationship” with the woman posing as an American tourist. That was a critical moment in the whole process, said Vanunu, because “if she initiates you’ll suspect her”. The nuclear whistleblower insisted, however, that he did not “fall in love with her”, as some accounts of the Mossad operation have suggested, though he was “definitely attracted” to her, he said.

Vanunu added that the thought of ‘Cindy’ being a Mossad officer had initially crossed his mind; but he disregarded it and did not realize he was being tricked “until the very last moment”. He told Channel 2 that even after several days after his capture, he still believed that ‘Cindy’ had also been abducted. It was only later that he “reached the conclusion that she was part of the plan”, he said. At another point in the interview, Vanunu said that ‘Cindy’ was not the only Mossad officer who had tried to befriend him while he was in London, but that he was able to detect every other attempt by Israeli intelligence operatives.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 September 2015 | Permalink