US spies confirm Qatar’s claims that its media were hacked by Emirates to spark crisis

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-ThaniAmerican officials appear to confirm Qatar’s allegations that its news media were hacked by its Gulf adversaries, who then used the fake news posted by hackers to launch a massive campaign against it. Tensions between Qatar and other Muslim countries have risen since late May, when the country’s state-controlled news agency appeared to publish an incendiary interview with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. In the interview, which appeared on May 24, the sheikh appeared to praise Saudi regional rival Iran as a “great Islamic power” and to express support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas. On the following day, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain immediately banned all Qatari media —primarily Al Jazeera— from broadcasting in their territories and broke diplomatic relations with Doha. Later on, they declared a large-scale commercial embargo against the small oil kingdom. They have since threatened war unless Qatar changes its alleged support for Iran and for a number of militant groups in the region.

The Qatari government has dismissed the embargo as unjust and has claimed that Sheikh al-Thani’s controversial interview was fake, and was placed on the country’s state-owned news agency and social media as a result of a computer hack. It has also claimed to have evidence of a number of iPhones that were used from locations in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch the hacks on its networks. Qatari officials have also said that an investigation into the incident is underway, but their claims have been criticized as outlandish by Qatar’s regional rivals.

Now, however, a report by The Washington Post claims that American officials have uncovered evidence that Qatar’s allegations of a computer hack are true. The paper cited “US intelligence and other officials” who spoke “on the condition of anonymity”. The officials said that US intelligence agencies recently became aware of a meeting of senior UAE state administrators that took place on May 23 in Abu Dhabi. At the meeting, the officials discussed a plan to hack Qatari news websites and social media, in order to post incendiary messages that could be used to spark a row between Qatar, the Saudi government and its allies. The alleged computer hacks is reported to have taken place on the following day. According to The Post, the only thing that US intelligence is unsure about is “whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done” by a third party.

The Post said that several US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, refused to comment on its report. The paper received a response from the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, which said that the Emirates had “no role whatsoever in the alleged hacking described in the article”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2017 | Permalink

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Russia allegedly planning to expel 30 American diplomats in a few weeks

US embassy in MoscowRussia is planning to expel approximately 30 American diplomats from its territory, and seize buildings and property belonging to the United States Department of State, according to Russian media reports. The expulsions will be in response to the expulsion last December of 35 Russian diplomats stationed in the US by the administration of President Barack Obama. In addition to expelling the diplomats, Washington also reclaimed two “recreational facilities” (in reality intelligence outposts) that were used by the Russians in New York and Maryland. The White House said that the expulsions were ordered in response to alleged efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.

Observers, including the present author, were confident at the time that the Kremlin would respond in kind. In a surprising move, however, the Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not respond to Mr. Obama’s move, in the hope that US-Russian relations would improve with the arrival of the new president in the White House. He added that Russia reserved the right to retaliate at a later time. Moscow’s response was met with praise by the then-president-elect Donald Trump and his transition team.

But Russia’s hopes for warmer relations with the US under Mr. Trump’s leadership do not seem to be materializing. A recent article in the daily Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the Kremlin thought it was “outrageous” that the Trump White House had not yet returned the two seized compounds to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and not rescinded the expulsions of the 35 diplomats and their families. It also claimed that President Putin raised the issue with his US counterpart during their July 7 meeting in the German city of Hamburg. The Moscow-based newspaper quoted unnamed senior Russian officials, who said that Russia was preparing to expel dozens of American diplomats and seize US diplomatic facilities soon.

It appears that Russia will wait until the upcoming meeting between the US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, which has been scheduled for later this month in St. Petersburg. If no US assurances for the return of the compounds and diplomats are made at that time, Moscow will proceed with its tit-for-tat plan. When asked about Izvestia’s article, the Russian Minster of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, replied that the Kremlin was “weighing specific measures” in response to last December’s expulsions of Russian diplomats from the US. However, Mr. Lavrov said he did not want to elaborate at the present time, while also refusing to deny the newspaper’s allegations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2017 | Permalink

Ex-CIA contractor says Pakistan’s leaders helped him escape murder charges

Raymond Allen DavisA former contractor for the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was released from a Pakistani prison in 2011 despite being implicated in a double murder there, says he was freed with the help of senior Pakistani officials. Raymond Allen Davis was a CIA contractor posted in the US consulate in Pakistan’s Punjabi capital, Lahore, which is also the country’s second-largest city. It has been suggested that, for a while, Davis was the CIA’s acting station chief in Lahore, thus technically the most senior American intelligence officer in Punjab.

On January 27, 2011, while driving in downtown Lahore, Davis opened fire against two men riding on a motorcycle, killing them instantly. Soon after the incident, Davis appears to have contacted the US consulate in Lahore, which rapidly dispatched a consular vehicle to remove him from the scene of the shooting. However, the vehicle was unable to reach Davis, who was surrounded by an angry crowd. Unable to pick up Davis, the car then returned to the consulate after running down and killing a motorcyclist who was unconnected with the earlier incident. Eventually Davis was arrested and charged with double murder and illegal possession of a firearm. The Pakistani government dismissed Washington’s assertion that Davis was an accredited diplomat, and was thus not subject to Pakistan’s legal system because of his diplomatic immunity. With public opinion in Pakistan heavily against Davis, the case sparked a diplomatic crisis between Washington and Islamabad. Unexpectedly, however, Davis was released in March of the same year, after the families of the two men he killed appeared in court and said they forgave him and wanted him to be pardoned. It later emerged that the families of the murdered men had been given a total of $2.4 million as compensation for their deaths.

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German intelligence agency spied on thousands of targets in the United States

BND GermanyThe foreign intelligence service of Germany spied on at least 4,000 targets in the United States from 1998 until 2006, according to a leaked document published yesterday by leading German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. The German investigative weekly said that the surveillance was carried out by the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND. The Hamburg-based magazine claimed to have in its possession a list of approximately 4,000 “selector keywords”, unique distinguishing terms, addresses or numbers that identify individual targets for surveillance. The list allegedly includes names, telephone or fax numbers, and email addresses of people that the BND had identified as worthy of individual attention between 1998 and 2006.

According to Der Spiegel, the list of targets in the United States includes officials in the White House, the Department of the Treasury and the Department of State. Their work and private phone numbers, and often emails, are listed in the BND document. The latter also focuses on the American military sector, paying particular attention to the US Air Force and the Marine Coprs. Other targets include the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the US Pentagon’s intelligence organization. In addition to US government targets, the BND exercised surveillance on American companies with ties to the state, such as Lockheed Martin, as well as state-owned universities. The leaked list also includes targets in international organizations that have an institutional presence in the US, such as the International Monetary Fund and the Arab League, which has an office in Washington. Hundreds of foreign embassies and consulates in the US were also targeted, said Der Spiegel.

German-American relations suffered a major setback in 2013, when it was revealed that Washington had spied on the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In response to the revelations, Germany expelled the Central Intelligence Agency’s station chief in Berlin —the most senior American intelligence officer in the country. It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s revelations will affect the current relations between the two transatlantic allies. Neither the BND nor the US embassy in Berlin responded to questions about Der Spiegel‘s report.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 June 2017 | Permalink

Former head of Qatar spy agency sides with Saudis in diplomatic quarrel

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani with US President Donald Trump A former director of Qatar’s intelligence agency broke ranks with the government of Qatar and accused Doha of supporting terrorism. He also warned that the United States, which has a base in Qatar, would not allow the presence of foreign troops there.

Tensions between Qatar and other predominantly Muslim countries rose dangerously in recent weeks. The crisis erupted soon after Qatar’s state-controlled news agency published an interview with the country’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, in which he appeared to praise Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia’s primary regional adversaries. Despite protestations by the Saudi government, the Qatari emir then contacted Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, to congratulate him on his reelection, a move that was interpreted as adversarial by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia also feels threatened by Al Jazeera, a Qatari-based television network with worldwide reach, which is often critical of the Gulf’s oil monarchies other than Qatar.

Last week, Saudi Arabia and 16 other predominantly Muslim countries, including Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, announced a series of diplomatic, commercial and military sanctions on Qatar. The sanctions are ostensibly designed to curtail the country’s alleged support for international terrorism. Riyadh and its allies accuse Doha of secretly supporting militant groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Hamas and the Taliban, among others. Currently all sea, air and land connections between these 16 countries and Qatar have been suspended, while no diplomatic relations exist between them. The tense situation has prompted some analysts to describe the diplomatic crisis as the worst in the Gulf region since the 1991 Gulf War.

In response to the diplomatic boycott, the government of Qatar said last week that it would invite military personnel from three of its allies, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, to protect its territory. But the former director of Qatar’s intelligence service said in an interview on Monday that Qatar’s threat would not materialize. Read more of this post

Turkish diplomats stepping up espionage in Europe, claims German report

Turkish embassy in GermanyTurkish state agencies have asked the country’s diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in an effort to identify those opposed to the government, according to a German report. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses members of the so-called Gülen movement of orchestrating a military coup in July of last year, which resulted in an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey. The Gülen movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims that its members have stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the Erdoğan government has now tasked its diplomats stationed abroad to engage in intelligence collection targeting alleged Gülen sympathizers. The report cited “a confidential analysis by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution” (BfV), Germany’s counterintelligence agency. The analysis allegedly states that Turkish diplomats are now conducting systematic espionage activities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and other Western European countries. The BfV report allegedly claims that much of the espionage conducted by Turkish diplomats is directed by the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate, known as Diyanet. The agency is seen as the institutional guardian of Turkey’s Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. It provides schools with religious education that is carefully tailored to be compatible with the country’s secular constitution, and trains the country’s imams, who are employed by the state. Der Spiegel claimed on Monday that Diyanet has asked its religious representatives stationed in Europe to look for Gülen sympathizers. According to the German newsmagazine, information is now pouring in from Turkey’s embassies and consulates. It includes names of individuals, as well as student groups, cultural organizations, schools and day-care centers that are seen as not sufficiently critical of the Gülen movement. Der Spiegel said it had seen a report sent to Diyanet by the Turkish embassy in Berne, Switzerland, which warned that many Gülenists had left Turkey and were now operating in Switzerland.

Late last summer, Der Spiegel claimed that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and asked for assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. The BND reportedly refused to cooperate with the request. Another German news outlet, Die Welt, cited an unnamed German security official who said that the MİT employed more operatives in Germany than the East German spy agency did at the height of the Cold War.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2017 | Permalink

Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia breaks silence to warn of spies

Chen YonglinA Chinese diplomat, who made international news headlines in 2005 when he defected to Australia, has ended a decade of silence to warn about an alleged increase in Chinese espionage operations against his adopted country. Chen Yonglin was a seasoned member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in 2001, when he was posted as a political affairs consul at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, Australia. His job was to keep tabs on the Chinese expatriate community in Australia, with an emphasis on individuals and organizations deemed subversive by Beijing. He later revealed that his main preoccupation was targeting members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which is illegal in China. He also targeted supporters of Taiwanese independence, as well as Tibetan and East Turkestan nationalists who were active on Australian soil.

But in 2005, Chen contacted the Australian government and said that he wanted to defect, along with his spouse and six-year-old daughter. He was eventually granted political asylum by Canberra, making his the highest-profile defection of a Chinese government employee to Australia in over half a century. During a subsequent testimony given to the Parliament of Australia, Chen said that he was in contact with Australian intelligence and was giving them information about alleged Chinese espionage activities. He said at the time that China operated a network of over 1,000 “secret agents and informants” in Australia. Chen distinguished agents and informants from Chinese intelligence officers, most of whom were stationed in Chinese diplomatic facilities.

Chen, who now works as a businessman, disappeared from the public limelight after his defection. But last weekend, he reappeared after a decade of obscurity and gave an interview to ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster. The ABC journalist reminded Chen that in 2005 he had estimated the number of Chinese agents and informants operating in Australia at 1,000, and asked him how many he thought were active today. Chen responded that an increase in the number is certain, given that “China is now the wealthiest government in the world”. That meant, said Chen, that Beijing has the funds that are necessary to maintain “a huge number of spies” in Australia. However, the former diplomat said that most Chinese agents are “casual informants”, not trained spies, and that they are dormant for long periods of time in between operations.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 November 2016 | Permalink