Egypt president removes spy officials following damning human-rights report

Abdel Fatah al-SisiSeventeen senior Egyptian intelligence officials were summarily removed from their posts hours after the government’s human-rights monitoring body issued a damning report of violations by security agencies. The removal of the officers was announced on Sunday in the official journal of the Egyptian government, in an article that bore the signature of Egypt’s President, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. It listed the names of 17 senior officers of Egypt’s feared General Intelligence Directorate (GID). The article said the 17 would go into early retirement “based on their own requests”, but provided no information on the reasons why they allegedly asked to retire as a group, or who will replace them.

The announcement of the intelligence officers’ removal came shortly after the publication of the annual report on the state of human rights in Egypt by the country’s official government monitoring organization. Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights said in its 2016 report, published over the weekend, that the rights of citizens have “not yet become a priority for the state”. It added that the state of human rights in Egypt remains alarmingly poor despite the adoption of the country’s new constitution in 2014. Egyptian and international rights monitoring organizations claim that as many as 60,000 people have been arrested for political reasons since 2013, when the military overthrew the government of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, following months of protests against his administration.

Focusing on the period between April 2015 and March of this year, the report lists over 260 cases of enforced disappearances of individuals, of which 143 remain under what is termed by the authorities “pretrial detention”. The report further notes that “pretrial detention”, which is often indefinite, has become “a punishment in itself”, and points out that the numbers of prisoners currently held pretrial detention centers exceed their capacity three times over. Consequently, pretrial detainees are forced to “take turns sleeping due to lack of space”, says the report. It also criticizes Egypt’s security and intelligence services for failing to curb the use of torture, which remains widespread despite its condemnation by the government and the conviction of several police and security officers who were found to have tortured detainees to death.

The removal of the 17 senior GID officers highlights the embattled state and internal divisions that continue to plague the Sisi administration, two years after the military strongman assumed power in the country, following a military coup. His administration has focused largely on a violent crackdown against the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which includes the imposition of death sentences on hundreds of thousands of people who were convicted in mass trials. Sisi’s legitimacy is disputed by the Muslim Brotherhood —arguably Egypt’s most popular social movement— and secularist reformers, who boycotted en masse the election that propelled him to the presidency. Sisi won with 97 percent of the vote in a heavily boycotted ballot that was reminiscent of the staged elections held by longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, however, Sisi is facing challenges from within the military and intelligence services, which some believe may be planning another coup. In June 2014, a less than a month after taking office, SIS replaced 14 senior GID officials. He fired another 11 a year later, while 13 more were forced to retire last December.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 July 2016 | Permalink

 

Terrorism most likely cause of EgyptAir disaster, despite no ‘smoking gun’

EgyptAirEgypt’s aviation minister has joined the head of Russia’s domestic security service, unnamed US intelligence sources, as well as a host of aviation security experts, in seeing terrorism as the most likely cause behind the EgyptAir MS804 air disaster. That is despite the absence of a clear ‘smoking gun’ and silence from the Islamic State, which leads many to still caution that the possibility of an accident should not be ruled out. The regularly scheduled flight departed Paris, France, late on Wednesday, heading for Cairo, Egypt. But it disappeared from radar screens just minutes after entering Egyptian airspace and is now believed to have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea.

On Thursday, Egypt’s Minster of Aviation, Sherif Fathi, told reporters that, when carefully weighing what is known about the plane’s disappearance, “the possibility of having a different action or a terror attack is higher than the possibility of having a technical failure”. He was soon joined by Alexander Bortnikov, Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, who said that Wednesday’s air disaster was “in all likelihood” caused by an act of terrorism. Asked by reporters if the FSB had evidence pointing to a terrorist attack on the plane, Bortnikov refused to comment.

Also on Thursday, the American network CBS cited an unnamed “US intelligence source” familiar with US investigations into EgyptAir MS804, who said that “all indicators” were that “a catastrophic event took down the airplane”. The network added that American investigators were leaning toward the possibility of an explosion onboard the aircraft because of its chaotic flight path in the moments before its disappearance from radar screens. Additionally, US government sources noted that the aircraft descended “like a rock”, at extremely high speed, which also pointed to a sudden, catastrophic event. In contrast, aircraft engine failure typically results in a much lower rate of descent. Citing “two US government officials” CNN network reported that Washington was operating on the assumption that the EgyptAir flight had been “taken down by a bomb”, despite the absence of a “smoking gun”. Conflicting reports indicated that US reconnaissance satellites did not register evidence of an explosion or flash in the eastern Mediterranean around the time that the jetliner disappeared. However, it was also noted that US satellites monitoring the region were “not calibrated to detect explosions”.

In France, the former director of the country’s Bureau of Investigation and Analysis for Aviation Security (BAE), Jean-Paul Troadec, said that the possibility of an accident was unlikely. “It’s a modern plane, the incident happened in mid-flight in extremely stable conditions. The quality of the maintenance and the quality of the plane are not in question in this incident”, he told Europe 1 Radio, adding that EgyptAir was authorized to operate out of European airports, so “it is not on any blacklist”. Another expert that weighed in on Thursday was CNN’s aviation correspondent Richard Quest. He told the network that, in today’s aviation environment, “planes just do not fall out of the sky for no reason, particularly at 37,000 feet”, adding that the EgyptAir jetliner disappeared while in cruising mode, which is typically the safest segment of any airborne journey.

Meanwhile, intelligence and security services in the Middle East, Europe and the US have been searching for evidence of a claim of responsibility issued by a group such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. There are also searches taking place to determine whether cellular or online ‘chatter’ from sources associated with terrorist groups has changed in volume or intensity, but so far no obvious signs of a change have been spotted, according to reports. The last time the Islamic State downed an airplane was when it targeted Metrojet Flight 9268, owned by Russian holiday tour operator Kogalymavia, over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The militant group quickly assumed responsibility for the attack, then 20 days later revealed photographs of the bomb that caused the fatal blast.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2016 | Permalink

EgyptAir Flight MS804: Was it a terrorist attack?

EgyptAir MS804In the early hours of Thursday, May 19, EgyptAir, Egypt’s national airline carrier, announced via Twitter that flight MS804 had vanished from the radar. The regularly scheduled flight had departed Paris, France, on time at 11:09 p.m. and had been scheduled to arrive in Egyptian capital Cairo at 3:05 local time. The airplane, an Airbus A320-232, was carrying 59 passengers and 10 crew. According to reports, the airplane disappeared over the eastern Mediterranean, southeast of the island of Crete.

Was this a terrorist attack? It will be several hours before this question can be conclusively answered. However, there are some early indicators that can help shed some light on the incident.

1. What has happened to the plane? The plane has almost certainly crashed into the sea. It has now been five hours since it disappeared from the radar. The eastern Mediterranean is not like the vast Indian Ocean, where Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 literally disappeared in March 2014, never to be found. In the case of EgyptAir MS804, if the plane had landed at a regional airport, the sighting would have been reported immediately —even if it was in rebel-held Syrian regions, or Islamic State-controlled territory in Iraq.

2. If the plane has indeed crashed, what brought it down? The possibility of a mechanical failure cannot be excluded. However, the plane is relatively new; it was built in France in 2003 and is less than 13 years old, which may mean that a serious mechanical failure is relatively unlikely. Additionally, weather conditions over the eastern Mediterranean were reportedly “clear and calm” at the time when the plane vanished from the radar. Last but not least, it must be stressed that there was reportedly no distress call made by the pilots or crew before the flight disappeared from radar screens. Which brings us to the next question, namely:

3. Was this a terrorist attack? American and European intelligence agencies, including France’s own DGSE, have warned repeatedly in previous weeks that the Islamic State was “planning new attacks […] and that France [was] clearly targeted”. The Islamic State is currently one of very few terrorist organizations that have the technical expertise and momentum to compromise security measures at a European airport. Moreover, the Islamic State has declared war on France, has attacked the country numerous times, and has stated repeatedly that it intends to continue and even intensify itsQ Quote efforts. The group has remained silent since early this morning, when EgyptAir announced the disappearance of flight MS804. However, it typically waits for several hours, and sometimes days, before assuming responsibility for high-profile attacks.

4. If it was a terrorist attack, how was the plane brought down? It is important to note that the plane is believed to have been flying at 37,000 feet when it vanished from radar screens. This means that, assuming that a non-state actor caused the aircraft’s disappearance, the attack must have been perpetrated from inside the plane. At least three of the 10-member crew are believed to be armed security guards. If that is the case, a team of hijackers would have to have been sizeable enough and sufficiently armed to overpower three armed security guards. What is more likely is that a bomb may have been planted on the plane, either in Paris or Cairo (the plane was returning to Cairo, having left from there for Paris earlier on Wednesday). The last time that the Islamic State assumed responsibility for downing an airliner, it did so by planting a bomb aboard the plane with the help of a ground worker in Egypt who had secretly joined the militant group.

5. If it was a terrorist attack, what does it mean? Should the Islamic State assume responsibility for this attack, it will make it increasingly difficult for France —and possibly other Western European nations— to resist putting boots on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, if a bomb was planted on the plane at Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport, it will mean that the Islamic State, or possibly another militant group, has found a way to beat what are perhaps the most stringent airline travel security measures in all of Europe. It could be that the group behind this possible terrorist attack has found a unique and thus far unforeseen way to defeat the latest technological measures used to secure airline travel. Such a possibility could spell even more massive changes for the world’s airline industry, which is already reeling from all sorts of financial and administrative pressures in the post 9/11 era.

Portuguese appeals court orders extradition of ex-CIA officer to Italy

Sabrina De SousaAn appeals court in Portugal has ruled that a former officer of the Central Intelligence Agency is to be extradited to Italy, where she faces charges of helping kidnap a man as part of a secret operation sponsored by the United States government. Sabrina De Sousa, 59, was an accredited diplomat stationed at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, in 2003, when a CIA team kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured, raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him. They were able to trace the American operatives through the substantial trail of evidence that they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. Since the convictions were announced, the US government has not signaled a desire to extradite those convicted to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested at the Portela Airport in Lisbon, Portugal, in October of last year. She spent two nights in jail before being released. However, her passport was seized by Portuguese authorities until they decided whether to extradite her to Italy to face her conviction. After a decision was made to extradite De Sousa, her lawyers filed an appeal. Last week, however, her appeal was denied, which means that she is to be extradited after May 4. It appears that De Sousa will now have to travel to Italy in order to be given official notice of her conviction, as well as the sentence, according to European legal conventions. Following that, she will probably have to return to Portugal to serve her sentence. Her lawyer said, however, that De Sousa plans to challenge her conviction at the Supreme Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court of appeal.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 April 2016 | Permalink


Israel, Egypt, Jordan, enter ‘unprecedented’ intelligence-sharing agreement

Yair GolanThe governments of Israel, Egypt and Jordan have entered an intelligence-sharing agreement aimed at joining forces against the Islamic State, which a senior Israeli military commander has described as “unprecedented”. The comment was made on Wednesday by Major General Yair Golan at a press conference hosted by Israel’s Foreign Press Association. General Golan has been serving as Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces since late 2014.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, General Golan said that intelligence was “the most important element in the whole system” when fighting an insurgency of the kind that the Islamic State is conducting in the Middle East. He went on to point out that Egypt is currently engaged in a war against Islamic State forces in the Sinai Peninsula, while “Jordan is terrified by the presence of the Islamic State in [its] cities and towns”. At the same time, Israel tries to “work with them in order to contribute something to their security”, he added, referring to Egypt and Jordan.

The two nations represent the only Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state. A peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was signed in 1979, whereas a similar agreement was struck between Israel and Jordan 15 years later, in 1994. General Golan cited the peace treaties between the three nations as the basis for the intelligence-sharing agreement. But he added that he would not describe the latter as “some sort of reconciliation” between Israel and the people of Egypt and Jordan. However, the agreement is “a good starting point”, he said, adding that he is “quite optimistic” about the future of Israel’s relations with Jordan and Egypt.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 April 2016 | Permalink

European court of human rights censures Italy over CIA abduction case

Abu Omar NasrEurope’s highest human rights court has ruled against Italy in the case of an Egyptian man who was abducted from Milan in 2003 by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, is a former member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, an Islamist group founded in the 1970s, which aimed to overthrow the Egyptian government and replace it with an Islamic regime. Members of the group have been implicated in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, as well as in numerous attacks on tourist facilities in Egypt in the 1990s. Once al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya was declared illegal in Egypt, Italian authorities offered Nasr political asylum, after he successfully argued that he would be subject to torture if arrested in Egypt.

But in 2003, the CIA, which believed that Nasr was involved with al-Qaeda-linked groups in Europe, abducted him from Milan in broad daylight. After his abduction, Nasr was delivered by the CIA to Egyptian authorities under Washington’s “extraordinary rendition” program. He was then imprisoned in Egypt for four years without trial. Following his release in 2008, Nasr said he was brutally tortured and raped by his Egyptian captors and was never given access to a lawyer. Regular readers of intelNews will recall that the Nasr abduction prompted international headlines after an Italian court convicted 23 Americans and two Italians for Nasr’s kidnapping. The American defendants, most of whom are believed to be CIA officers, were tried in absentia. Washington has since refused to extradite them to Italy.

On Tuesday, Italy was found guilty of human rights violations in the Nasr case by the European Court of Human Rights, the highest court of justice sanctioned by the Council of Europe. The court said that the Italian state imposed “the principle of state secrecy […] in order to ensure that those responsible [for Nasr’s abduction] did not have to answer for their actions”. Consequently, those responsible for the abduction were “ultimately […] granted immunity”, said the court, implying that the Italian executive sabotaged the Italian trial in order to allow for the alleged CIA officers to escape justice. The court also ordered Italy to pay Nasr €115,000 ($127,000) in restitution.

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

Portugal court rules to extradite ex-CIA officer wanted in Italy for kidnapping

Sabrina De SousaA court in Portugal has ruled to extradite a former officer of the United States Central Intelligence Agency to Italy, where she faces charges of kidnapping a man as part of a secret operation. Sabrina De Sousa, 59, was an accredited diplomat stationed at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, in 2003, when a CIA team kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured, raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him. They were able to trace the American operatives through the substantial trail of evidence that they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. Since the convictions were announced, the US government has not signaled a desire to extradite those convicted to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested at the Portela Airport in Lisbon, Portugal, in October of last year. She spent two nights in jail before being released. However, her passport was seized by Portuguese authorities until they decided whether to extradite her to Italy to face her conviction. The Reuters news agency said on Friday that De Sousa would “be surrendered to Italian authorities” so that she could be informed of the Italian court’s decision to convict her in 2009. The news agency was reportedly told by a Portuguese court official that De Sousa would have to travel to Italy in order to be given official notice of her conviction, as well as the sentence, according to European legal conventions. Following that, she would have to return to Portugal to serve her sentence. Her lawyer said, however, that De Sousa planned to challenge her conviction at the Supreme Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court of appeal.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2016 | Permalink

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