French spy agencies conclude Assad government was behind Syria gas attack

Khan SheikhunA comprehensive report released yesterday by the French Intelligence Community concludes with certainty that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the April 4 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria. The report, a “national evaluation” based on France’s own intelligence sources and scientific analysis of samples collected from the site of the attack, indicates that the poison gas used in the attack came from stockpiles that belong to the Syrian government.

The sarin gas attack targeted Khan Sheikhun, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the southern region of Syria’s Idlib Governorate. The city is located on the main highway that connects the Syrian capital Damascus with the city of Aleppo in the north of the country. The surprise attack killed nearly 100 people and drew near-universal condemnation from the international community. It also sparked a military attack by the United States, which launched a missile attack at a Syrian military base from where the sarin gas attack allegedly originated.

On Wednesday, France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, announced the publication of a report, which, he said, proves conclusively that the Syrian government perpetrated the attack. The six-page declassified version of the report concludes that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians”. It alleges that the conclusion rests on “intelligence collected by our services”, which includes “samples from the scene of the attack”. The latter are reportedly identical with samples collected from sites of previous chemical attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government. Additionally, the French report concludes that the attack was conducted with the use of airplanes, which the Syrian rebel forces do not have.

The French intelligence report comes after a similar report from the United States concluded that Assad’s government was behind the attack on Khan Sheikhun. A few days after the attack, medical tests conducted on victims of the attack by Turkish experts showed that sarin gas had been used, but did not implicate a specific culprit. The Syrian and Russian governments deny all involvement in the attack and claim that it was carried out by al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 April 2017 | Permalink

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Same hacker group is targeting French and German elections, says report

Konrad Adenauer FoundationThe same group cyber-spies that attacked the campaign of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is now attacking German institutions that are connected to the country’s ruling coalition parties, according to a report by a leading cyber-security firm. The Tokyo-based security software company Trend Micro published a 41-page report on Tuesday, in which it tracks and traces the attacks against French and German political targets over the past two years. The report, entitled From Espionage to Cyber Propaganda: Pawn Storm’s Activities over the Past Two Years, concludes that the hackers are seeking to influence the results of the national elections in the European Union’s two most powerful nations, France and Germany.

The Trend Micro report focuses on a mysterious group that cyber-security experts have dubbed Pawn Storm —otherwise known as Sednit, Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy, and STRONTIUM. It says that the group has launched an aggressive phishing campaign against German political institutions, which has intensified in the past two months. The group allegedly set up fake computer servers in Germany and the Ukraine, and used them to try to infiltrate the computer networks of two elite German think-tanks, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAF) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FEF). The KAF is connected with the Christian Democratic Union party, which is led by Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The FEF has strong ties with the centrist Social Democratic Party, which is part of Germany’s governing alliance.

The report’s leading author, cyber-security expert Feike Hacquebord, told the Reuters news agency that the hackers were possibly seeking to infiltrate the two think-tanks as a means of gaining access to the two political parties that are connected with them. Some cyber-security experts in Europe and the United States have said that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, the country’s military intelligence agency, known as GRU, is behind the cyber-attacks on France, Germany and the United States. But the Trend Micro report did not attempt to place blame on Moscow or any other country for the cyber-attacks. The Kremlin has denied involvement with the alleged hacking operations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 April 2017 | Permalink

British tip helped French police foil ‘imminent’ terrorist attack

DGSEA tip from British intelligence helped French counterterrorist officials arrest two men who are thought to have been in the final stages of planning a large-scale terrorist attack, according to French media. Government sources in Paris say officers from the country’s domestic intelligence agency, DGSE, arrested two men on Monday. Both men are reportedly French citizens from France’s northern regions. They were residing in the southern port city of Marseilles, where they were arrested by the DGSE. They were later named as Merabet Mahiedine, 29, and Clement Baur, 23. It is alleged that Mahiedine has North African roots, but that Baur is a Caucasian convert to Islam. Both were allegedly known to French police for having repeatedly stated views in support of radical Islamist policies.

According to France’s Minister of the Interior, Matthias Fekl, the two men were planning to carry out a large-scale armed attack in Marseilles this week, which is the last before the long-awaited presidential election in the country. Some sources in the French intelligence community claim that the two men planned to kill one of the major candidates in the election. A number of reports suggest that their target was François Fillon, a conservative presidential candidate who served as Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 under President Nicolas Sarkozy. It is not known why Fillon may have been targeted, though some observers speculate that radical Islamists seek to promote the aspirations of Fillon’s main rival, the far-right candidate Marine LePen, whom they see as someone whose policies would further-radicalize Muslims in France and North Africa.

Reports in the French media state that DGSE officers confiscated several guns and significant quantities of bomb-making material that were found in an apartment belonging to one of the two men. Meanwhile, an aide to Mr. Fillon told the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro that the primary tip that led to the arrest of the two men in Marseilles came from British intelligence. The subsequent capture of the two men prevented an attack that would have almost certainly taken place “in the next couple of days”, according to sources in Paris.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 April 2017 | Permalink

French intelligence warn of Russian meddling in upcoming election

dgse franceFrance’s primary intelligence agency warned the country’s government this week that Russia has launched a secret operation to try to influence the outcome of the upcoming French presidential election in favor of the far right. According to the Paris-based weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné, France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) has notified the country’s leadership that a covert operation by the Kremlin is already underway, and is expected to intensify in the run-up to April’s election. The spy agency allegedly believes that Russian efforts aim to promote Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right National Front. Le Pen wants to curb immigration to France and remove the country from the European Union.

In an article published on Wednesday, Le Canard Enchaîné said the DGSE’s warning has alarmed the Élysée Palace. The paper also said that French President François Hollande, who chairs the country’s defense council, has decided to devote the entire agenda of the council’s next meeting to the subject of Russia’s alleged interference in the election. Anonymous sources told the paper that, according to a classified DGSE report, Russian spy agencies are using automated systems designed to “fill the Internet with tens of millions” of articles, images and memes that support the National Front candidate. Additionally, several news media that are controlled by Moscow will try to discredit Le Pen’s rivals for the presidency. At the same time, websites such as WikiLeaks —which some American commentators accuse of working with Moscow— will publish leaked information designed to damage Le Pen’s competitors.

The Le Canard Enchaîné allegations sound very similar to accusations leveled against the Kremlin by American intelligence agencies and by members of the United States Democratic Party. However, these allegations have not been supported by concrete evidence, and Russia denies that it had any involvement in last November’s presidential election in the US, which was won by Donald Trump.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 February | Permalink

French citizens killed in Malta plane crash were intelligence officers

MaltaDespite initial denials, it appears that at least three of the five French citizens who were killed in an airplane crash in Malta earlier this week were employees of the country’s external intelligence agency. The crash happened in the early hours of Monday near the village of Luqa in southern Malta. Early reports identified that the plane as a light aircraft and was carrying five French citizens when it crashed, shortly after taking off from the nearby Malta International Airport. Initial statements from Maltese and French government officials said the plane was on a local flight route and had not been scheduled to land outside of the Mediterranean island. The five passengers were identified in press statements as “customs officers” who were conducting a joint project with their Maltese counterparts.

Subsequent reports in the French media, however, said that at least three of the five French passengers who perished in the crash were officers of the General Directorate for External Security, France’s external intelligence agency, which goes by the initials DGSE. It is also believed that the airplane was registered in the United States and was operated by a Luxembourg-based company. Reports from Libya state that the plane’s mission is “shrouded in mystery”. Some articles suggest that it was heading to the city of Misrata in northern Libya, or that it may have been conducting a reconnaissance operation over the Mediterranean, aimed at gathering intelligence on smuggling activities originating from Libya.

The French intelligence services are known to be active on the ground in Libya, where several Sunni Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, control territory. In July of this year, Paris acknowledged for the first time that it had Special Forces and intelligence operatives in Libya, after three DGSE officers were killed in a helicopter crash in the North African country. The latest air crash was not preceded by an explosion, according to French media. The French government has launched an investigation into the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 October 2016 | Permalink

France’s ex-cyber spy chief speaks candidly about hacking operations

Bernard BarbierThe former director of France’s cyber spy agency has spoken candidly about the recent activities and current state of French cyber espionage, admitting for the first time that France engages in offensive cyber operations. Between 2006 and 2013, Bernard Barbier was director of the technical division of the General Directorate for External Security, France’s external intelligence agency, which is commonly known as DGSE. During his tenure at DGSE, the organization’s technical division witnessed unprecedented financial and administrative growth. Today it is said to employ over 2500 people, nearly half of DGSE’s total personnel.

Earlier this month, Barbier was interviewed on stage during a symposium held by the CentraleSupélec, a top French engineering university based in Paris. He spoke with surprising candor about France’s cyber espionage operations. In the first part of his interview, which can be watched on YouTube, he recounted the history of what he described as “France’s cyber army”. He said that France began to build “teams of hackers” in 1992. Around that time, the DGSE purchased an American-built Cray supercomputer, said Barbier, and soon discovered that it could use the machine’s immense computing power to break passwords. More recently, said the former cyber spy chief, the DGSE has been trying to “catch up” with its American and British counterparts, the National Security Agency and the Government Communications Headquarters, by increasing its annual budget to over half a billion and hiring hundreds of young hackers. Many of these new employees have little to no university education, said Barbier, and are instead self-taught, having started hacking in their teenage years.

Like most governments, France will not officially admit to conducting offensive cyber operations using computer hacking and other techniques. But Barbier said during his interview that France was behind an offensive cyber operation that targeted Iran in 2009. He added that the DGSE has also directed cyber operations against Canada, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Norway, as well as its European Union partners Spain and Greece. He also complained that French government executives do not understand the importance of cyber operations and are not aiming high enough when it comes to planning, direction and hiring. The DGSE’s technical division still needs between 200 and 300 more staff members, Barbier argued in his interview.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 September 2016 | Permalink

French government acknowledges it has special forces, spies, in Libya

French special forcesThe death of three French Special Forces soldiers in Libya has prompted the first public acknowledgement by France that its troops are involved in “dangerous intelligence operations” in the North African country. The acknowledgement was made on Wednesday in an official statement issued by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister of Defense. In the statement, Le Drian said he “regretted the loss of three French officers who expired while on mission in Libya”. The acknowledgement came less than 24 hours after the Associated Press news agency claimed that a helicopter carrying French troops had been shot down in Libya. The report quoted unnamed Libyan officials as saying that the helicopter had been shot down by an Islamist militia in the outskirts of the city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya.

Paris has previously acknowledged the presence of French warplanes in Libya, which it says are only involved in reconnaissance operations. It is also known that France has set up a forward operating base in Niger, close to the southern Libyan border. But the French government has never before acknowledged the presence of French troops or intelligence operatives on Libyan soil. During the uprising that deposed longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, there were persistent rumors of daring operations by French commandos and intelligence operatives, which were never confirmed. In February of this year, French newspaper Le Monde claimed that French troops and spies were active in Libya. In a leading article titled “France’s Secret War in Libya”, the French daily said that President François Hollande had secretly authorized operations by elite special forces and officers of the DGSE, France’s General Directorate for External Security. But France’s Defense Ministry refused to comment on Le Monde’s allegations, while Laurent Fabius, who was then France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied the newspaper’s claims, saying that France did not have the means to intervene militarily in Libya.

Speaking shortly after Wednesday’s disclosure by the Defense Ministry, President Hollande said the three special forces soldiers had died while “carrying out perilous intelligence operations” in Libya. In a subsequent interview on the Paris-based France Info Radio, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll admitted that French operatives are indeed active in Libya. Asked whether the Defense Ministry’s statement offered such an acknowledgement, Le Foll responded: “French special forces are [in Libya], naturally, to offer assistance and to ensure that France has a presence wherever the struggle against international terrorism is taking place”.

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