Iranians may have used female spy to ‘honey-trap’ dissident living in France

Ruhollah ZamThe Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure a leading Iranian dissident from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. Iranian authorities announced the arrest of Ruhollah Zam on October 15. On that day, Iranian state television aired a video showing a blindfolded Zam surrounded by officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Zam, 46, was a prominent online voice of dissent during the 2009 Green Movement, an Iranian youth-based reform campaign whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. He joined other young Iranians in launching AmadNews, a website whose stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran. Soon after its emergence, AmadNews became the online voice of the Green Movement. Following a brief period of detention in 2009, Zam fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People).

Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured in a “complicated intelligence operation” that used “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. But it did not provide further information about the method that was used to convince Zam to travel to Iraq, whose government is closely aligned with Iran’s. A few days ago, however, the London-based newspaper The Times claimed that the IRGC used a woman to gain Zam’s trust and lure him to Iraq.

Citing exiled Iranian activists that work closely with Zam, the British newspaper said that the woman entered his life nearly two years ago, thus pointing to a lengthy intelligence operation by the IRGC. Over time, she won his trust and eventually convinced him to travel to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. The reason for his trip was that, allegedly, the woman convinced him that Ali al-Sistani, one of the most prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq, had agreed to fund Zam’s online activities. However, the cleric needed to confer with the exiled dissident in person before agreeing to fund his work, according to the woman. It is not known whether Zam and the unnamed woman were romantically involved.

The Times also alleged that Zam’s abduction and arrest was met with “at least tacit approval” by the French intelligence services. The latter now expect that two French academics, who have remained imprisoned in Iran for alleged espionage activities for over a year, will be released as part of a swap with Zam.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran abducts France-based dissident in ‘complex intelligence operation’

Ruhollah ZamIranian authorities have announced the capture of a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. The kidnapped dissident is Ruhollah Zam, 46, son of  Mohammad-Ali Zam, a well-known reformist cleric who served in top Iranian government posts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But in 2009 the younger Zam distanced himself from this father and sided with the so-called Green Movement, whose leaders called for the toppling of the government in Tehran. Around that time, Zam was part of a group of Internet-savvy Iranians who launched AmadNews. The website’s stated purpose was “spreading awareness and seeking justice” in Iran, and it soon became the online voice of the Green Movement.

Zam was promptly arrested and jailed for urging Iranian protesters to topple the government. He was eventually released thanks to his father’s status and reputation. He quickly fled Iran and settled in France, from where he continued his online work through AmadNews and its successor, a website and Telegram channel called Seda-ye Mardom (Voice of the People). The Iranian government accuses Zam of inciting violence against the state and claim that his online agitation is funded by the intelligence services of countries like France, Israel and the United States.

On October 15, Iran’s state-owned media network aired a video showing a bound and blindfolded Zam surrounded by armed officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Iranian government announced that Zam had been captured following a “complicated intelligence operation” using “modern intelligence methods and innovative tactics” to lure Zam out of France and into the hands of the IRGC. It eventually emerged that Zam had flown from France to Jordan on October 11, and from there to Baghdad, Iraq, on October 12. He appeared to be under the impression that he would travel to the Iraqi city of Najaf in order to meet Ali al-Sistani, arguably the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq.

In the same video, Zam is shown sitting in an armchair next to an Iranian flag, making a statement. He calmly looks at the camera and says that he “fully regrets” his actions directed against Iran. He then says that he made the mistake of entrusting his security to the intelligence services of France. Finally, he warns other dissidents who are involved in agitation against the Iranian state to not trust foreign governments. He names the latter as “the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey”. Iranian officials have not responded to questions about Zam’s current status and fate.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 October 2019 | Permalink

French intelligence made secret deal with Palestinian militants, ex-spy chief claims

Goldenberg RestaurantFrance allowed Palestinian militants to operate freely on its soil in exchange for not carrying out terrorist attacks there, according to the former director of France’s domestic security service. The alleged deal was struck between the French government and a die-hard Palestinian militant group known as the Abu Nidal Organization, or ANO. The group’s official name was Fatah – The Revolutionary Council, but it was usually referred to by the name of its founder and leader, Abu Nidal. The group was formed in 1974 after a split in Fatah, the Palestinian armed group led by Yasser Arafat. Abu Nidal (real name Sabri Khalil al-Banna) accused Arafat and other senior officials of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of being conciliatory toward Israel. Eventually Abu Nidal moved to Iraq and declared war on Fatah and the PLO, accusing them of betraying the Palestinian cause.

Over the next 20 years, ANO carried out dozens of violent attacks that killed over 1500 people around the world, in countries such as Britain, Austria, Italy, Tunisia, Sudan, Turkey, Pakistan and India. The main targets of the ANO were Israel, the United States, and other Palestinian groups, which the group saw as deserters from the struggle for an independent Palestine. On August 9, 1982, ANO guerillas used grenades and machine guns to attack the Goldenberg Restaurant in Paris, France, killing six and wounding 22 people (pictured above). The attackers fled the scene of the crime and were never captured. It was only in 2015 that some former ANO members provided evidence about the terrorist attack to French magistrates, after having been granted immunity from prosecution. Based on these testimonies, the French government issued arrest warrants for three of the attackers who today live in Europe and Palestine. None, however, have been extradited to France to face justice.

The plot thickened last Thursday, however, when France’s Le Parisien newspaper reported excerpts of testimonies given to the magistrates who are investigating the Goldenberg Restaurant attack. One of the testimonies was allegedly provided by former spy Yves Bonnet, who directed the Directorate of Territorial Surveillance (DST) in the 1980s. Until 2008 the DST operated as the counterintelligence and counterterrorism wing of the French National Police. According to Le Parisien, Bonnet, now 83, said in his testimony that the DST struck a deal with Abu Nidal after 1982, which allowed them to continue to operate in France on the understanding that they would not carry out further terrorist attacks on French soil. “We made something of an oral agreement”, Bonnet is quoted as having told the magistrates. “I want no further attacks on French soil, and in return I will allow you to enter France and promise that you will face no harm”. The former spy added that the DST informed the chief of staff of France’s president at the time, François Mitterrand, about the secret deal. However, nothing about the agreement was ever recorded in official meeting minutes, he said. The agreement between the DST and Abu Nidal “was successful”, said Bonnet, as the group carried no more attacks on French soil after the attack on the Goldenberg Restaurant.

As can be expected, the allegations by Le Parisien angered France’s Jewish community. A committee representing the victims and affected families of the Goldenberg Restaurant attack said through its lawyer that, if true, Bonnet’s admission was “disgraceful”. The committee called on the French government to declassify all documents relating to exchanges between the French state and the Abu Nidal Organization.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 August 2019 | Permalink

France admits ownership of missiles found in Libyan rebels’ hands

FGM-148 JavelinThe French government has admitted that four anti-tank missiles found in a Libyan rebel camp belonged to its Special Forces units, but denied accusations that it deliberately breached the United Nations-imposed weapons embargo on Libya. Libya’s UN-recognized government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, announced in June that it discovered a cache of FGM-148 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles during a raid on a rebel camp. The camp belonged to forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a rogue Libyan warlord who is supported by a group of Western-led nations that includes the United States, France, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The GNA released photographs of the laser-guided missiles and their shipping containers, which showed that the weapons were property of the “Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates”. This appeared to constitute a clear breach of the UN-imposed weapons embargo on Libya, which has been in place since 2011. Last week, officials in Abu Dhabi said that the weapons did not belong to the Emirates, and claimed that the government of the oil kingdom was upholding the UN embargo on the North African country. On Tuesday, The New York Times cited anonymous French government sources, who said that Paris had purchased the four Javelin missiles from the US in 2010 for nearly $700,000. Finally, yesterday the French Armed Forces Ministry issued a statement admitting that it had indeed purchased the missiles from the US in 2010, and that they had been transferred to Libya for “the self-protection of a French military unit deployed to carry out counter-terrorism operations” there (incidentally, France does not officially have troops in Libya, so this statement is Paris’ second admission of the presence of French Special Forces in the country). The Ministry’s statement went on to claim that the missiles were “defective” and had been marked for destruction. The statement insisted that the missiles were not meant to be “transferred to local forces”. Instead, like all “damaged and unusable armaments, they were being temporarily stocked at a depot ahead of their destruction”, it said.

In 2017, two leading American experts, including a former special counsel for the US Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accused Haftar of having committed large-scale war crimes. Unfazed by such criticisms, Haftar launched a large-scale offensive in April of this year, with the aim of conquering Tripoli and ousting the GNA. Several UN reports have since indicated that Haftar’s forces are secretly supported by several Western countries, Israel, Egypt and the Emirates, but this is denied by officials from those countries. In April of this year, a number European Union member states led by Italy criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiating table.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 July 2019 | Permalink

French spy agency summons reporters, prompting press-freedom concerns

DGSI FranceFrance’s domestic intelligence agency has summoned eight journalists for questioning in relation to two separate investigative reports, prompting concerns about press freedom, according to reports from Paris. Last month, France’s domestic security and counter- intelligence agency, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), summoned three journalists for questioning. The summonses related to a leaked document that detailed the use of French-made weapons in the Yemeni Civil War. The 15-page document was prepared by France’s main military intelligence agency, the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DRM). It was reportedly meant to be read only by France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, and senior members of his security cabinet, including ministers. However, the report was leaked to the media and published in full. The leaked report revealed that a significant amount of French-made weapons are being used by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in the Yemeni Civil War. The weapons allegedly include laser-guided missile systems and armored vehicles, as well as tanks, which the Saudi-led coalition is deploying against Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen.

On Wednesday, new summonses were issued for five more reporters, including two senior members of staff of Le Monde, which, along with Libération, and Le Figaro, is one of France’s newspapers of record. One of the reporters who have been summoned by DGSI is senior Le Monde reporter Ariane Chemin, who in 2018 broke a story about Alexandre Benalla, a senior security aide to President Macron. Benalla is believed to have illegally participated in a scuffle with ‘yellow vest’ protesters while wearing police riot gear in 2018. Subsequent reports in Libération linked Benalla with a questionable state contract handed out to a security company owned by a Russian oligarch. The reports centered on a former officer in the French Air Force named Chokri Wakrim, who some say facilitated Benalla’s contacts with the Russian’s company. An official anti-corruption investigation was sparked by these revelations. But in April of this year, Wakrim filed a complaint against the press, claiming that his identification in the media broke legal statutes that forbid the “revelation of the identity of a member of the [French] special forces”. This counter-complaint, according to reports from Paris, is what prompted Wednesday’s five new summonses by the DGSI.

On Thursday, nearly 40 French media outlets issued a joint statement in support of those journalists who were summoned by DGSI. The statement condemns the summonses an attack on press freedom and as “a new attempt by authorities to circumvent” France’s laws on freedom of the press and the protection of sources, which date back to 1881. In reference to the Wakrim case, the statement goes on to say that “military secrecy cannot restrict the right to information, which is essential for informed public debate, nor can it be [used] to deter [journalists] from investigating and publishing”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 May 2019 | Permalink

Italy rebukes France for blocking EU resolution calling for end to Libyan war

khalifa haftarSeveral European Union member states, led by Italy, have criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. The latest round of hostilities was sparked by an all-out attack by a group calling itself the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011, following an uprising that toppled Gaddafi, Haftar returned to Libya and launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Last week, Haftar launched an all-out attack to defeat the GNA and take Tripoli —a move that many observers have been expecting for several months. With the LNA receiving substantial military assistance from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, most observers expected that Haftar would be the ruler of Tripoli within days. But his troops were unexpectedly pushed back by GNA troops on Monday, and have been unable to enter Tripoli from the south, as was their initial plan. Meanwhile the EU attempted on Wednesday to issue a joint statement calling on all warring sides to put down their weapons and enter into negotiations. But France blocked the draft statement, prompting heavy criticism.

On Thursday, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini criticized France for blocking the EU statement “for economic and commercial reasons” and warned that he would “not stand by and watch” France continue to support “a party that is fighting” in the Libyan Civil War. Salvini expressed the view that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military intervention in Libya in 2011, which was strongly supported by France, was “triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns”. Unlike France, which has been a strong supporter of Haftar, Italy backs the UN-supported GNA and Libya’s legitimate Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.

In 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle. The Libyan warlord denies these charges against him.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 April 2019 | Permalink

French ex-spy accused of plot to assassinate Congolese politician found dead in Alps

Lucinges FranceA former paramilitary officer in the French intelligence service, who was under investigation for allegedly plotting to kill a senior Congolese opposition figure, has been shot dead near a village in the French Alps. Daniel Forestier, 57, served for nearly 15 years in a paramilitary unit of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) —France’s equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. After his retirement from the DGSE, he moved with this wife and two children to the alpine village of Lucinges, near Geneva, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France. He reportedly operated a tobacconist shop, served in the village council, and wrote spy novels in his spare time.

Last September, however, a judge placed Forestier under a pre-trial investigation for allegedly participating in a plot to kill General Ferdinand Mbahou. From 1992 to 1997 Mbahou (a.k.a. Mbaou) served as Director of Presidential Security in the Republic of the Congo. In 1997, Mbahou fled the country along with his employer, President Pascal Lissouba, who was ousted in a brutal civil war by militias loyal to Colonel Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congolese Labor Party. From his new home in Val d’Oise, just outside of Paris, Mbahou has continued to criticize Colonel Sassou Nguesso, who is the current president of the Republic of the Congo. Forestier and another former DGSE officer, Bruno Susini, were accused of having hatched a plan to kill Mbahou. Their indictment mentioned “participation in a criminal organization” and “possession of explosives”. Forestier reportedly told the magistrate that he was a member of a group that planned to assassinate Mbahou, but that he abandoned the effort after conducting reconnaissance and realizing that the plan was “impractical”.

Forestier’s body was discovered on Wednesday “in a pool of blood” in a parking lot in Haute-Savoie, an alpine resort area on the shores of Lake Geneva. According to a police report, he had been shot five times in the chest and head in what public prosecutor Philippe Toccanier described as “a professional job”. He added that Forestier’s killing was “almost undoubtedly […] a settling of scores”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 March 2019 | Permalink