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

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.

France seizes ship with ‘hundreds of weapons’ heading for Yemen

Combined Maritime ForcesThe United States says a ship carrying hundreds of weapons, which was captured by the French Navy in the Indian Ocean, originated from Iran, and that the cargo was destined for Yemeni rebels through Somalia. The ship was seized on March 20 by a French warship patrolling the Indian Ocean as part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). The CMF is a multinational naval fleet that aims to implement United Nations sanctions on Somalia. The sanctions are designed to frustrate the activities of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group, and to put an end to maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa.

The ship carrying the weapons is believed to have been initially spotted by a French helicopter that was conducting surveillance flights in support of CMF’s mission. Soon after boarding the ship, French forces discovered large amounts of weaponry. A statement posted on the CMF website said that the ship was found to be carrying “several hundred AK47 assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons”. The French Ministry of Defense said that the vessel was not registered to any country and that the crew of 10 was multinational. All crew members were released after being questioned by their French captors.

An assessment of the ship’s capture by the US Department of Defense states that the arms shipment probably originated in Iran and that it was heading to Somalia. However, the most likely final destination of the cargo was not al-Shabaab, but Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran is known to be supporting and funding Houthi rebels, who are Shiite and are fighting a bitter civil war against the country’s Saudi-supported Sunni government.

It is worth noting that the recent capture of the unregistered vessel is the third such seizure of a large cache of weapons heading for Yemen through Somalia since September. In the previous most recent case, an Australian Navy ship sailing off the coast of Oman intercepted a large cache of weapons being transported to Yemen. US sources speculated that the intercepted ship originated from Iran and was heading to Yemen.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 March 2016 | Permalink

French commandos kill senior al-Qaeda leader in Mali

French troops MaliFrench troops have reportedly killed a Spanish citizen who was a senior commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the most prolific al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa. The Spaniard, Abu al-Nur al-Andalusi, 35, was from Melilla, a coastal Spanish enclave in northern Africa, which borders Morocco. Since 2014, al-Nur had operated as a military leader of AQIM, an armed Islamist group that aims to create a caliphate in northern Africa. AQIM emerged in the 1990s out of the brutal Algerian Civil War, which pitted the country’s secular but authoritarian government against a host of Islamist groups, including the Armed Islamic Group, known as GIA. In 1998 a band of GIA members left the group in protest against its indiscriminate killing of civilians, and formed a separate organization, which called itself Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. In2007 the group renamed itself AQIM and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s co-founder Osama bin Laden.

Al-Nur was reportedly in charge of a brigade of around two dozen AQIM fighters —most of them Algerians and Moroccans, with the addition of some Libyans. These fighters had been operating in the inhospitable desert north of the Malian city of Timbuktu. Some believe that Al-Nur helped coordinate AQIM’s attacks against Western targets in Mali and Burkina Faso in recent months. Moreover, al-Nur’s brigade has been linked to a daring attack against members of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali a few months ago.

Citing sources from Mali, Spanish intelligence expert Salvador Burguet said on Wednesday that al-Nur had been killed in a raid by a team of French commandos. Burguet, who directs the Spanish-based private intelligence company AICS, said the French troops specifically targeted an al-Qaeda meeting held by senior commanders of the organization in northern Mali. But he added that it is not known at this time whether al-Nur was the only AQIM militant killed in the attack. The Reuters news agency, which reported on the story, said it was able to corroborate al-Nur’s death by speaking to two unnamed “security officials in Mali”.

French forces were deployed in Mali in 2003, ostensibly to prevent the rapid rise of Islamist militancy following the collapse of the Libyan government of Muammar al-Gaddafi and the influx of weapons into the area. After the French military deployment, AQIM activities in the country receded. However, scattered groups of AQIM continue to operate in rural areas, and Paris maintains a force of nearly 4,000 troops throughout the country. Reuters said it contacted the French Department of Defense and Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but both agencies declined comment on the Spaniard’s reputed death.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 March 2016 | Permalink