Analysis: Strasbourg attack raises serious security concerns in Europe

StrasbourgThe terrorist attack in the French city of Strasbourg on December 11 raises important security concerns for Europe’s ability to defend itself against a rapidly evolving Islamist insurgency. The attack lasted 10 minutes, from 7:50 to 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday evening, and targeted shoppers in Christkindelsmärik, a large Christmas market held annually in Strasbourg. The lone shooter, who has since been identified as Chérif Chekatt, a French citizen, was reportedly heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) repeatedly as he opened fire on the unsuspecting shoppers. He also tried to stab some of them using a knife. Chekatt eventually exchanged fire with French soldiers and officers of the National Police before fleeing the scene of the attack in a taxi cab. Three people were declared dead at the scene, while 12 others were urgently transported to nearby hospitals. Six of them remain in critical condition. Chekatt remained at large until Thursday evening, when he was shot dead by police in Strasbourg.

It is important to stress that the choice of Strasbourg as the site of the terrorist strike was not accidental, nor was the attack spontaneous. A city and of nearly 500,000 inhabitants in its greater district, Strasbourg is one of the European Union’s de facto capitals. It hosts several European institutions, including the building of the European Parliament. Its geographical location on the French-German border epitomizes the crossroads of Franco-German cultural traditions. Its distinct character symbolizes the coexistence of Europe’s two leading powers, which forms the cornerstone of the European Union project. The majority of Strasbourg’s residents are bilingual and communicate in Alsacien, a peculiar mixture of French and German. The city also exemplifies a distinctive brand of 21st-century Christian unity through the balanced coexistence of Catholic and Protestant religious cultures. The Christkindelsmärik —the venue that was attacked on Tuesday— is Europe’s largest Christmas market and symbolizes precisely that coexistence. Providing that Tuesday’s attack was sanctioned and/or planned by the Islamic State or one of its affiliate organizations, its strong symbolism is apparent.

As Washington Examiner commentator Tom Rogan noted on Wednesday, it appears that the perpetrator of the attack was able to acquire a semi-automatic weapon, as well as grenades. Unlike the United States, accessing these types of weapons in Western Europe is exceedingly difficult. This is so especially in France, a country that has remained in a perpetual state of heightened security since the Paris attacks of November 2015. It is even more perplexing that Chekatt was able to acquire this type of weaponry, given that his name featured on the terrorism watch lists of France’s security and intelligence services. Additionally, says Rogan, one of the operational trademarks of the Islamic State centers on adhering to a sharp division between its arms procurement networks and the individuals who carry out terrorist attacks. This means that a wider Islamist network in France, Switzerland or Germany, was able to armed and possibly trained Chekatt in Europe, since the attacker is not believed to have visited the Middle East or North Africa.

Rogan also points out that Chekatt —a French-born 29-year-old petty criminal— was radicalized while serving time in prison. This raises important questions about Salafist-Jihadi radicalization networks inside Western European prison systems. The security implications of this realization inevitably widens the security considerations of Europe’s counterterrorism agencies. The latter have so far focused primarily on the danger posed by the return of European Islamic State volunteers from the Middle East. The problem, however, appears to be more complicated.

Ultimately, the Strasbourg attack demonstrates that, despite several years of concerted efforts, the ability of European counterterrorism agencies to prevent strikes by Islamist groups on European soil is limited. Meanwhile, European streets are busy during the Christmas season, with indoor and outdoor markets and festivals, concerts, as well as a host of religious observances taking place in thousands of different locations across the continent. Should Tuesday’s attack in Strasbourg mark the beginning of a sustained terrorism campaign by the Islamic State, December could prove to be a deadly month in Europe.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2018 | Permalink

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French senior civil servant arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea

Benoît QuennedeyA senior civil servant in the upper house of the French parliament has been arrested on suspicion of spying for North Korea, according to prosecutors. The news of the suspected spy’s arrest was first reported on Monday by Quotidien, a daily politics and culture show on the Monaco-based television channel TMC. The show cited “a judicial source in Paris” and said that France’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), was in charge of the espionage case.

The senior administrator has been identified as Benoit Quennedey, a civil servant who liaises between the French Senate and the Department of Architecture and Heritage, which operates under France’s Ministry of Culture. Quennedey was reportedly detained on Sunday morning and his office in the French Senate was raided by DGSI officers on the same day. Quotidien said that he was arrested on suspicion of “collecting and delivering to a foreign power information likely to subvert core national interests”. The report did not provide specific information about the type of information that Quennedey is believed to have passed to North Korea. It did state, however, that a counterintelligence investigation into his activities began in March of this year.

Quennedey is believed to be the president of the Franco-Korean Friendship Association, the French branch of a Spanish-based organization that lobbies in favor of international support for North Korea. Korea Friendship Association branches exist in over 30 countries and are believed to be officially sanctioned by Pyongyang. They operate as something akin to the pre-World War II Comintern (Communist International), a Moscow-sanctioned international pressure group that advocated in favor of Soviet-style communism around the world. French media reported on Monday that Quennedey traveled extensively to the Korean Peninsula in the past decade and has written a French-language book on North Korea. News reports said that the French President Emmanuel Macron had been made aware of Quennedey’s arrest. The senior civil servant faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty of espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 November 2018 | Permalink

France arrests six far-right militants who plotted to kill President Macron

Emmanuel MacronAuthorities in France have announced the arrest of six individuals who were allegedly involved in a plot to kill French President Emmanuel Macron. Government prosecutors said on Tuesday that the six were arrested for planning “a violent action against the president of the Republic”. A former economy and industry minister, Macron resigned from the cabinet of left-of-center Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2016 in order to lead a new right-of-center movement called En marche (Forward). In 2017 he won the presidential election with 66.1 percent, becoming the youngest president in the history of France.

French security services have responded to several instances of potential plots against Macron. In one recent case, a man was charged in July of last year with plotting to kill the president during France’s annual Bastille Day celebrations. This latest case, however, appears to be larger in size and sophistication. According to prosecutors, Tuesday’s arrests were part of a wider probe in to “a criminal terrorist association”. All six suspects had reportedly been monitored for quite some time by France’s domestic security agency, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI).

The names and backgrounds of those arrested have not been released. But France’s BFM-TV station said on Tuesday that their ages ranged from 20 to 60, that they were men and women, and that they belonged to an unspecified “far-right organization”. It is also notable that their arrests took place as a result of raids in three different parts of the country —namely in the city of Moselle, located on the border of France, Germany and Luxembourg, and in Ille-et-Vilaine near Rennes in France’s northwestern Brittany region. More raids reportedly took place in the region of Isere in the French Alps. Reports early on Wednesday morning said that authorities were examining the details of the alleged assassination scheme, which was “imprecise and loosely formed”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 October 2018 | Permalink

French government report says thousands approached by Chinese spies on LinkedIn

LinkedInA French government report warns of an “unprecedented threat” to security after nearly 4,000 leading French civil servants, scientists and senior executives were found to have been accosted by Chinese spies using the popular social media network LinkedIn. The report was authored by France’s main intelligence agencies, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) and the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE). According to the Paris-based Le Figaro newspaper, which published a summary of the classified report, the two intelligence agencies presented it to the French government on October 19.

The report describes Chinese efforts to approach senior French scientists, business executives, academics and others, as “widespread and elaborate”, and warns that it poses an “unprecedented threat against the national interests” of the French state. It goes on to state that nearly 4,000 carefully selected French citizens have been approached by Chinese intelligence operatives via the LinkedIn social media platform. Of those nearly half, or 1,700, have leading posts in French industry, while the remaining 2,300 work in the public sector. In their totality, those targeted are involved nearly every area of industry and government administration, including those of nuclear energy, telecommunications, computing and transportation, said the report. According to Le Figaro, those targeted were approached online by Chinese spies who employed fake identities and identified themselves as headhunters for Chinese corporations, think-tank researchers or consultants for major companies. They then invited targeted individuals to all-expenses-paid trips to China for conferences or research symposia, or offered to pay them as consultants.

The DGSI-DGSE report concludes that most of those targeted displayed shocking levels of “culpable naivety” and a “completely insufficient” awareness of online espionage methods. To address this, French intelligence agencies have produced guidelines on detecting and evading attempts at recruitment or luring from intelligence operatives using social media, said Le Figaro. French civil servants are now being informed of these guidelines through a concerted campaign by the French intelligence community, said the paper. The report, however, did not say whether similar efforts were taking place in the French private sector.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 October 2018 | Permalink

France freezes assets of Iranian spies in response to foiled terror attack in Paris

French Ministry for the EconomyFrance has seized the financial assets of two Iranian spies and frozen all assets belonging to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, in response to a foiled bomb attack in Paris, which the French government has blamed on Tehran. The alleged bomb attack was uncovered on June 30 of this year, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, while another Iranian man was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals were charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group with roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government. France, Germany and Belgium allege that the aborted bombing plot was an attempt by Iran to disrupt the close relations between the MEK and Western governments.

On Tuesday, Paris announced the seizure of assets of two of the men who were arrested in June and July. One is an accredited Iranian diplomat identified as Assadollah Asadi, who is believed to be an official-cover intelligence officer. The other man is Saeid Hashemi Moghadam, who was arrested by French authorities. He is believed to be an Iranian sleeper agent. All assets belonging to the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Intelligence were also been frozen, effective immediately, it was announced. In a joint statement, the French ministers of foreign affairs, economics and the interior said that the move reflected the France’s “commitment to fight terrorism, in all its manifestations […], especially on its territory”. The statement added that “the extremely heinous act envisaged on our territory could not go without a response”.

The Iranian government has denied all connection to the alleged plot in Paris and has dismissed the incident a “false flag” operation staged by MEK in cooperation with Tehran’s “enemies at home and abroad”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 October 2018 | Permalink

Israel says it foiled Iranian-sponsored bomb attack in France

MossadIsrael helped foil an alleged Iranian-sponsored bomb attack in Paris, which involved arrests of several Iranian agents and at least one diplomat in France, Belgium and Germany, according to media reports. As intelNews reported earlier this month, the arrests began on June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests.

All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group with roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government.

On Thursday, authorities in Israel announced the lifting of a blanket censorship decree that prevented local media from discussing the country’s role in helping the Europeans foil the alleged bomb attack in Paris. According to Israel’s Channel 2, a private television station based in Jerusalem, the Iranian attack was prevented after the Israeli agency Mossad detected the whereabouts of several suspects involved in it. The Mossad then supplied Germany, Belgium and France with intelligence that led to the arrests of some of those suspects. However, Channel 2 said that the Israeli government did not give a reason for the initial censorship imposed on the country’s media, nor did it explain why it had decided to lift it. On July 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to hint that Israel had a role in the foiling of the alleged bomb attack in Paris. Speaking during a commemoration ceremony in Acre, Israel, Netanyahu said it was “no coincidence” that the attack in Paris had been stopped. But the Israeli leader did not expressly indicate that the Mossad had a role in the operation.

Following news of the arrests in Europe, the Iranian government said that it had no connection to the alleged plot in Paris and called the incident a “false flag” operation staged by Tehran’s enemies at home and abroad.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2018 | Permalink

Iran sleeper cell agents, including diplomat, arrested in three European countries

National Council of Resistance of IranAn Iranian diplomat and members of what authorities described as an “Iranian sleeper cell” were arrested this week in Belgium, Germany and France, as they were allegedly planning to a bomb a high-level meeting in Paris. The arrests came after a complex investigation by several European intelligence agencies and were announced by Belgium’s Minister of the Interior, Jan Jambon.

The operation against the alleged sleeper cell began on Saturday, June 30, when members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group stopped a Mercedes car in Brussels. The car was carrying a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, named in media reports as Amir S., 38, and Nasimeh N., 33. According to the Belgian Ministry of the Interior, Nasimeh N. was found to be carrying 500 grams of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive and a detonator inside a toiletries bag. On the following day, Sunday, July 1, German police arrested Assadollah A., an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. According to reports, the diplomat was driving a rental car in the southeastern German state of Bavaria, heading to Austria. On the same day, a fourth person, who has not been named, was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the other three arrests.

The four detainees were in contact with each other and were allegedly working for the Iranian government. All four have been charged with an alleged foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place last Saturday, June 30, in a Paris suburb. The National Council of Resistance of Iran is a France-based umbrella group of Iranian dissidents, led by Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations from exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups.

Until 2009, the European Union and the United States officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred of the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US. According to Belgian authorities, the four members of the Iranian sleeper cell were planning to bomb the MEK-sponsored NCRI meeting in Paris under instructions by the Iranian government. Conference participants included over 30 senior US officials, including US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference.

Speaking in Brussels this week, Belgium’s Interior Minister Jambon praised the country’s intelligence, security and law enforcement agencies for foiling the alleged bomb plot in Paris. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, dismissed claims of an Iranian sleeper cell as “fake news” and described reports of a foiled bomb attack as “a sinister false flag plot”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 July 2018 | Permalink