Elite Russian spy unit used French Alps region as logistical base

Chamonix FranceAn elite group Russian military intelligence officers, who have participated in assassinations across Europe, have been using resorts in the French Alps as logistical and supply bases, according to a new report. The report concerns Unit 29155 of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, commonly known as GRU. According to The New York Times, which revealed its existence of 29155 in October, the unit has been operating for at least 10 years. However, Western intelligence agencies only began to focus on it in 2016, after it was alleged that an elite group of Russian spies tried to stage a coup in the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro.

Unit 29155 is believed to consist of a tightly knit group of intelligence officers led by Major General Andrei V. Averyanov, a hardened veteran of Russia’s Chechen wars. The existence of the unit is reportedly so secret that even other GRU operatives are unlikely to have heard of it. Members of the unit frequently travel to Europe to carry out sabotage and disinformation campaigns, kill targets, or conduct other forms of what some experts describe as the Kremlin’s hybrid war. They are believed to be responsible for the attempt on the life of Sergei Skripal, a former GRU intelligence officer who defected to Britain. He almost died in March 2018, when two Russian members of Unit 29155 poisoned him in the English town of Salisbury.

On Wednesday, a new report in the French newspaper Le Monde claimed that Unit 29155 used the French Alps as a “rear base” to carry out operations throughout Europe. According to the paper, the information about the unit’s activities in France emerged following forensic investigations of the activities of its members by British, Swiss, French and American intelligence agencies. In the same article, Le Monde published the names of 15 members of Unit 29155, which allegedly stayed in various French alpine towns and cities between 2014 and 2018. The paper said that they traveled to France from various countries in Europe, such as Spain, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, or directly for Russia.

The alleged Russian spies stayed in France’s Haute-Savoie, which borders Switzerland, and is among Europe’s most popular wintertime tourist destinations. The area includes the world-famous Mont Blanc mountain range and the picturesque alpine towns of Annemasse, Evian and Chamonix. Several members of the unit visited the region repeatedly, said Le Monde, while others entered France once or twice, in connection with specific spy missions. It is believed that the reasoning behind their trips to the French Alps was to blend in with the large numbers of international tourists that travel to the region throughout the year. However, the unit also utilized several other areas in Eastern Europe as rear bases, including cities and towns in Moldova, Montenegro and Bulgaria, said Le Monde.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 December 2019 | Permalink

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

Libya gave French ex-president Sarkozy $8 million, says Gaddafi’s spy chief

Abdullah al-SenussiA senior intelligence advisor to Libya’s late ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi has reportedly told French investigators that the Libyan government gave $8 million to the election campaign of France’s ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s 30-year political legacy has been marred by a series of financial scandals, for which he is currently under investigation. In March of last year, the former French president issued strong denials of accusations that he accepted an illicit multi-million monetary donation from Gaddafi during his 2007 campaign for the presidency. During a 20-minute television interview, Sarkozy described the investigation into the allegations that he acted as an agent of influence for Libya as “a waste of time”, arguing that it was over an alleged donation of less than $45,000, which represented a tiny fraction of his campaign budget.

But according to the French investigative news website Mediapart, a team of French judges was told by Gaddafi’s former spy chief that Sarkozy was given millions of dollars in secret by the Libyan state. Abdullah al-Senussi, who oversaw the Libyan intelligence agencies under Gaddafi, reportedly told the French investigators that the funding was part of a secret deal between the two parties. In 1979, Senussi married the sister of Gaddafi’s wife and remained a trusted confidante of the Libyan leader until his violent death in 2011. According to Mediapart, he told the French judges that he personally supervised the transfer of funds to Sarkozy’s election campaign. He said that the payments entered the campaign’s coffers via a French government minister who received the funds from Libyan agents in two separate installments in 2006. In return, Sarkozy promised to help reinstate Gaddafi’s international image if he was elected president. He also promised to impede attempts by Western countries to arrest Gaddafi and some of his senior government aides —including Senussi— for terrorist crimes. Senussi allegedly said that Sarkozy himself promised him that his international arrest warrants would be quelled with the help of the French president’s personal lawyers. Sarkozy later hosted Gaddafi in Paris in a lavish setting in 2007.

Mediapart said that it accessed Senussi’s testimony before the French judges after getting hold of extracts from his formal statements during his interviews. It added that the information provided by Senussi appears to confirm similar claims made by other witnesses in the investigation about Sarkozy’s alleged illegal campaign funding. The former French president is currently involved in a separate legal dispute concerning alleged illegal spending during his failed campaign for the presidency in 2012.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 February 2019 | Permalink

French security services investigate Russian role in yellow vests movement

yellow vests movementIntelligence and security services in France are investigating whether Russian involvement on social media and other platforms is playing a role in amplifying the so-called ‘yellow vests’ movement. Known in French as le mouvement des gilets jaunes, the campaign began online in May of this year as a popular protest against rising fuel prices and the high cost of living in France. In mid-November, the movement made its first public appearance with large demonstrations that have continued every weekend since then. Yellow vest protestors claim that tax increases are disproportionally affecting working- and middle-class people and that everyday life is becoming economically unsustainable in France. Some of the demonstrations have turned violent, and so far at least eight people have died as a result. The ensuing crisis has become the most significant threat to the government of Emmanuel Macron, as the protests are increasingly evolving into an anti-Macron rallies.

So far, the yellow vests campaign has been largely bipartisan, bringing together protestors from the entirety of the French political spectrum. Additionally, there are no identified leaders or coordinators of the movement. However, some suspect that Russian government operatives may be further-inflaming an already incensed protest movement. On Friday, The Wall Street Journal said that French security agencies were investigating potential involvement by the Kremlin in the yellow vests campaign. The paper quoted an unnamed French government cybersecurity official as saying that “there has been some suspect activity [and] we are in the process of looking at its impact”. The official was referring to the online activity of some leading social-media accounts involved with the yellow vests, which appear to also be “promoting Russian-backed coverage” of French politics. The Journal also cites Ryan Fox, a cybersecurity expert for the Texas-based firm New Knowledge, who claims that “several hundred accounts on Twitter and Facebook” that are involved in the yellow vests movement “are very likely controlled by Moscow”.

However, there is disagreement among cybersecurity experts about the extent of the Kremlin’s involvement in the yellow vests. Paris has previously accused Moscow of trying to influence the direction of French politics. In February of 2017, France’s Directorate-General for External Security warned that Russia had launched a secret operation to try to influence the outcome of that year’s French presidential election in favor of the far right. However, if such an effort existed, it failed to stop the rise to power of Emmanuel Macron. Since assuming the country’s presidency, Macron has been a leading international critic of Russia’s domestic and foreign policies. The Kremlin, therefore, has strong reasons to want to see a premature end to Macron’s presidency.

This does not necessarily mean that Moscow has been able to anticipate —let alone influence— the yellow vests movement, whose energy has surprised even the most experienced French political observers. The Journal notes that many leading Western cybersecurity bodies, including the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, have “not seen significant evidence of state-sponsored interference” in the yellow vests movement, whether by Russia or any other government. Facebook also said that its monitors have not uncovered any evidence of an organized campaign by Moscow to coax the yellow vests protests. The paper also cited Dimitri Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, who categorically denied allegations that Russia was in any way involved in directing yellow vests activists.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 December 2018 | Permalink

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

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

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