ISIS threatens stability of former Soviet Republics, says Russian spy chief

ISIS Afghanistan

Thousands of Islamic State fighters are operating in Afghanistan’s northern border regions and are attempting to destabilize former Soviet Republics with substantial Muslim populations, according to Russia’s domestic spy chief. This warning was issued by Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which functions as Russia’s primary counter-terrorism agency. Bortnikov made these remarks during a visit to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, for a meeting of the heads of intelligence agencies of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an intergovernmental organization comprised of former Soviet Republics in the Eurasian region. The meeting was reportedly held behind closed doors, but Russia’s government-owned news agency TASS carried a summary of Bortnikov’s remarks.

The Russian intelligence chief said that, with the aid of the intelligence services of CIS states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and others, the FSB was able to uncover and suppress eight Islamic State cells in the past year, which operated in the Central Asian region. However, the reach of the CIS countries does not extend to Afghanistan, said Bortnikov, where as many as 5,000 Islamic State fighters are congregating along the country’s border with three CIS states, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many of these fighters are Turkmens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, and other citizens of CIS states, who previously fought with the Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere, and now form integral components of the Islamic State’s fighting force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It appears that the Islamic State is now attempting to exploit the mountainous and porous borders of northern Afghanistan in order to destabilize neighboring countries, he said. These fighters intend to exploit “migrant and refugee flows [in Central Asia] in order to operate covertly from the Afghan battle zones to neighboring countries” and from there possibly to Russia, according to Bortnikov.

These covert activities of Islamic State fighters have already caused an escalation of tensions in the region and can be expected to continue to do so, as these groups radicalize and co-opt Muslim communities in CIS countries, noted Bortnikov. He added that popular responses to Islamist radicalization are prompting increasing incidents of “anti-Islamic terrorism”, which further-fuel religious and ethnic tensions in the region. As a reminder, last week the Islamic State announced that its so-called Khorasan Province fighters would be amalgamated into a new armed group calling itself Islamic State – Pakistan Province. Earlier this month, the group also proclaimed the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, called “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). In addition to these two forces, there are currently an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan’s Pashtun regions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 May 2019 | Permalink

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Suicide bomber who attacked Russian spy agency identified as ‘anarchist-communist’

Mikhail ZhlobitskyA teenager who killed himself with an improvised explosive device in the lobby of a regional office of Russia’s domestic intelligence agency appears to have identified himself as an “anarchist-communist” on social media. At 8:52 am local time on Wednesday, the 17-year-old entered the regional office of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the city of Archangelsk, located 800 miles north of Moscow. On CCTV footage released by the Russian security services, he is seen reaching into his backpack and taking out an object, which soon exploded, killing him and wounding three others.

The bomber was later identified in the Russian media as Mikhail Zhlobitsky, a student at a local technical college. Within hours, reports pointed to posts made on social media platforms by Zhlobitsky, who used several online aliases, including that of “Sergey Nechayev”, one of Russia’s leading 19th-century anarchists, who died in prison for advocating terrorism as a means of revolution. Shortly before the attack, someone using the alias “Valeryan Panov” commented on the social messaging application Telegram that he was about to bomb the FSB in Archangelsk. In the comment, which was posted on an anarchist forum, the user said that he had decided to act “because the FSB falsifies cases and tortures people”. The user added that he would probably die in the attack because he had to manually detonate the improvised explosive device he was carrying with him. He concluded his message with the words: “I wish you a glorious future of anarchist communism!”.

The activities of militant Russian anarchists and anarcho-communists date back to the mid-19th century; anarchist militants are responsible for numerous assassinations of senior Russian officials, including Emperor Alexander II, who was killed by a Russian anarchist in 1881. But the movement was ruthlessly suppressed by the Soviet state and today the FSB and other Russian security services are actively monitoring the remnants of the Russian anarchist movement. These include the Confederation of Revolutionary Anarcho-Syndicalists, the group Autonomous Action, and the Siberian Confederation of Labor. Large sections of these groups have now moved underground, as the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin has named anarchists as primary enemies of order and security in the Russian Federation. Earlier this month, another Russian teenager, Vladislav Roslyakov, killed himself after shooting 19 students and teachers at a technical college in Kerch, a Black Sea port city in Russian-annexed Crimea. No political motive for the attack has been reported.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

US fired Moscow embassy employee who may have spied for Russia

US embassy in RussiaA female Russian national who worked for the United States Secret Service in Moscow was quietly dismissed in 2017, amidst concerns that she was spying for Russia. British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story last week, did not name the Russian woman. But it said that she had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow “for more than a decade”, most recently for the Secret Service –a federal law enforcement agency that operates within the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service has several missions, the most important of which is to ensure the physical safety of America’s senior political leadership.

Throughout her Secret Service career, the Russian woman is thought to have had access to the agency’s email system and intranet network, said The Guardian, citing “an intelligence source”. She could also potentially have had access to “highly confidential material”, said the paper, including the daily schedules of America’s past and current presidents and vice presidents, as well as their family members’ schedules.

The unnamed Russian national first came under suspicion in 2016, said The Guardian, during a routine security review conducted by two counterintelligence staff members at one of the Department of State’s Regional Security Offices (RSO). These reviews usually take place every five years and scan the background and activities of employees at American embassies abroad. The review showed that the unnamed Russian national was holding regular meetings with officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service. In January of 2017, the Department of State reportedly shared its findings with the Secret Service. But the latter waited until several months later to fire the Russian woman, having decided to do so quietly, said The Guardian.

According to the paper, instead of launching a major investigation into the State Department’s findings, the Secret Service simply dismissed the woman by revoking her security clearance. The paper said that the Russian national’s dismissal took place shortly before the US embassy in Moscow was forced to remove or fire over 750 employees as part of Russia’s retaliation against economic sanctions imposed on it by Washington. That coincidence helped the Secret Service “contain any potential embarrassment” arising from claims of espionage, said The Guardian. The paper contacted the Secret Service and was told that “all Foreign Service nationals” working for the agency “are managed accordingly to ensure that […US] government interests are protected at all times”. Their duties, therefore, are “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support. This is of particular emphasis in Russia”, said a Secret Service spokesman, who refused to discuss specific cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

US imposes sanctions on companies for helping Russian spy agencies

YantarThe United States has for the first time imposed economic sanctions on a number of Russian companies, which it says helped the Kremlin spy on targets in North America and Western Europe. On Monday, the US Department of the Treasury said it would apply severe economic restrictions on a number of Russian firms that work closely with the Kremlin. One of the companies was identified as Digital Security, which Washington says has been helping Russian intelligence agencies develop their offensive cyber capabilities. Two of Digital Security’s subsidiaries, Embedi and ERPScan, were also placed on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list. Monday’s statement by the Treasury Department named another Russian firm, the Kvant Scientific Research Institute, which it described as a front company operated by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).

But the Russian firm that features most prominently in Monday’s announcement is Divetechnoservices, an underwater equipment manufacturer. The US alleges that the FSB paid the company $15 million in 2011 to design equipment for use in tapping underwater communications cables. According to Washington, equipment designed by Divetechnoservices is today used by a fleet of Russian ships that sail on the world’s oceans searching for underwater communications cables to tap. One such ship, according to reports, is the Yantar (pictured), ostensibly an oceanic research vessel, which Washington says is used to detect and tap into underwater communications cables.

In addition to Divetechnoservices, the US Treasury has named three individuals who will face economic sanctions due to what Washington says is their personal involvement with the underwater hardware manufacturer. They are: Vladimir Yakovlevich Kaganskiy, the company’s owner and former director; Aleksandr Lvovich Tribun, who serves as Divetechnoservices’ general director; and Oleg Sergeyevich Chirikov, identified as the manager of Divetechnoservices’ underwater surveillance program. These men —all Russian citizens— will not be able to enter into business relationships with American companies or citizens. On Tuesday, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the latest round of US sanctions as an act of desperation. The White House would fail in its effort to “force the Russian Federation to change its independent course of action in the international arena”, said the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2018 | Permalink

Discovery of cocaine in Russian diplomatic luggage leads to numerous arrests

FSB drug arrestsA Russian former diplomatic employee and an Argentine police officer are among six people arrested following the discovery of nearly 1000 pounds of cocaine inside the Russian diplomatic compound in Buenos Aires. The arrests took place last Thursday and were announced in Argentina by the country’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. She told reporters that the arrests came after a 14-month investigation in Argentina, Russia and Germany. She added that the investigation unveiled “one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations” in Argentina’s history.

The 14-month probe dates to December of 2016, when Victor Koronelli, Russia’s ambassador to Argentina, and thee members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, discreetly approached Argentinian authorities. They informed the Argentinians that they had discovered 16 pieces of luggage filled with drugs inside an annex of the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires. Argentinian authorities were given permission to secretly enter the embassy grounds and inspect the suitcases. They confirmed that they contained more than 850 pounds (390 kilos) of cocaine, with a street value of more than $60 million. The suitcases were intended for transfer to Russia via a diplomatic flight. Cargo transferred on diplomatic flights cannot be searched by international customs officials due to the privilege of diplomatic immunity.

According to Bullrich, diplomatic counter-narcotics officers secretly transferred the bags to a separate location, where they replaced the cocaine with flour and fitted the suitcases with GPS tracking devices, before returning them to the Russian embassy annex. The luggage was eventually transferred to Russia via airplane in December 2017, a year after it was bugged by the Argentinians. Several Argentinian customs officers traveled to Russia to monitor the transfer of the shipment, in coordination with Russian authorities. The latter arrested two Russian citizens who tried to collect the suitcases. Another Russian citizen, and former staff member of the Russian embassy in Argentina, Alia Abyanov, was arrested in Moscow. Officials said Abyanov helped plan the transfer of the suitcases to Russia.

Two Argentines with dual Russian citizenship were also arrested in Buenos Aires. One of them has been named as Iván Blizniouk, a police officer, who is believed to have mediated between the drug smugglers and corrupt Argentine customs officers. A seventh suspect, identified only as “Señor K.” by the Argentine authorities, remains at large. He is believed to be living in Germany and is currently wanted by Interpol pursuant to an international warrant that has been issued for his arrest.

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

Russia announces detention of Norwegian citizen on espionage charges

Frode BergAuthorities in Russia have announced the arrest of a Norwegian citizen, whom they accuse of receiving classified information relating to Russia’s Armed Forces. The detainee has been named as Frode Berg, 62, from Kirkenes, a small town in Norway’s far north, located 100 miles from the Russian city of Murmansk. According to articles in the Russian press, Berg is a 24-year veteran of the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner, an obscure government agency that operates under Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Public Security. Among other tasks, the Office of the Norwegian Border Commissioner is responsible for enforcing and monitoring bilateral compliance with the Soviet (now Russian)-Norwegian Border Agreement of 1949. Berg, who worked closely with Norway’s National Police Directorate as part of his job, retired from the Office in 2014.

According to reports in the Russian media, Berg was arrested two weeks ago by officers of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the agency responsible for domestic security and counterintelligence. He is now in detention and is accused of receiving classified information relating to the Russian Navy. It is believed that Berg received the classified documents from an unnamed Russian national, who was arrested by the FSB in early December and now faces charges of high treason. No further information has been made public about Berg’s arrest. Relations between Norway and Russia have been tense in recent years, partly due to attempts by the two nations to assert control over undersea territories in the arctic region, which are becoming accessible due to global warming. In 2015, Norway’s state broadcaster accused the FSB of pressuring a Norwegian newspaper, The Barents Observer, to fire one of its journalists who covered fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean. But the Russian government denied that it has played any role in the journalist’s firing.

Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that it had established contact with a Norwegian national who was behind bars in Russia, but did not give the person’s name or further details. Berg’s family in Norway said the last time they had news from him was two weeks ago, when he was holidaying in Moscow. The Russian state prosecutor’s office said that Berg’s lawyers had filed an appeal against his detention, but that the Norwegian would remain in jail until his appeal is heard in court.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 December 2017 | Permalink

Poland arrests military intelligence chiefs for ties to Russian spies

PytelAuthorities in Poland have charged three high-level military intelligence officials with acting in the interests of Russia. The three include two former directors of Polish military intelligence and are facing sentences of up to 10 years in prison. The news broke on December 6, when Polish authorities announced the arrest of Piotr Pytel, who was director of Poland’s Military Counterintelligence Service (SKW) from 2014 to 2015. It soon emerged that two more arrests had taken place, that of Pytel’s predecessor, Janusz Nosek, and Krzysztof Dusza, Pytel’s chief of staff during his tenure as SKW director.

According to the newsmagazine Gazeta Polska, which provides extensive coverage of the arrests in its latest issue, the SKW officials are accused of having had unauthorized contacts with Russian intelligence personnel and of “operating on behalf of a foreign intelligence service”. The court indictment reportedly states that the Polish officials “cooperated, without seeking the necessary authorization, with members of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB)”. The indictment also notes that “the mission of the FSB conflicts with that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”, of which Poland is a full member.

According to reports in the Polish media, the three men are accused of having held several undisclosed meetings with FSB officers in Poland. One such meeting allegedly took place in the village of Ułowo, in north-central Poland. The village is located just a few miles from Poland’s border with the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, which lies between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. During the meeting, which included dinner and “heavy consumption of alcohol”, the SKW officials allegedly met with the FSB’s senior representative in Poland, identified in court documents only as “W.J.”, as well as with several other Russian intelligence officers. Following that meeting, Pytel and Dusza allegedly helped falsify the application data of an unnamed representative of the FSB in Poland, who was stationed at Russia’s embassy in Warsaw. This allegedly allowed the Russian intelligence officer to evade diplomatic restrictions on travel and to gain access to information about Poland’s military that he otherwise would not have.

Speaking on Polish state-owned television, Poland’s Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz said last week that he was aware of the seriousness of the accusation against the three SKW officials. He told the Telewizja Polska station that the three officials face “very serious allegations” that point to “fully conscious and illegal cooperation with Russian spies”. That, said Macierewicz, was the “worst kind of betrayal that can be committed by a Pole”. The three defendants claim that they were not working in the interests of the FSB and that it was their job to meet regularly with Russian intelligence representatives in Poland.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2017 | Permalink