Chechen shot dead in broad daylight in Berlin, Russian spy services suspected

Zelimkhan KhangoshviliAuthorities in Germany suspect that Moscow may have been behind the assassination of a Chechen separatist who was shot in broad daylight in Berlin by a man wearing a wig and carrying a pistol fitted with a silencer. The victim of the attack was Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, 40, who was a leading figure in the so-called Second Chechen War. The conflict pitted the Russian military against groups of Muslim fighters in the North Caucasus between 1999 and 2009.

Khangoshvili, a Muslim who was born in Georgia, was a bodyguard of Aslan Maskhadov, the self-described leader of the Muslim separatists in the Northern Caucasus. Maskhadov was killed in 2005 in a raid by Russian Special Forces, and Khangoshvili fled to his native Georgia. In 2015, Khangoshvili sought political asylum in Germany after two men tried to kill him in Tbilisi. The German authorities initially placed him on a terrorism watch list, but removed him after he began to collaborate with German counterterrorism agencies and participate in programs designed to de-radicalize Muslim youth.

Khangoshvili was reportedly killed last Friday as he was walking to his local mosque. Witnesses said a man on a bicycle approached Khangoshvili from behind as he was walking in the middle of Kleiner Tiergarten, a small park in downtown Berlin. The cyclist shot Khangoshvili and then immediately fled the scene on his bicycle. Police later found a Glock 26 semi-automatic pistol fitted with a silencer, a wig and the assailants bicycle. All had been dumped in a nearby lake. Later that evening the police announced the arrest of a Russian citizen identified only as “Vadim S.”, who is alleged to have shot Khangoshvili.

German newsmagazine Der Spiegel quoted Martin Steltner, from the Berlin prosecutor’s office, who said that Vadim S. had arrived in Berlin from Moscow via Paris less than a week before Khangoshvili’s murder. Steltner added that there were “indications the deed was pre-planned and may have political motives behind it”. An anonymous source from German intelligence told Der Spiegel that “if it turns out that a state actor like Russia is behind this, we will have a second [Sergei] Skripal case on our hands, with all that this entails”.

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

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Far-right spy row continues to rock Germany’s ruling coalition

Hans-Georg MaassenThe successor to Angela Merkel in the leadership of Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) urged the removal from the party of the country’s former spy chief for expressing far-right views. But she later appeared to retract her comments. Hans-Georg Maassen led Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) from August 2012 until his removal last September. His BfV career was abruptly terminated following the so-called Chemnitz protests, a series of anti-immigrant rallies, pogroms and riots that shook the eastern German city of Chemnitz in August of last year. Maassen gave an interview at the time in which he seemed to question the authenticity of videos that surfaced on social media, which showed protesters throwing Nazi salutes and singing Nazi-era songs. The BfV director said that the videos may have been faked as part of a disinformation campaign aimed at stirring racial tensions in Germany. He was promptly dismissed from his post.

Following his dismissal from the BfV, Maassen joined the Werteunion (Values Union), an ultra-conservative group within the CDU, which campaigns for strict anti-immigration laws. Its leader, CDU politician Alexander Mitsch, argues that the CDU should not rule out a governing alliance with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD is a coalition of Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi groups that has gained prominence since its establishment in 2013 and currently polls at around 12 percent nationwide. Mitsch’s view goes against the CDU’s recent decision at its annual conference to rule out any collaboration with the AfD and Die Linke, Germany’s main far-left party. Maassen has also given media interviews in which he has criticized the CDU for “moving far to the left” under the leadership of Angela Merkel.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Angela Merkel to the leadership of the CDU, and is tipped to become Germany’s next chancellor, gave an interview on Saturday, in which she dismissed Maassen’s views as nonsense. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is currently serving as minister of defense, told the Funke Medien media agency she was pleased that Maassen had been dismissed from the directorship of the BfV. She added that she could not see anything in Maassen’s political views that connected him to the CDU. Kramp-Karrenbauer went on to say that she would not allow the CDU to be “radicalized from the inside” like the United States Republican Party had been radicalized by the Tea Party. This was widely interpreted as a call for Maassen and other Werteunion supporters to either resign or be expelled from the party.

On Sunday, however, Kramp-Karrenbauer spoke to the media again, this time to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) news agency, saying that “neither during the [Funke Medien] interview nor elsewhere did I call for a party expulsion procedure” of Maassen and other Werteunion members. She continued by saying that “the CDU is a party with more than 400,000 members. The fact that each one has different opinions is what makes us interesting”. Meanwhile, Maassen told DPA, “it is a mystery to me who advised her to conjure up such thoughts”, referring to Kramp-Karrenbauer’s Saturday interview.

In September and October the CDU will be facing the AfD and several other parties in regional elections that will be taking place in three eastern German states, where the AfD is particularly strong. Many fear that Kramp-Karrenbauer’s party will see its electoral power shrink with many of its voters flocking to the anti-immigration AfD.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 August 2019 | Permalink

Germany extradites spy to Croatia to serve 30-year sentence for role in assassination

Josip Perkovic Zdravko MustacGermany has extradited a former senior official of the Yugoslav intelligence service to Croatia, where he is expected to serve a 30-year prison sentence for organizing the assassination of a dissident in Munich in 1983. Josip Perković is a former senior official in the Yugoslav State Security Service, known as UDBA. In 2014, he was extradited to Germany from Croatia alongside another former UDBA officer Zdravko Mustać. The two men were tried in a German court in the Bavarian capital Munich for organizing the assassination of Stjepan Đureković on July 28, 1983. Đureković’s killing was carried out by UDBA operatives in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria as part of a UDBA operation codenamed DUNAV. Đureković, who was of Croatian nationality, was director of Yugoslavia’s state-owned INA oil company until 1982, when he suddenly defected to West Germany. Upon his arrival in Germany, he was granted political asylum and began associating with Croatian nationalist émigré groups that were active in the country. It was the reason why he was killed by the government of Yugoslavia.

In 2016, both men were found guilty of organizing Đureković’s murder and were sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence that was upheld by Germany’s Supreme Court in May. Last year, a court in the Croatian capital Zagreb commuted Perković’s prison sentence to 30 years so that he could be extradited there, since the Croatian justice system does not recognize life prison sentences. A statement from the German Interior Ministry said on Thursday that Perković had been transported to Zagreb on a regular flight from Munich “without incident”. Perković’s extradition to Croatia also concluded a long-standing bureaucratic battle between the former Yugoslav Republic and the European Union. In 2013, shortly before joining the EU, Croatia made it illegal to extradite individuals abroad for crimes committed before 2002. It is believed that Croatian officials changed the law in an attempt to protect armed Croatian nationalists who engaged in criminal activity during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s from being tried in European courts. Following systematic pressure from the EU, Croatia scrapped the extradition restriction and sent Perković and Mustać to Germany.

Legal proceedings to extradite Mustać to Croatia to serve his sentence there are continuing. Meanwhile, the two former spies have sued the German state at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that they were not given a fair trial in Munich. Anto Nobilo, who represented Perković in court, said that the European Court of Human Rights is likely to rule in favor of his client and that he will be “released in a year or two”. If this happens, Croatia will have to re-extradite Perković to Germany to face a new trial.

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

Spy services seeking access to Angela Merkel’s medical file, reports claim

Angela MerkelForeign intelligence agencies are allegedly trying to acquire the medical file of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after she was seen trembling uncontrollably in public twice in as many weeks. Reports about foreign spy interest in Merkel’s health emerged in German and British newspapers last weekend, after the German chancellor was seen trembling during high-level meetings earlier this month. The first incident took place during an official meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on June 18. The German Chancellery said Merkel had suffered from dehydration and “felt like herself again after drinking a few cups of water”. But the tremors were back again on June 27 during the German leader’s visit to Japan for the G20 Summit. Reports stated that the chancellor was seen “clutching her arms in a failed attempt to prevent herself shaking” during the ceremonial part of the proceedings. At a press conference afterwards, Merkel told reporters that the trembling had been caused by “psychological stress” and that she was convinced it would “disappear just like it appeared”. But she avoided answering questions about whether she had sought medical attention about the trembling.

On June 30, British newspaper The Sunday Times said that foreign spies were showing interest in finding out Merkel’s medical state. The paper added that “one Western intelligence agency believed that the German leader was suffering from a ‘neurological problem’”, but did not specify the agency or the alleged condition. Two days earlier, on June 28, the German tabloid Bild claimed that foreign intelligence agencies had been detected attempting to gain access to the German leader’s private medical file. The paper said that foreign governments in Europe and beyond were suspicious of Merkel’s health state following her refusal to speak openly about it to the media. Several intelligence agencies were therefore “trying to get their hands on Merkel’s medical records” in an attempt to verify whether her trembling was caused by stress and dehydration, or whether it may denote a deeper neurological cause, it said. The paper added that the German leader’s medical records were kept “in a secure military facility” somewhere in Germany.

There has been intense speculation in the German media in the past four days about whether Chancellor Merkel will be able to stay in power until the end of her final term as leader of the country. In October 2018, the German leader announced that she would not seek reelection as Chancellor once her current term expires in 2021. She is scheduled to be replaced by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who last year also replaced her as leader of the Christian Democratic Union Party.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 July 2019 | Permalink

Turkish spy agency develops phone app to help ex-pats inform on dissidents

BfV GermanyTurkey’s spy agency has developed a smart phone application to enable pro-government Turks living in Germany inform on their compatriots who speak out against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The existence of the phone application was revealed in the annual report of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s primary counterintelligence agency. The report covers terrorist and foreign intelligence activity that took place in 2018 in Baden-Württemberg, a state in southwest Germany that borders Switzerland and France. Deutsche Welle, Germany’s state broadcaster, which cited the BfV report, said that 2018 saw a significant increase in intelligence activities by several countries, including China, Russia, Iran and Turkey. Much of the intelligence activity by Turkish spy agencies concentrated on the Turkish expatriate community in Baden-Württemberg. The federal state is home to approximately 15 percent of Germany’s 3-million-strong Turkish population.

According to the BfV report, Turkish intelligence operations in Baden-Württemberg have focused primarily on two groups since 2015. One group consists of supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed separatist group that fights for the independence of Turkey’s Kurdish population. A ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government collapsed in 2015, leading to the outbreak of a low-intensity war in Turkey’s southeastern regions, which is ongoing. The other group consists of sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar who is seen by the government of Turkey as the primary instigator of a coup that unsuccessfully tried to unseat the AKP in July 2016. The BfV report also states that pro-government Turks living in Germany are known to use a smart phone application developed by Turkey’s police force, the General Directorate of Security (EGM). The application allegedly enables supporters of the AKP to inform on suspected members of the PKK or followers of Gülen who live in Germany. These individuals are then questioned or even apprehended when they travel to Turkey to visit family members and friends.

The report also names several Turkish pro-AKP organizations that allegedly operate as intelligence collectors for a host of Turkish spy agencies. Among them are civic groups like the Union of International Democrats, or religious organizations like the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs. Known as DİTİB, the organization administers the activities of several hundred Turkish Muslim organizations and mosques throughout Germany and is believed to be closely associated with the AKP and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Several German intelligence officials and reports have claimed in recent years that the DİTİB operates as an intelligence collection arm of the Turkish state in Germany.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 June 2019 | Permalink

Israel leaked video that brought down Austrian government, says German ex-spy chief

Strache GudenusIsraeli intelligence was likely behind the leaked video that brought down the far-right governing coalition in Austria on Monday, according to the former deputy director of Germany’s spy agency. The surreptitiously recorded video was leaked to two German media outlets on May 17, days before Austrian voters participated in the continent-wide elections for the European Union. In the video, two senior members of Austria’s governing far-right Freedom Party are seen conversing with an unnamed woman posing as a Russian investor. The two men in the video were Heinz-Christian Strache, the the Freedom Party’s leader and until recently Austria’s Vice Chancellor, and Johannes Gudenus, the party’s deputy leader and a member of parliament. In the video, Gudenus and Strache promise to award the woman’s firm state contracts if her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchases an Austrian newspaper and uses it to support the Freedom Party. The video threw Austria’s political system into disarray and prompted the resignations of both Strache and Gudenus. On Monday, Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was removed from power during a special parliamentary session in Vienna.

But the question is who leaked the video, and why? In an article in the Cicero, a monthly political magazine based in Berlin, a former senior official in Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) argues that Israeli intelligence was probably behind the leak. The article’s author is Rudolf Adam, who served as deputy director of the BND from 2001 to 2004, before serving as president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy of the German Ministry of Defense. Adam argues that the actions of Strache and Gudenus, as shown in the leaked video, seem “half mafia-like and half-treasonable”, and that the two should face legal consequences. But he goes on to ask “a far more interesting question”, namely “who is behind this intrigue [and] what were the intentions of its initiators?”. Adam points out that nothing is known about the woman in the video; she reportedly met Gudenus several months before the video was filmed. She posed as the Latvian niece of a Russian oligarch with ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In exchanges that lasted for several months, the woman told Gudenus that she planned to move with her daughter to Vienna and was interested in investment opportunities. She eventually invited him and Strache to a meeting in a villa in the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. It was there where the video was recorded. Read more of this post

German spy agency concerned about Russian penetration of Austrian government

Sebastian Kurz Vladimir PutinA day after Austria’s political system was thrown into a disarray by a covert video featuring the country’s vice chancellor and a woman posing as a Russian investor, German intelligence sources have raised fears that Russia may have penetrated the Austrian government with informants. Heinz-Christian Strache, who heads Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, stepped down from the post of vice chancellor on Saturday. His resignation came a day after two German media outlets aired a covert video in which Strache appears to be promising to award state contracts in the construction sector to a woman posing as a Russian investor. In return for the state contracts, the unnamed woman said that she would have the firm of her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchase an Austrian newspaper and use it to support Strache’s political party.

According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the video was filmed in Spain in 2017, two months before the Freedom Party won a record 26 percent in Austria’s national election. This gave the party 51 seats in the Austrian parliament and propelled Strache to the post of vice chancellor. In his resignation statement, Strache said he was filmed while drunk and was engaged in “macho talk” in an atttempt to “impress the attractive hostess”. He also dismissed the airing of the covertly filmed video as “a targeted political assassination”, but added that he was resigning from the government as a matter of principle. Shortly afterwards, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Chairman of the rightwing Austrian People’s Party, announced that new national elections would be held “as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday that the director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), warned that sharing intelligence with Austria was “risky”. The Berlin-based newspaper said that BfV director Thomas Haldenwang was speaking at a closed-door meeting with German parliamentarians. He reportedly told his parliamentary audience that, due to the close relationship between the Freedom Party and Moscow, members of the Austrian government could potentially “misuse” and in some cases “forward to Russia” intelligence that they receive from other European Union member-states. This is not the first time that such warnings have come out of Germany. Last year August Hanning, who served as director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) openly warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2019 | Permalink