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

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Nazi official Heinrich Himmler’s daughter worked for West German intelligence

Heinrich Himmler Gudrun BurwitzThe daughter of Heinrich Himmler, who was second in command in the German Nazi Party until the end of World War II, worked for West German intelligence in the 1960s, it has been confirmed. Gudrun Burwitz was born Gudrun Himmler in 1929. During the reign of Adolf Hitler, her father, Heinrich Himmler, commanded the feared Schutzstaffel, known more commonly as the SS. Under his command, the SS played a central part in administering the Holocaust, and carried out a systematic campaign of extermination of millions of civilians in Nazi-occupied Europe. But the Nazi regime collapsed under the weight of the Allied military advance, and on May 20, 1945, Himmler was captured alive by Soviet troops. Shortly thereafter he was transferred to a British-administered prison, where, just days later, he committed suicide with a cyanide capsule that he had with him. Gudrun, who by that time was nearly 16 years old, managed to escape to Italy with her mother, where she was captured by American forces. She testified in the Nuremberg Trials and was eventually released in 1948. She settled with her mother in northern West Germany and lived away from the limelight of publicity until her death on May 24 of this year, aged 88.

Late last Thursday, an article in the German tabloid newspaper Bild revealed for the first time that Burwitz worked for West Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) in the early 1960s. The BND continues to operate today as reunited Germany’s main external intelligence agency. According to Bild, Himmler’s daughter had a secretarial post at the BND’s headquarters in Pullach, where the spy agency was headquartered for most of its existence. The paper said that Burwitz managed to be hired by the BND by using an assumed name. In a rare public statement, the BND’s chief archivist, Bodo Hechelhammer, confirmed Bild’s allegations. The archivist, who serves as one of the BND’s official historians, told the newspaper that Burwitz “was an employee of the BND for a number of years, until 1963”, working “under an assumed name”. She was dismissed once the BND began to purge former Nazis from its staff, toward the end of the tenure of its first director, Reinhard Gehlen. Gehlen was a former general and military intelligence officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht, who had considerable experience in anti-Soviet and anti-communist operations. In 1956, in the context of the Cold War, the United States Central Intelligence Agency, which acted as the BND’s parent organization, appointed him as head of the organization, a post which he held from until 1968.

It is believed that Burwitz remained a committed Nazi until the end of her life. She doggedly defended her father’s name and insisted that the Holocaust was an Allied propaganda ploy. It is also believed that she was a prominent member of Stille Hilfe (Silent Help), an underground group of leading former Nazis, which was established in 1945 to help SS officers and other Nazi officials escape prosecution for war crimes. Several German experts on neo-Nazi groups have alleged that Burwitz continued to attend neo-Nazi events and SS reunions throughout Europe, some as recently as 2014. Burwitz is believed to have died in Munich.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 July 2018 | Permalink

German intelligence chief says Russia tried to hack energy grid

BfV GermanyThe head of Germany’s domestic security agency has publicly blamed the Russian government for a large-scale cyberattack that has targeted German energy providers. The comments follow a June 13 announcement on the subject by Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), which is charged with securing the German government’s electronic communications. According to the BSI, a widespread and systematic attack against Germany’s energy networks has been taking place for at least a year now. The attack, which the BSI codenamed BERSERK BEAR, consists of various efforts by hackers to compromise computer networks used by German companies that provide electricity and natural gas to consumers around the country.

The attacks have been mostly unsuccessful, said BSI, having managed to breach just a few office computer networks. Energy grids have remained largely unaffected by BERSERK BEAR, said BSI. But the agency has refused to disclose information about the extent of the alleged cyberattacks and the companies that were targeted. It claims, however, that the situation is now “under control”. On Wednesday, Hans-Georg Maassen, director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) said in an interview that the Russian government was most likely behind the attacks. There were “numerous clues pointing to Russia”, said Maassen, including the method with which the attack was carried out. The “modus operandi” of the attackers “is a major indicator that points to Russian control of the offensive campaign”, said Maassen.

Earlier this month, the United States imposed for the first time economic sanctions on Russian companies that allegedly helped the Kremlin tap undersea communications cables used by Western countries. One of the companies was identified by the US Department of the Treasury as Digital Security, which Washington said has helped 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. But the Kremlin fervently denies these accusations. On Wednesday, a spokesman for the office of the Russian presidency said that Moscow had “no idea what [Maassen] was talking about”. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters in the Russian capital that Germany and other countries “should provide facts” to justify their accusations against Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 June 2018 | Permalink

Germany arrests Tunisian man for producing biological weapon in his apartment

Ricin investigation GermanyGerman authorities have charged a Tunisian citizen with building a biological weapon, after finding significant quantities of the highly toxic substance ricin in his apartment. The 29-year-old man is referred to in public reports only as “Sief Allah H.”, in compliance with German law that forbids the naming of suspects until they are found guilty in court. German officials said last Thursday that the man remains in custody and has been charged with violating Germany’s War Weapons Control Act (known as Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz) and “preparing a serious act of violence against the state”.

According to reports, German intelligence services received a tip-off last month that the man had made online purchases of a coffee grinder and 1,000 castor seeds. Processing castor seeds creates a ricin byproduct, which can then be weaponized in the form of a powder, a fine mist, or solid pellets of various sizes. The end product is more powerful than many other toxic substances, such as cyanide. Upon entering the human body, ricin can cause multiple organ failure in less than two days. It has no known antidote.

After receiving the tip-off, German authorities began monitoring the suspect’s movements in the western German city of Cologne, near the Belgian and Dutch borders. By June, German police discovered that he had produced enough ricin to dispense as many as 1,000 lethal doses.

German media reported that “Sief Allah H.” is a sympathizer of the Islamic State. However, investigators have found no direct link between him and any militant organizations in Germany or abroad. Additionally, no evidence has yet been presented that he had planned an actual attack —in Germany or elsewhere— at a specific time. However, officials from Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution said it was “very likely” that the arrest of “Sief Allah H.” had averted a terrorist attack. Late last week, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said that the suspect had made ricin by following instructions posted online by the Islamic State.

Throughout the weekend, several other apartments in Cologne were searched by German authorities. Search parties consisted of members of the local police, intelligence officers and scientists from the Robert Koch Institute, the German government agency tasked with monitoring hazards to public health.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 June 2018 | Research Credit: S.F. | Permalink

NATO obtained Soviet Novichok nerve agents through German intelligence in 1990s

Sergei SkripalSome North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states obtained access to the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘Novichok’ nerve agents in the 1990s, through an informant recruited by German intelligence, according to reports. NATO countries refer to ‘Novichok-class’ nerve agents to describe a series of weaponized substances that were developed by the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia from the early 1970s to at least 1993. They are believed to be the deadliest nerve agents ever produced, but Moscow denies their very existence. A type of Novichok agent, described by British scientists as A234, is said to have been used in March of this year by the person or persons who tried to kill Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England. Skripal is a former Russian military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s and has been living in England ever since he was released from a Russian prison in 2010.

On Thursday, two German newspapers, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, and two regional public radio broadcasters, WDR and NDR, said that the NATO alliance has had access to the chemical composition of Novichok nerve agents since the period immediately following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Specifically, the reports claimed that the access was gained through a Russian scientist who became an informant for the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as the BND. The scientist struck a deal with the BND: he provided the spy agency with technical information about the Novichok agents in exchange for safe passage to the West for him and his immediate family. Initially, the German government was reluctant to get its hands on material that was —and remains— classified as a weapon of mass destruction by international agencies. But eventually it asked for the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents and even acquired samples from the Russian informant.

According to media reports, the BND proceeded to share information about the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agents with key NATO allies, including Sweden, France, Britain and the United States. The sharing of such a sensitive substance was approved by the then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, said the reports. In the following years, a handful of NATO countries proceeded to produce what media reports described as “limited quantities” of Novichok agents, reportedly in order to experiment with various defense measures against them and to produce antidotes. Russia has denied accusations that it was implicated in Skripal’s poisoning and has argued that other countries, some of them NATO members, have the capacity to produce Novichok agents.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2018 | Permalink

German spy chief warns against Chinese investment in German hi-tech firms

Hans-Georg MaassenThe head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has warned of security risks resulting from Chinese direct investment in high-technology German and other European companies. Since 2012, Hans-Georg Maassen has served as director of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic security and counterintelligence agency. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Maassen said his agency had noticed an inverse correlation between cyber-espionage attacks on Germany by Chinese actors and the acquisition of German technology firms by Chinese companies. German counter-intelligence officials were puzzled, he said, about a dramatic reduction in Chinese cyber-espionage activities in 2016. But they eventually realized that cyber-espionage operations had been replaced by “lawful methods”, he said, such as direct takeovers of German hi-tech firms by Chinese companies.

The purpose of these takeovers was “to gain access to German technical know-how”, added Maassen. He went on to say that “industrial cyberespionage is no longer needed if an actor can simply exploit liberal economic regulations to buy companies, and then proceed to disembowel them, essentially cannibalize them, to gain access to their know-how”. The spy chief noted that Germany did not object to foreign investment and the free flow of capital from all countries, including China. However, he added, “certain direct investments in specific technologies can compromise domestic security”. Maassen mentioned several examples in his presentation, including the takeover of Kuka, a German robotics firm, by a Chinese investor in 2016. He said that in the past few months alone, Chinese companies have attempted to purchase stakes in 50Hertz, a German energy grid operator, German car manufacturer Daimler, and Cotesa, a German aerospace contractor.

In response to a question from a journalist about policy coordination between Germany and the European Union, Maassen said that Germany, France and Italy have been pressuring Brussels to update and modernize its screening procedures against foreign takeovers of companies that are involved in manufacturing and selling “sensitive technologies”. He noted that a new EU-wide screening mechanism should be in place by the end of 2018.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 April 2018 | Permalink

German intelligence warns European officials of fake Chinese LinkedIn profiles

BfV GermanyIn an unusual step, German intelligence officials have issued a public warning about what they said are thousands of fake LinkedIn profiles created by Chinese spies to gather information about Western targets. On Sunday, Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) held a press conference in which it said that it had discovered a wide-ranging effort by spy agencies in China to establish links with Westerners. The agency said that it undertook a 9-month investigation, during which it identified 10,000 German citizens who were contacted by Chinese spy-run fake profiles on LinkedIn. Across Europe, the number of targets could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to the BfV.

The main targets of the operation appear to be members of the German and European Union parliaments. Also targeted are members of the armed forces, lobbyists and researchers in private think tanks and foundations in Germany and across Europe. These individuals were all targeted as part of “a broad attempt to infiltrate Parliaments, ministries and administrations”, said BfV Director Hans-Georg Maassen. He added that the fake LinkedIn profiles are of people who claim to be scholars, consultants, recruiters for non-existent firms, or members of think tanks. Their profile photographs are usually visually appealing and are often taken from fashion catalogs or modeling websites. During the press conference BfV officials showed examples of what they said were fake LinkedIn accounts under the names “Rachel Li” and “Alex Li”. The two identified themselves as a headhunter for a company called RiseHR and a project manager at the Center for Sino-Europe Development Studies, respectively. The information on these accounts was purely fictitious, said the BfV officials.

Individuals who have been targeted by the Chinese include European politicians and senior diplomats, according to the Germans. Many were invited to all-expenses-paid conferences or fact-finding trips to China by their LinkedIn contacts, presumably in attempts to recruit them for Chinese intelligence. At the closing of the press conference, the BfV urged European officials to refrain from posting private information on social media, including LinkedIn, because foreign intelligence operatives are actively collecting data on users’ online and offline habits, political affiliations, personal hobbies and other interests. In a statement issued on Monday, the Chinese government dismissed the German allegations, saying that the BfV’s investigation was based on “complete hearsay” and was thus “groundless”. Beijing also urged German intelligence officials to “speak and act more responsibly”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2017 | Permalink