European Union agrees to establish joint intelligence training school

PESCO EUTwenty-five members of the European Union have agreed to establish a joint intelligence training academy, a move interpreted by some as a concrete effort to deepen inter-European security cooperation following Brexit. The announcement came just hours after leading EU heads of state spoke in favor of establishing a joint EU defense force. Calls for tighter cooperation between EU members in the areas of defense and security have been issued for decades. But the upcoming departure of Britain from the EU —popularly known as Brexit— has prompted Germany and France to propose deeper integration as a response to the rise of anti-EU sentiment across the continent.

The decision to establish a joint intelligence training school was approved on Monday by the ministers of defense and foreign affairs of 25 EU members. It was part of a wider agreement involving 16 other joint defense and security projects under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) pact. The pact was first agreed on in September of 2017, and has since been functioning under the supervision of the European Defense Agency and the External Action Service —the diplomatic service of the EU. Nearly 20 projects of a military or security nature have since been signed under PESCO. Monday’s agreement virtually doubled the PESCO projects in existence. The new EU intelligence academy initiative will be led by Greece —an EU member since 1981— and will be headquartered in Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004. When it becomes operational, the academy will provide “education and training in intelligence disciplines and other specific fields to EU member states’ intelligence personnel”, according to a joint PESCO communique issued on Monday.

The new intelligence school will work in cooperation with the individual intelligence agencies of the 25 co-signatory states, along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and with other regional security bodies, said PESCO. However, three EU states, namely Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom, refused to support the project. Denmark and Malta are not participants in PESCO, while the United Kingdom is expected to leave the EU in March of next year. However, even before Brexit, London had vetoed the idea of closer EU intelligence cooperation, which it saw as a potential competitor to the so-called Five Eyes alliance, a postwar intelligence pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Additionally, despite the overwhelming support for the intelligence academy by EU officials, it remains to be seen whether it will be realized. Observers told Politico on Monday that many other PESCO projects have “yet to get much beyond the drawing board” since their announcement last year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 November 2018 | Research credit: K.A. | Permalink

 

Greece expels Russian diplomats who ‘tried to bribe Greek officials’

Greece RussiaIn a rare moment of downturn in relations between Athens and Moscow, Greece has expelled two Russian diplomats and refused to accredit two more, reportedly for “undermining Greek national security”. Greece was not among nearly 30 countries that expelled or refused to accredit over 150 Russian diplomats in March, in an act of solidarity with the United Kingdom. The expulsions came in response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a Russian former intelligence officer who had been living in England since 2010. Britain accused the Kremlin of having sponsored the attack on Skripal. But the Greek government, which has enjoyed warm relations with Moscow for decades, warned against unduly aggressive measures against the Kremlin.

Things changed swiftly on Wednesday, however, when Athens announced the surprise expulsion of two Russian diplomats from the Greek capital. One of the two diplomats has been named as Victor Yakovlev, third secretary of the Russian embassy in Athens, who some say is in fact an intelligence officer. Two more Russian diplomats, who have not been publicly named, were barred from entering Greece —a move that effectively amounts to a refusal by the Greek government to accredit them. According to an official statement from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the expulsions were meant to prevent the “undermining of [Greek] national security”. However, a report in the Greek daily Kathimerini said that the move was taken in response to attempts by Russian spies to bribe Greek state officials. Other reports claim that the Russians were caught trying to blackmail Greek lawmakers over the possible expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Greece is a member.

Some of the allegations in the Greek press refer to the country’s three-decade long dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which Athens accuses of harboring territorial ambitions against its neighbors. Greece —the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Balkans— has barred the entry of its northern neighbor into the European Union and NATO until it complies with a list of Greek demands. Chief among those is the drawing of a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia —once an ancient Greek kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great— and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which encompasses a small portion of Alexander’s former empire. Last month, the decades-long dispute between the two neighboring countries appeared to draw to a close with the proposed adoption of “Northern Macedonia” as the official name of the former Yugoslav republic. The agreement would open the way for the tiny landlocked country to enter into negotiations for eventual entry into NATO. However, nationalists in both countries have staged public rallies to protest against the proposed agreement.

It appears that Russian diplomats may have tried to convince Greek lawmakers —through extortion, bribing or both— to vote against the proposed agreement. There are also reports that Russian diplomats assisted in the organization of nationwide rallies against the proposed agreement in Greece, possibly by funding them or by spreading information about them on social media. The Russian government said on Wednesday that it would protest the expulsion of its diplomats from Athens. It also said that it reserved the right to respond to Greece’s move in kind, possibly by expelling an equal number of Greek diplomats from Moscow.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 July 2018 | Research credit: SF | Permalink

Greece jails member of alleged network of German retirees spying for Turkey

Kos GreeceA German retiree living in Greece, who admitted in court that he was part of a network of German and other Western European residents of Greece recruited as spies by Turkish intelligence, has been jailed for 14 years. The 65-year-old man, who has not been named, was arrested two years ago in the southeastern Aegean island of Kos. He was born in Cold-War-era East Germany and worked as a locksmith before serving for 15 years in the East German National People’s Army. From 2009 to 2012, he lived in Turkey before moving permanently to Greece.

On the morning of October 15, 2014, the German national was arrested by Greek police, who said they spotted him taking pictures of a Greek military outpost while sitting in his parked car. The police officers confiscated his camera and searched his vehicle, finding a pair of binoculars, various camera lenses and several memory sticks. His camera contained photographs of Greek military installations and government buildings on the island, which is located less than 3 miles off the Turkish coast. More photographs of Greek defense installations, military vehicles and communications facilities were found in the man’s house on the island. Police also found there documents in the Turkish language and notepads bearing coordinates of Greek military bases, public buildings and bridges located on Kos. The prosecution claimed that the German man was also monitoring the activities of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency that maintains a base on the Greek island.

During the trial, the accused said he was recruited by Turkey’s intelligence service, known as MİT, in 2011, when he was living in Turkey. He also told the court that he was one of many German and other Western European retirees living in Greece, who have been recruited by Turkish intelligence to spy on Greek military and civilian government facilities. He added that, in return for his services, his Turkish handlers deposited €2,000 every month to his bank account in Germany. He had also been instructed to meet his handlers in Germany, not in Greece or Turkey. A court in the Greek island of Rhodes convicted the German man to 14 years in prison, one year less than the 15-year sentence requested by the prosecution.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 Dec 2016 | Research credit: Strategy Reports | Permalink

Fake Syrian passports given to ISIS members found in Greek refugee camps

Syrian passportFake Syrian passports designed for use by members of the Islamic State trying to enter Europe have been found in refugee camps in Greece during an investigation by the law enforcement agency of the European Union (EU). Officials from Europol, the EU agency that coordinates intelligence operations against organized crime across EU-member-states, said that the fake travel documents were found during a fact-finding mission in Greek refugee camps. The mission was part of a larger investigation into the production and use of forged passports by the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

According to the Italian newspaper La Stampa, which published the claim, Europol is investigating the production and distribution of fake passports by ISIS in its strongholds of Syria and Iraq, and among refugee networks in European countries like Belgium, Austria, Italy and Greece. Greece is the most widely used route into Europe by hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and the rest of the Middle East, who leave their countries in hopes of migrating to the prosperous countries of Western Europe. Nearly 60,000 of them have been trapped in Greece since April, when Macedonia shut down its borders, thus preventing migrants from heading north. These people have been living in refugee camps since that time, hoping for a chance to continue the journey northwards.

But in a leading article published last weekend, La Stampa claimed that ISIS is using the refugee crisis form Syria to infiltrate Europe with militants intent on launching attacks on soft targets. The militants are supplied with false identity papers, said La Stampa, primarily fake Syrian and Iraqi passports. They then use these passports to enter Greece. Their goal is to eventually travel north to countries such as Belgium, Germany, Austria or France, and claim asylum there. La Stampa quoted one unnamed Europol official as saying that fake passports “that were destined to supposed members of ISIS” had been identified in refugee camps in Greece. It has been confirmed that at least two of the perpetrators of last November’s attacks in Paris, France, which killed over 130 people, entered the EU using forged Syrian passports. The Italian daily also noted that the reliability of Turkey, from where the vast majority of Syrian refugees entered Europe in recent years, remains fragile after the failed July 15 coup, which has altered the balance of power in that country. As a result, the EU-Turkey migrant deal may collapse “at any moment”, said the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 August 2016 | Permalink

Concerns about Israeli spying prompt debate on EU security measures

EU headquartersA debate on information security measures in the European Union was prompted last week after some officials voiced concerns that the proceedings of a closed-door meeting were secretly monitored by Israel. The meeting took place on January 15 as part of regular proceedings by the EU’s Political and Security Committee (PSC). The main item on the agenda was the EU’s Middle Eastern policy. According to some meeting participants, Israeli diplomats appeared to be aware of a statement discussed during the PSC meeting “in real time”, which prompted a wider debate on EU information security policies.

According to the Brussels-based EU Observer, which reported on the story, EU member state ambassadors present at the meeting worded a statement that contained a sentence deemed critical to Israel’s policy on Palestine. The sentence allegedly stated: “The EU will continue to unequivocally and explicitly make the distinction between Israel and all territories occupied by Israel in 1967”. According to some ambassadors who were present at the PSC meeting, “Israeli contacts sent text messages to them with requests to alter wording shortly after each new draft [of the PSC statement] went around”. Further suspicions were raised when, at the conclusion of the meeting, the Greek delegate vetoed the contentious line, standing alone against the remaining 27 delegates who had earlier supported it.

Last week, sources told the EU Observer that Israel may have placed bugs in the room where the PSC meeting took place. They added that the committee was debating whether to begin holding meetings in a secure room located in the EU headquarters building in Brussels, where the use of cell phones by meeting participants is not possible. They also said that a stricter classification policy should apply to PSC documents. Others, however, said that the source of the leak may have been the Greek delegate —the sole participant at the meeting who assumed a seemingly pro-Israeli stance. The Greek ambassador may have shared the details of the proceedings with Israeli officials, thus effectively spying on the conference on behalf of Israel, speculated the EU Observer. Another PSC meeting delegate told the paper that “the spy theory” was effectively concocted “in order to avoid confrontation” with the Greek delegation.

The EU Observer contacted the Greek mission to the EU, but was told that the Greek ambassador would never spy on the EU “as a matter of principle”. The Israeli mission to the EU declined to comment.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 15 February 2016 | Permalink

Paris attack mastermind evaded Athens police raid in January

Abdelhamid AbaaoudThe man who masterminded November’s Islamist attacks in Paris was based in Athens, and last January managed to escape arrest during a joint Greek-Belgian police operation aimed at capturing him. Moroccan-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who had lived in Brussels for years, died in a gun battle with French police on November 18, just days after the multiple attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and injured hundreds. It is believed that the perpetrators of the attacks, who were based in Belgium, were guided and directed by Abaaoud. He, however, was not based in Belgium, but in Athens, Greece. It was from there that he directed the Islamist cells, mostly by phone, according to the BBC.

Citing “a Belgian anti-terrorism source” the BBC said on Tuesday that Belgian and Greek authorities were aware of Abaaoud’s general whereabouts and were able to trace some of his phone calls to Islamist militants in Belgium. Eventually, a senior Belgian law enforcement official traveled to Athens to help coordinate a Greek police operation aimed at capturing Abaaoud. By that time, the Moroccan-born militant had been sentenced by a Paris court to 20 years imprisonment in absentia for his role in at least four planned attacks in France —all of which had been foiled by police. Upon capture, Greek authorities planned to extradite Abaaoud to France, where he would serve his sentence. However, the militant was able to get away, though the BBC said that the circumstances of his escape remain unclear. According to the report, an Algerian associate off Abaaoud was arrested during the operation in Athens and was extradited to Belgium.

Abaaoud was not the only Islamic State-linked militant known to have operated in Greece. The two suicide bombers who tried to enter the Stade de France in Paris on November 13 had entered the European Union through the Greek island of Leros, after crossing the Aegean by boat from Turkey. Meanwhile, another of Abaaoud’s associates, Belgian-born Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, whose current whereabouts are unknown, is believed to have traveled by ferry from Italy to Greece in August.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 December 2015 | Permalink

Ex-NATO supreme commander warns of ‘Grexit security nightmare’

James StavridisAn American former supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has warned that a possible Greek exit from the Eurozone “could become a geopolitical nightmare” for the European Union and NATO. James Stavridis, a retired four-start US Navy admiral, who served as NATO’s 16th Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013, said solving the Greek crisis should not be left to the central bankers. In an article published Wednesday in Foreign Policy, Stavridis said the financial administrators that are handling the Greek crisis were not sufficiently cognizant of the massive geostrategic implications of a possible “Grexit”.

The retired admiral said that if the Greek economy continues its downward spiral, the country may not be able to fulfil its defense obligations to NATO, in which Greece has held full membership since 1952. As a result, the country may leave not only the EU, but also NATO. Neither organization has ever lost a member-state, said Stavridis, adding that such a development would constitute terra incognita and would “shake both organizations in fundamental ways” by weakening their broader ideological cohesion.

However, said Stavridis, chances are that Greece will remain a member of EU and NATO despite possibly exiting the Eurozone. But it would be “an angry disaffected and battered nation”, he said, and could thus wreak havoc in both organizations. The latter are consensus-driven, meaning that their actions depend on the unanimous agreement of all member-states. If Greece adopted an “uncooperative” attitude, it would easily bring both organizations to a halt when it comes to pressing issues, such the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, the Iranian nuclear program, or even negotiations about transatlantic trade. Currently, Greece’s important geographic position means that its naval bases constitute the maritime flank of NATO during a critical time of tension in the eastern Mediterranean, said Stavridis.

And what if Greece, shunned by the West, started to look elsewhere for support? Russia, which shares strong historical and religious links with Greece, could be a “prospective partner” for Athens, argued Stavridis. If Moscow offered even marginal economic assistance to Athens, Greece could be tempted to further distance itself from its Western partners, both diplomatically and militarily.

Admiral Stavridis’ warning came a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Greece had played “an important role in southern Europe as a NATO member” and urged Athens not to make cuts in its defense spending due to the ongoing economic crisis.