South Korean cabinet approves closer intelligence cooperation with Japan

South KoreaIn a move that highlights the thaw in relations between South Korea and Japan, the two nations appear to be closer than ever to entering an intelligence agreement with each other. In 2014, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo signed a trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement on regional security issues, with the United States acting as an intermediary. But a proposed new agreement between South Korea and Japan would remove the US from the equation and would facilitate direct intelligence-sharing between the two East Asian nations for the first time in history.

The proposed treaty is known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Its centerpiece is a proposal to streamline the rapid exchange of intelligence between South Korean and Japanese spy agencies, especially in times of regional crisis involving North Korea. Last week, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense publicly gave GSOMIA its blessing by stating that Seoul’s security would benefit from access to intelligence from Japanese satellite reconnaissance as well as from submarine activity in the South Sea. On Monday, South Korea’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Yoo Il-ho, announced after a cabinet meeting that GSOMIA had been officially approved by the government.

The agreement is surprising, given the extremely tense history of Korean-Japanese relations. Japan conquered the Korean Peninsula for most of the first half of the 20th century, facing stiff resistance from local guerrilla groups. After the end of World War II and Japan’s capitulation, South Korea has sought reparations from Tokyo. In 2014, after many decades of pressure, Japan struck a formal agreement with South Korea over the plight of the so-called “comfort women”, thousands of South Korean women and girls who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese imperial forces during World War II. Relations between the two regional rivals have improved steadily since that time.

The GSOMIA agreement will now be forwarded to officials in the South Korean Ministry of National Defense. The country’s defense minister is expected to sign it during a meeting with the Japanese ambassador to South Korea in Seoul on Wednesday, local news media reported.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 November 2016 | Permalink

Turkey asks German spies for help in rounding up July coup plotters

Recep Tayyip ErdoğanThe Turkish government has sent an official request to German intelligence for assistance in cracking down on the members of the so-called Gülen movement, which Ankara claims is behind July’s failed coup plot. The movement consists of supporters of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who runs a global network of schools, charities and businesses from his home in the United States. The government of Turkey has designated Gülen’s group a terrorist organization and claims it has stealthily infiltrated state institutions since the 1980s. The administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses Gülen’s supporters of orchestrating the July 15 coup that included an armed attack on the country’s parliament and the murder of over 200 people across Turkey.

According to German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (known by its Turkish initials, MİT) has secretly contacted its German counterpart, the Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The Turks’ request, said Spiegel, involves the provision of assistance to investigate and arrest supporters of the Gülen movement living in Germany, some of whom are German citizens. There are over three million people with Turkish citizenship, or of Turkish descent, currently living in Turkey. Citing “a dossier of classified documents”, Spiegel said that the MİT had asked the BND to investigate a list of 40 individuals for possible links to Gülen, and to extradite to Turkey another three whom Ankara claims have direct ties to the July coup. The documents also allegedly contain a request for MİT officials to pressure German lawmakers to be more critical of Gülen supporters in Germany. Requests for cooperation were also sent by MİT to nearly a dozen state governments in Germany, but all were declined, said Spiegel.

The Turkish government has arrested, fired or demoted tens of thousands of people since July, for alleged links to the Gülen movement. Some European officials, many of them German, have accused President Erdoğan of using the failed coup as an excuse to purge his opponents of all political persuasions in the country. On Sunday, the head of Germany’s Committee on Parliamentary Oversight, Clemens Binninger, said he would launch an investigation into the joint projects between German and Turkish intelligence agencies following the failed July coup. Another member of the Committee, Hans-Christian Ströbele, said he would personally set up a panel to probe any communication between German intelligence agencies and the MİT. By working closely with Turkish intelligence, German spy agencies were risking “becoming complicit in criminal activity”, said Ströbele.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 August 2016 | Permalink

Italian spy chief paid secret visit to Syria: news reports

Alberto ManentiThe head of Italian intelligence paid a secret visit to Syria earlier this month, a week after his Syrian counterpart visited Rome, according to reports from the Middle East. The Dubai-based newspaper Gulf News, which first reported the alleged behind-the-scenes exchange, said the visits focused on counter-terrorism cooperation between Syria and the European Union. The paper said that the initial contact was made in late June by Major General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, who paid a secret visit to Rome. General Zeitoun’s visit was allegedly in response to an official invitation issued by the Italian government. The general is believed to have stayed in a secluded private villa, which was provided by the Italian External Intelligence and Security Agency, known as AISE. He subsequently met with several Italian intelligence officials, including AISE Director, General Alberto Manenti.

A week later, Manenti secretly traveled to Syrian capital Damascus, where he stayed for several days. According to Gulf News, General Manenti met with his Syrian counterpart and other senior intelligence officials, as well as with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The main purpose of the secret meetings was to explore the potential for enhanced collaboration between Syria and the European Union on counter-terrorism issues. It appears that the Syrian government is willing to share intelligence on citizens of the EU who have traveled to Syria and have joined the ranks of the Islamic State, as well as other al-Qaeda-inspired groups in the country. Damascus is even willing to give EU intelligence personnel access to captured Islamist fighters that are being held in Syrian government facilities.

In return, however, the Syrians are asking that the EU enters negotiations on possibly normalizing diplomatic relations with Damascus. Contacts between the EU and Syria were severely disrupted at the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and remain officially non-existent to this day. According to Gulf News, the Syrians told General Manenti that full intelligence cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism will ensue as soon as the EU normalizes diplomatic relations with the government in Damascus. The Italian intelligence official is believed to have told the Syrians that Rome will press the EU to move toward re-establishing relations with Damascus, in return for concrete steps taken in Syria toward “political transition” in the war-torn country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2016 | Permalink

Australia, Indonesia exchange intelligence personnel to combat ISIS

2016 Jakarta attacksAn ambitious new personnel exchange program between intelligence agencies in Australia and Indonesia aims to combat the unprecedented rise of militant Islamism in Southeast Asia, which is fueled by the Islamic State. The program, which is already underway, aims to strengthen intelligence cooperation between two traditionally adversarial regional powers. According to The Australian newspaper, the scheme owes its existence to the growing recognition that the security environment in the region is rapidly deteriorating due to the popularity of the Islamic State. The militant group appears to have replaced al-Qaeda in the minds of many radical Islamists in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere, and is fueling the resurgence of smaller Islamist sects that have laid largely dormant for years.

Relations between militant Islamist sects in Indonesia —the world’s most populous Muslim nation— have traditionally been factional in nature. But some experts fear that the unprecedented growth of the Islamic State is galvanizing and uniting Islamist factions throughout Southeast Asia. Chief among them is the Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group operating across the region, which was behind the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200 people, 88 of them Australians. In January of this year, Jemaah Islamiyah praised a series of attacks in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, which were perpetrated by militants connected to the Islamic State. The attacks killed four people, far fewer than their perpetrators had hoped to harm. But they lasted for several hours and shocked many due to the ease with which the heavily armed terrorists were able to evade security measures. Similar attacks were recently prevented in their planning stages by security agencies in Malaysia and the Philippines.

These developments prompted the rapprochement that is currently taking place between two traditionally rival intelligence agencies, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and Indonesia’s State Intelligence Agency, commonly referred to as BIN. The two agencies have reportedly begun posting officers to each other’s headquarters on multi-month assignments. The purpose of these exchanges is to gain a detailed understanding of each other’s counterterrorist planning and operations, and devise areas of actionable cooperation. The plan can be characterized as ambitious, given that relations between ASIO and BIN were severely disrupted in late 2013 and are still damaged, according to some observers. The break in relations was prompted by revelations, made by the American defector Edward Snowden, that Australian intelligence spied on senior Indonesian politicians and their family members, including the wife of the country’s president. Indonesia responded by withdrawing its ambassador from Canberra and terminating all military and intelligence cooperation with Australia. Nine months later, the two countries signed a joint agreement promising to curb their intelligence activities against each other. Some observers suggest that it will take years for Indonesian and Australian intelligence to fully reestablish intelligence cooperation. However, the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Southeast Asia could be significantly accelerating this process.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 July 2016 | Permalink

Relations between UK spy agencies “broke down” during war on terrorism

Eliza Manningham-BullerRelations between two of Britain’s most powerful intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, suffered a “serious and prolonged breakdown” during the American-led war on terrorism. Citing sources in the British government, the London-based Guardian newspaper said on Tuesday that the two agencies entered an extensive row over Britain’s support for extraordinary rendition. The policy refers to the government-sponsored abduction of individuals and their extrajudicial transfer across national borders. It was widely practiced by the administration of US President George W. Bush, despite its connection to documented cases of torture of terrorism detainees, in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Jordan.

In Britain, the administration of Prime Minister Tony Blair secretly supported Washington’s extraordinary rendition operations. It instructed the Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, to assist its American counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, in efforts to abduct and rendition terrorism suspects. However, not everyone in Britain’s intelligence establishment was in agreement with government policy. One strong critic was Eliza Manningham-Buller, the then-director of Britain’s Security Service, commonly known as MI5, which she led from 2002 to 2007. According to The Guardian’s sources, Manningham-Buller was “evidently furious” when she discovered that MI6 had secretly colluded with governments like those of Libya and Egypt to rendition terrorism detainees. Believing extraordinary rendition and torture to be “wrong and never justified”, the MI5 director effectively stopped her agency from cooperating with MI6. She even “threw out” of MI5’s Thames House headquarters several MI6 liaison staff who were working there at the time, said The Guardian.

Soon afterwards, Manningham-Buller complained in writing to Prime Minister Blair about the conduct of some MI6 officers, whose actions allegedly “threatened Britain’s intelligence gathering” and “compromised the security and safety of MI5 officers and their informants”. The Guardian does not provide further elaboration of the contents of Manningham-Buller’s letter to the prime minister, but alleges that it contributed to a “serious and prolonged breakdown” in relations between MI5 and MI6. The paper says it contacted the two intelligence agencies, as well as Manningham-Buller, who has since retired, but no one wished to comment on the story. Sources did tell the paper, however, that the relationship between the two agencies “has now been repaired after a difficult period”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 02 Jun 2016 | Permalink

Israel, Egypt, Jordan, enter ‘unprecedented’ intelligence-sharing agreement

Yair GolanThe governments of Israel, Egypt and Jordan have entered an intelligence-sharing agreement aimed at joining forces against the Islamic State, which a senior Israeli military commander has described as “unprecedented”. The comment was made on Wednesday by Major General Yair Golan at a press conference hosted by Israel’s Foreign Press Association. General Golan has been serving as Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces since late 2014.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, General Golan said that intelligence was “the most important element in the whole system” when fighting an insurgency of the kind that the Islamic State is conducting in the Middle East. He went on to point out that Egypt is currently engaged in a war against Islamic State forces in the Sinai Peninsula, while “Jordan is terrified by the presence of the Islamic State in [its] cities and towns”. At the same time, Israel tries to “work with them in order to contribute something to their security”, he added, referring to Egypt and Jordan.

The two nations represent the only Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with the Jewish state. A peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was signed in 1979, whereas a similar agreement was struck between Israel and Jordan 15 years later, in 1994. General Golan cited the peace treaties between the three nations as the basis for the intelligence-sharing agreement. But he added that he would not describe the latter as “some sort of reconciliation” between Israel and the people of Egypt and Jordan. However, the agreement is “a good starting point”, he said, adding that he is “quite optimistic” about the future of Israel’s relations with Jordan and Egypt.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 April 2016 | Permalink

NSA director made secret visit to Israel last week

Michael RogersThe head of the United States’ largest intelligence agency secretly visited Israel last week, reportedly in order to explore forging closer ties between American and Israeli cyber intelligence experts. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz said on Sunday that Admiral Michael Rogers, who directs the United States National Security Agency (NSA), was secretly in Israel last week. The NSA is America’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency, which is responsible for electronic collection, as well as protecting US government information and communication systems from foreign penetration and sabotage.

According to Ha’aretz, Rogers was hosted in Israel by the leadership of the Israel Defense Forces’ SIGINT unit, which is known as Intelligence Corps Unit 8200. The secretive group, which is seen as Israel’s equivalent to the NSA, is tasked with collecting SIGINT from Middle Eastern locations and protecting Israel’s electronic information infrastructure from adversaries. According to the Israeli newspaper, Rogers’ visit was aimed at exploring ways in which the NSA and Unit 8200 can enhance their cooperation, especially against regional Middle Eastern powers like Iran or non-state groups like Hezbollah.

IntelNews readers will recall that the IDF’s Unit 8200 is viewed by some Middle East observers as the creator of the Stuxnet virus. Stuxnet is a sophisticated malware that is believed to have been designed as an electronic weapon against Iran’s nuclear program. Among these observers is New York Times correspondent David Sanger; in his 2012 book, Confront and Conceal, Sanger claimed that Stuxnet was designed by NSA and Unit 8200 programmers as part of a joint offensive cyber operation codenamed OLYMPIC GAMES. According to Sanger, the two agencies collaborated very closely between 2008 and 2011 in order to bring about Stuxnet and other carefully engineered malware, including Flame.

Ha’aretz said that Rogers’ visit was meant to solidify US and Israeli cooperation on offensive cyber operations, based on the legacy of Stuxnet and Flame. During his visit to Israel, the US intelligence official also met with the heads of other Israeli intelligence agencies, said Ha’aretz.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 March 2016 | Permalink