Iran spied on ISIS supporters through fake phone wallpaper app, say researchers

Cell Phone - IASupporters of the Islamic State, most of them Persian speakers, were spied on by the government of Iran after they downloaded a fake smartphone application with wallpaper images, according to an online security firm. Iran is a major adversary of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. The latter considers Shiism (Iran’s state religion) as an abomination. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), relies largely on supporters from the Arabic-speaking regions of the Levant. But according to estimates, Sunnis constitute about 10 percent of Iran’s population, and ISIS has found some fertile ground among Iran’s 8 million-strong Sunni minority. As a result, the government in Tehran is highly mistrustful of Iranian Sunnis, many of whom are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris or Turkomans, and systematically spies on them.

According to the Israeli online security firm Check Point Software Technologies, one way in which Tehran has spied on Persian-speaking ISIS supporters is through fake smartphone applications. In an article published last week, the company said it had uncovered a state-sponsored surveillance operation that it had codenamed “Domestic Kitten”. The Check Point article said that the operation had gone on for more than two years, but had remained undetected “due to the artful deception of its attackers towards their targets”. The surveillance of targeted phones was carried out with the help of an application that featured pro-ISIS-themed wallpapers, which users could download on their devices. Yet another program linked to the same vendor was a fake version of the Firat News Agency mobile phone application. The Firat News Agency is a legitimate Iranian information service featuring news about Iran’s Kurdish minority. But both applications were in fact malware that gave a remote party full access to all text messages sent or received on the compromised phones. They also gave a remote party access to records of phone calls, Internet browser activity and bookmarks, and all files stored on the compromised phones. Additionally, the fake applications gave away the geo-location of compromised devices, and used their built-in cameras and microphones as surveillance devices.

Check Point said that the majority of compromised phones belonged to Persian-speaking members of Iran’s Kurdish and Turkoman minorities. The company stressed that it was not able to confirm the identity of the sponsoring party with absolute accuracy. However, the nature of the fake applications, the infrastructure of the surveillance operation, as well as the identities of those targeted, posed a strong possibility that “Domestic Kitten” was sponsored by the government of Iran, it concluded. Last July, the American cyber security firm Symantec said that it had uncovered a new cyber espionage group called “Leafminer”, which was allegedly sponsored by the Iranian state. The group had reportedly launched attacks on more than 800 agencies and organizations in in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2018 | Permalink

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ISIS remains strong with 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

ISIS forces in RamadiThe Islamic State has recovered from some of its recent defeats in the battlefield and has as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria, according to two reports by American and United Nations experts. Last month, the Iraqi government announced that the war against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been won. The statement was echoed by the United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over. But now two new reports, one produced by the United States Department of Defense and the other by an expert UN panel, warn that both ISIS and al-Qaeda remain powerful, popular and dangerous in Iraq, Syria, and many other regions of the world.

The UN report was published on Monday by the organization’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which is tasked with monitoring the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions. The report recognizes that ISIS has suffered unprecedented military defeats in Iraq and Syria in the past year, and that many of its most hardened fighters are dead or have abandoned the conflict zones in the region. But it warns that the militant organization is now morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. What is more, ISIS’ center is backed by as many as 30,000 unreconstructed members, who are split roughly equally between the two countries. The US Pentagon report, which was delivered this week to Congress states that ISIS has as many as 17,100 fighters in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria. Many of those surviving fighters are citizens of dozens of different countries around the world, according to the report. Some of them are still engaged in armed fighting, while others are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”, mostly in Iraq, the UN report states.

There are also tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and in several West African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the reports’ authors. These fighters are led by commanders who remain in contact with senior ISIS leaders and continue to revere Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s central figure. In addition to ISIS, al-Qaeda also remains strong and dangerous, according to the UN report. Its regional structure “continues to show resilience” and in some regions of the world it is far stronger than ISIS. These include several regions of Africa, including areas of Somalia and the Sahel, as well as in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is believed to command as many as 7,000 armed fighters at the moment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2018 | Permalink

Germany arrests Jordanian intelligence operative who spied on mosque

Hildesheim mosqueAuthorities in Germany announced yesterday the arrest of a German national who is accused of spying on a central German mosque on behalf of Jordan, according to media reports. The man was reportedly arrested on Tuesday at an unknown location by officers of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). In a press statement, the agency said the man is a 33-year-old German national named “Alexander B.”. German privacy rules forbid the public identification of crime suspects prior to their conviction in a court of law.

According to the public statement issued by the BfV, the 33-year-old man is believed to have worked for “a Jordanian intelligence agency” —most likely the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, or GID, which is a branch of the Jordanian Armed Forces— since at least 2016. He is accused of having infiltrated a Sunni mosque in the central German city of Hildesheim, located 20 miles southeast of Hanover in Germany’s Lower Saxony region. His mission, according to the BfV, was to keep tabs on mosque goers who expressed support for the ideology of the Islamic State, and might even consider traveling to the Middle East to join the radical group. The alleged Jordanian intelligence operative was also tasked with reporting on news reaching the mosque from those of its members who had already gone to the Middle East and joined the Islamic State.

Last year, German authorities closed down the Hildesheim mosque, known in German as Deutschsprachiger Islamkreis Hildesheim e. V. (DIK), and arrested its imam, Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah A., known as Abu Walaa. The Iraqi-born imam was charged with supporting a foreign terrorist organization by actively recruiting young Muslims on behalf of the Islamic State. The mosque has since remained closed, because authorities believe that it had become a beehive of fundamentalist activity. Jordan is one of the Middle East’s most liberal states and has been targeted repeatedly by the Islamic State, which views its leadership as pro-Western. However, it appears that Alexander B. was spying on the Hildesheim mosque —therefore on German soil— without having informed the host country of his activities. The government of Jordan has not commented on his arrest.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 09 August 2018 | Permalink

Indian intelligence infiltrated Islamic State in ‘unprecedented operation’

New Dehli IndiaA joint Indian-American counterintelligence operation, described as “unprecedented in its scale and scope”, reportedly foiled a major suicide attack by the Islamic State in New Delhi and helped achieve “a string of victories” against the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Citing “top diplomatic and intelligence sources”, the New Delhi-based daily The Indian Express said that the “audacious” operation took place a year ago, but details about it were only made available to its reporters in recent days.

The paper said that the operation lasted 18 months and involved the systematic surveillance of numerous suspects in Dubai, New Delhi and several cities in Afghanistan. It also involved substantial intelligence-sharing between Indian and American security agencies, as well as constant intelligence-gathering by as many as 80 Indian physical-surveillance experts. Intelligence gathered from physical surveillance was reportedly combined with information collected through telephone intercepts. Eventually it became clear that the Islamic State had recruited and trained 12 suicide bombers across several secret camps in Pakistan. The recruits were tasked with carrying out suicide bomb attacks throughout Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

One such recruit, the 25-year-old “son of a wealthy [Afghan] businessman”, had been sent by the Islamic State to New Delhi to carry out his deadly mission. In order to escape the attention of the authorities, he had enrolled in a private engineering college in New Delhi. But he was arrested by Indian intelligence and quickly transported to Afghanistan, where he was interrogated by American officers. According to The Indian Express, intelligence gathered from these interrogations helped the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan achieve “a string of successes” against former Taliban forces aligned with the Islamic State. The Afghan would-be suicide bomber remains in Afghanistan under US custody, according to the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2018 | Permalink

Spy chiefs from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan hold high-level meeting

Sergei NaryshkinIntelligence directors from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan met on Tuesday to discuss regional cooperation with particular reference to combating the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Information about the high-level meeting was revealed yesterday by Sergei Ivanov, media spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Ivanov told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency that the meeting was held in Pakistan and included the participation of SVR director Sergei Naryshkin. TASS reported that the meeting was held under the auspices of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and was attended by “senior intelligence officials” from Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.

Ivanov said that discussions during the meeting “focused on the dangers arising from a buildup of the Islamic State on the Afghan territory”. The Islamic State announced the formation of its Afghan province (wilayah in Arabic) in January 2015, using the term “Khorasan Province”. By July 2016, two of its most prominent leaders had been killed in coordinated drone strikes by the United States, but the group continues to launch operations to this day. Its core is thought to be made up of nearly 100 fighters from the Islamic State’s former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. According to Russian reports, security officials in China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran are concerned that the Islamic State’s Afghan command is becoming stronger as fighters from the group are leaving the Middle East and moving to Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s high-level meeting in Islamabad follows an announcement last month by the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that it would adopt a more active stance on security issues in Afghanistan. Early in June, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani described the SCO as “an important platform for anti-terrorist cooperation and enhancing regional connectivity” in Central and South Asia. President Ghani made these comments shortly before traveling to China to attend the annual summit of the SCO, of which Afghanistan is an observer country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 11 July 2018 | Permalink

Analysis: The Islamic State is far from dead; it is regrouping and rebranding itself

Islamic State ISISIn a recent series of interviews to promote his new book, Anatomy of Terror, former FBI special agent and current counterterrorism expert Ali Soufan insists that the Islamic State remains potent and dangerous. Speaking last week to the British newspaper The Guardian, Soufan warned that, even though the Islamic State was unable to hang on to its self-described caliphate in the Middle East, the group has ample opportunities to regroup. In the days of al-Qaeda, “we only had one vacuum, in Afghanistan”, from where Osama bin Laden’s organization operated from and spread its message, said Soufan. “Now we have so many vacuums —Syria, Yemen, Libya, northern Nigeria, Tunisia, the Philippines— and it’s expanding. That’s very dangerous”, he warned.

Soufan, a well-read analyst and complex thinker, who today presides over The Soufan Group and oversees the Soufan Foundation, is right to warn against the notion that the Islamic State is on its way out. The group’s meteoric rise marked a watershed moment in the modern history of militant Sunni Islam. Even if it is militarily annihilated —a prospect that is far from certain— its physical absence will in no way erase its impact and influence among its millions of supporters and sympathizers. In fact, experts warn that the group is —like al-Qaeda before it— proving to be resilient and able to withstand intense military pressure from its enemies. Currently, all signs show that the Islamic State is actively reorganizing under the command of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The prolonged absence of the Iraqi-born al-Baghdadi has prompted wild speculation about this supposed demise or severe incapacitation. There are even some who claim that he was killed by an Islamic State faction in an internal coup.

But most intelligence agencies agree that al-Baghdadi —and his core lieutenants— remain very much alive and well. Three weeks ago, The Washington Post cited anonymously a “senior United States counterterrorism official” who confirmed that, by all indications, al-Baghdadi was alive and was coordinating the group’s activities in its last strongholds in eastern Syria. This is supported by communications intercepts, detainee interrogations and statements by informants, said The Post. It is important to note that Al-Baghdadi continues to have alongside him some of the militant group’s most hardened commanders, most of whom were trained in intelligence and military tactics during the reign of Saddam Hussein. Under their guidance, retreating Islamic State forces are leaving behind cell-based formations of underground fighters in areas that are liberated by the fragile US-led coalition. Read more of this post

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink