Cyprus issues international arrest warrants for three Israelis wanted for spying

WiSpear surveillance vanThe government of Cyprus has issued international arrest warrants for three Israeli citizens, who are wanted in connection with a private security company that allegedly carried out espionage operations on the Mediterranean island. The warrants were sparked by what has become known in Cyprus as the “spy van case”.

It began on November 16, 2019, when Cypriot police arrested two local men and a woman who were registered as employees of a company called WiSpear. The firm was reportedly registered in Cyprus in 2013 and began offering services relating to communications interception and surveillance in 2017. Its owner is Tal Dilian, an Israeli former intelligence officer. WiSpear provides services to customers in Africa, the Gulf and Southeast Asia, but not to the government of Cyprus, or to Israel.

The company became widely known on the island following a promotional interview given by Dilian to Forbes, during which he allowed a film crew to tour a surveillance van (pictured) belonging to WiSpear. Dilian told the Forbes reporters that the van —a remodeled ambulance— had been fitted with over $9 million worth of surveillance equipment and could intercept Internet-based applications and telephone messages. The report became viral in Cyprus and prompted calls for an investigation into WiSpear.

On Thursday, the Cypriot government issued international arrest warrants for three Israeli citizens, including Dilian and Shahak Avni, a prominent member of Cyprus’ Jewish community. All are believed to be in Israel, and it is doubtful that they will ever be extradited to Cyprus. The Israeli government has not commented on the case. WiSpear said on December 26 that it was “cooperating fully with Cypriot law enforcement”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 7 January 2020 | Permalink

Denmark arrests 22 in counter-terrorism raids, allegedly with help from Israel

Danish policeLast Thursday Danish authorities arrested 22 terrorism suspects in early morning raids across the country. Reports from Israel suggest that the raids were carried out following a tip from Israeli intelligence. The 22 suspects include men and women. Danish police said they were involved in the final stages of a plot to carry out attacks “in Denmark or abroad”, but have provided no specific information, except to say that the attacks were “thwarted” while they were well underway.

Danish media reported that the early-morning raids by police and intelligence personnel resulted in the arrest of 22 individuals. These have not yet been named in accordance with Denmark’s strict privacy laws. Among them are four men between 21 and 25 years of age, and a 38-year-old woman. All were remanded in a court in Copenhagen on Thursday and Friday of last week. A sixth individual, aged 28, was remanded to custody separately from the other five. His hearing was reportedly held in secret, and no information other than his age and gender has been made public.

The six suspects are accused of trying to build bombs using triacetone triperoxide (TATP) explosive. They are also accused of trying to purchase guns, ammunition and sound suppressors, commonly known as silencers. Danish police said the suspects planned to use the explosives and guns “in connection with one or more terrorist attacks inside Denmark or abroad”. However, no further information has been provided about the targets of the alleged terrorist plot.

Meanwhile on Saturday, Israel’s Channel 12 television claimed that the Danish counter-terrorism raids were sparked by information provided to Danish authorities by the Mossad, Israel’s primary external intelligence agency. The channel, a popular privately owned television station, did not provide evidence of the claim, or any specific information about the alleged intelligence tip.

Danish police said on Monday that 16 of those arrested last week have been released, but remain suspects in the investigation. The remaining six suspects all pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism on Saturday. They will remain in prison on pre-trial custody while the authorities continue to investigate the alleged terrorist plot.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 December 2019 | Permalink

Turkey offers to send troops to Libya as tensions rise with Greece, Egypt

Turkey LibyaTurkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said his country is prepared to deploy troops to Libya, just days after Ankara surprised analysts by announcing an agreement with the embattled Libyan government in Tripoli. The Turkish-Libyan agreement has spurred angry reactions from Israel, Greece and Egypt, all of which are competing with Turkey for control of newly discovered gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean seabed.

The Turkish-Libyan agreement merges the two countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and ostensibly prevents other players in the area, including Greece, Egypt, Israel and Cyprus, from drilling for natural gas without the consent of Ankara and Tripoli. However, according to Greece, the agreement disregards the presence of several Greek islands —including the largest one, Crete— in the Turkish-Libyan EEZ. Athens says that it views the Turkish-Libyan agreement as a direct claim against its territory. Last week the Greek government summarily expelled the Libyan ambassador from the country, marking a dramatic deterioration in the historically close relationship between Athens and Tripoli.

To further-complicate matters, several European countries, as well as Russia and the United States, do not support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), with which Turkey has signed its agreement. Instead, they support the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi. Haftar lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011. The LNA, which is based in eastern Libya, is also supported by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other American allies in the Persian Gulf.

It follows that, if Turkey deploys troops to Libya, it may be entering a collision course with several of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Ankara’s move will also be confronted by Russia, which is purported to have troops in eastern Libya. On Tuesday, however, Turkish President Erdoğan seemed determined to proceed with his plan. In a speech at a university in Ankara, the Turkish leader proclaimed that, “if Libya were to make a request, we would send a sufficient number of troops”, adding that “there is no hurdle” to doing so “after the signing of the security agreement” between Ankara and Tripoli.

This is the first time that Turkey has secured an agreement with a regional ally in the matter of energy exploration rights. Previously, Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus struck a deal to coordinate their gas exploration activities, and eventually supply Europe with Israeli and Cypriot natural gas via a projected gas pipeline that would pass through Greece. But the Turkish move raises doubts about the prospects of such a project, with some analysts even speculating whether centuries-old rivals Greece and Turkey may be getting closer to war.

In a speech on Monday, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos warned Ankara that “Greece will defend its borders [and] territory”. Meanwhile European Union leaders met on Monday behind closed doors to discuss the imposition of sanctions on Turkey as punishment for disputing the maritime territorial boundaries of Cyprus, a European Union member.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 December 2019 | Permalink

WhatsApp sues Israeli firm for enabling spy attacks on 1,400 users worldwide

NSO GroupThe Facebook-owned company WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against a leading Israeli technology firm, accusing it of enabling governments around the world to spy on 1,400 high-profile users, including politicians and diplomats. The Reuters news agency said it spoke to “people familiar” with the investigation into the spy scandal, which it says was launched “earlier this year”.

What is interesting about the case, says Reuters, is that a “significant” proportion of the hundreds of WhatsApp users who were targeted by governments worldwide are “high profile” officials. The victims reportedly serve in various government agencies, including the armed forces, of at least 20 countries on five continents. They allegedly include politicians, diplomats, military officers, academics, journalists, lawyers and human-rights activists in countries such as the United States, India, Mexico, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

WhatsApp alleges that the spy activities against these individuals were enabled by NSO Group, an Israeli software development company that specializes in surveillance technologies. The Facebook-owned company alleges that NSO Group specifically developed a hacking platform that allows its users to exploit flaws in WhatsApp’s servers in order to gain access to the telephone devices of targeted individuals. At least 1,400 of WhatsApp’s users had their telephones compromised between April 29 and May 10, 2019, says WhatsApp.

NSO Group, whose clientele consists exclusively of government agencies worldwide, denies any wrongdoing. The company claims that its products are designed to “help governments catch terrorists and criminals”, says Reuters. But WhatsApp and Citizen Lab, a research initiative based at the University of Toronto, which worked with WhatsApp on the NGO Group case, claim that at least 100 of the 1,400 victims were news journalists, political activists and the lawyers who defend them. There was no overlap between ongoing criminal or terrorism investigations and those targeted by NSO Group’s software, they claim.

The names on the list of espionage victims are not known. But Reuters said that, depending on how high-profile the victims are, the WhatsApp-NSO Group spy scandal could have worldwide political and diplomatic consequences.

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

Mossad chief comments on policy of assassinations in rare interview

Yossi CohenYossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad —Israel’s main external intelligence agency— said he has authorized “more than a few” assassinations during his tenure and warned that more may be on the way. Cohen, 57, who took command of the Mossad in 2016, spoke last week to Mishpacha, a magazine aimed at ultra-orthodox Jews. His comments were covered widely by Israeli media over the weekend.

Cohen was asked to respond to recent allegations made by the Iranian government that Israel worked with “Arab countries” to assassinate General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force, an elite paramilitary unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Suleimani claimed that several individuals were arrested last month in connection with the alleged plot. He also said that Israel tried to kill him and Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah group, in 2006.

The head of the Mossad told Mishpacha that Suleimani had not “necessarily committed the mistake yet that would place him on the prestigious list of Mossad’s assassination targets”. However, “he knows very well that his assassination is not impossible” because “the infrastructure he built presents a serious challenge for Israel”, said Cohen. Regarding Nasrallah, Cohen said that the Hezbollah strongman “knows we have the option of eliminating him”. When asked why the Mossad had not exercised that option, Cohen said he preferred not to answer.

In regards to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, Cohen admitted that the Mossad has been behind a string of assassinations of Hamas officials around the world in recent years. “If there is one target that we eliminate without hesitation, it is Hamas officials abroad. [These range] from local agents to those who manage acquisitions of weapons pointed towards Israel”, said Cohen. He added that there had been “more than a few assassinations” in recent years, but not all were admitted to by Hamas. “The enemy has changed tactics. It is not quick to attribute assassination to us, for its own reasons”, said the Mossad chief.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 October 2019 | Permalink

US and Saudi Arabia ‘suffered intelligence blackout’ during Iran drone strikes: sources

Saudi AramcoSaudi Arabia and the United States suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the lead-up to the drone strikes that shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production last month, according to Israeli sources. In the early hours of September 14, missiles struck two refineries belonging to the world’s largest crude oil processing facility in eastern Saudi Arabia. The facilities, which belong to Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, were forced to cease operation so that repairs could be carried out. This drastically reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent drop in global oil production. By Monday morning, global oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

Soon after the attacks, Saudi and American officials accused Iran of having launched the missile strikes. But according to Breaking Defense, Riyadh and Washington suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the hours prior to and following the attacks. The US-based website cited a number of anonymous Israeli sources, who said that officials in Tel Aviv were surprised by the lack of intelligence in the US and Saudi Arabia about the missile strikes. The Israelis told Breaking Defense that Saudi intelligence agencies “had no idea Iran was planning to attack the kingdom’s oil facilities […]. It seems that the Americans were also in the dark [or that possibly] Washington […] did not share the data in time with the Saudis”, they added.

The above information was allegedly discussed at an emergency meeting of the Israeli defense cabinet on October 6, which included a briefing on the attacks by the Mossad, Israel’s main external intelligence agency. According to the Israeli sources, Mossad officials were quickly able state with high confidence that the missiles had been launched from military bases in southeast Iran or by Iranian militias in Iraq. It was only following an examination of missile fragments that Saudi and American intelligence officers were able to point the finger at Iran, according to Aahron Ze’evi Farkash, former director of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate.

Breaking Defense also said that Israeli intelligence analysts were impressed by the precision of the weapons systems used in the Iranian strikes. Additionally, the specific targets of the attacks were selected with the help of “very accurate intelligence”, said the Israeli sources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 October 2019 | Permalink

Israel planted surveillance devices targeting Trump, claims report

White HouseThe intelligence services of Israel planted surveillance devices around the White House in an attempt to spy on United States President Donald Trump and his senior advisors, according to a report published on Thursday. The report, authored by Politico’s Daniel Lippman, cited three former US officials with knowledge on the matter, “several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts”, it said.

According to Politico, the Israelis planted International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers —known in technical-surveillance lingo as “StingRays” after a leading hardware brand. StingRay devices are designed to simulate the activity of legitimate cell towers in order to trick cell phones into communicating with them. That allows StingRay users to monitor the physical whereabouts of targeted cell phones. Some of the more expensive Stingray models can intercept the actual content of telephone conversations and can even plant Trojans on the compromised phones of unsuspecting users.

Politico said that the StingRays found around the White House were of the highest technical sophistication, and were “likely intended” to spy on President Trump, his senior advisers and other close associates. Politico said it had no information on whether the attempt was successful. The spy devices were detected by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2017 and acknowledged by US government officials in 2018. Senior American intelligence officials allegedly told Politico that an exhaustive two-year investigation into the matter showed “with confidence [that] the Israelis were responsible” for the StingRays.

The investigation was led by the counterintelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the help of the DHS and the Secret Service. The National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency are also known to assist such counterintelligence investigations. The devices were disassembled and their technical specifications were carefully inspected to assess their history and origins. Investigators reportedly concluded that very few countries have the technical and financial capabilities to build and plant such devices in the US, and that Israel was the most likely culprit.

Politico also said that some intelligence officials are unhappy about the Trump administration’s lack of response to the alleged spying by Israel. According to the officials, the White House did not file a protest —either publicly or privately— with the Israeli government, and “there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior”.  On Thursday afternoon, the US president voiced skepticism when asked by reporters about the Politico report: “I really would find that hard to believe”, said Trump, adding that his “relationship with Israel has been great”. Meanwhile the office of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the Politico report as “a blatant lie” and noted that Israel’s spy services had “a directive from the Israeli government not to engage in any intelligence operations in the US”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 September 2019 | Permalink