Former CIA officer connected with abduction of Muslim cleric flees Europe

Sabrina De SousaA former officer in the United States Central Intelligence Agency, who was convicted of involvement in the 2003 abduction of a Muslim cleric in Italy, says she fled Europe for the United States in fear of her safety. Sabrina De Sousa, 63, was a diplomat at the US consulate in Milan, Italy, when a CIA team abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from a Milan street in broad daylight. Nasr, who goes by the nickname Abu Omar, is a former member of Egyptian militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and was believed by the CIA to have links to al-Qaeda. Soon after his abduction, Nasr was renditioned to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured and raped, and held illegally for years before being released without charge.

Upon Nasr’s release from prison, Italian authorities prosecuted the CIA team that abducted him —apparently without Italy’s permission or consent. They were able to trace the American operatives through a substantial trail of evidence they left behind, including telephone records and bill invoices in luxury hotels in Milan and elsewhere. In 2009, De Sousa was among 22 CIA officers convicted in absentia in an Italian court for their alleged involvement in Nasr’s abduction. The US government has refused to extradite the 22 officers to Italy to serve prison sentences. However, those convicted are now classified as international fugitives and risk arrest by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory.

De Sousa was arrested in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2015. Portuguese authorities threatened to extradite her to Italy, but in 2017 the Italian government partially commuted her sentence to house arrest and reduced it from seven to four years. There were reports at the time that Italy had bowed to diplomatic pressure from Washington. On Monday, however, Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera said that De Sousa had fled Europe and returned to the US in fear for her personal safety. The former CIA officer told the paper that she decided to return to the US after senior American officials, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, visited Italy earlier this month. Pompeo traveled to Rome for an official visit on October 1, while Haspel met with senior Italian intelligence officials on October 9.

De Sousa told Il Corriere della Sera that Haspel’s visit to Italy “verified for the Italian government that the American administration had washed its hands of my situation”. For this reason, and “terrified of the consequences that I could face” in Italy, “I decided to leave”, said De Sousa. She did not elaborate on the precise connection between her partially commuted sentence and Pompeo and Haspel’s visit to Italy. She added that recent changes to the US Whistleblower Act made it possible for her to openly discuss further details on her case, but did not elaborate. Her Italian lawyer, Andrea Saccucci, spoke to the Reuters news agency and confirmed that his client had left Europe for the US.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 October 2019 | Permalink

Italy arrests Russian ex-foreign ministry official for espionage following US request

Naples International AirportItaly has arrested a Russian business executive and former foreign ministry official who is wanted by the United States for carrying out espionage against an American aviation firm. Alexander Yuryevich Korshunov, 57, who is a former official in Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was reportedly arrested on August 30 at Naples International Airport in Italy. On Thursday, the US Department of State filed a criminal complaint against Korshunov, accusing him of trade secret theft. According to the complaint, Korshunov’s espionage benefited a Russian state-owned aviation company. He was allegedly assisted by 59-year-old Maurizio aPolo Bianchi, an Italian citizen, who remains at large.

The US government claims that the two men conspired to steal blueprints for the design of gearbox accessories used in jet engines. The company they allegedly stole the information from is GE Aviation, a company based in the US state of Ohio. Bianchi reportedly used to work for one of GE Aviation’s subsidiaries in Italy and dealt with clients from Russia and China, among other countries. But he eventually left the company and joined another firm that contracted with Aviadvigatel, a subsidiary of United Engine Corporation. The latter is a Russian-owned aerospace company that employed Korshunov. During his work for Aviadvigatel, Bianchi is accused of having employed a number of current and former employees of GE Aviation as consultants. But the work that Bianchi carried out for his new company compromised trade secrets belonging to GE Aviation, according to the US Department of Justice. Moreover, the Department claims that both Bianchi and Korshunov, who supervised Bianchi’s work on behalf of Aviadvigatel, were aware that they were exploiting trade secrets that did not belong to them.

There is no information on Bianchi’s whereabouts. If convicted, the two men face up to 10 years in prison each. On Thursday, the Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the charges against Korshunov as biased and said they were likely motivated by “unfair competition” practices by American companies. The Italian government has issued no public comment about Korshunov’s arrest.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 August 2019 | Permalink

Italian police find ‘combat-ready’ air-to-air missile in raids on far-right groups

Air to air missile ItalyPolice in Italy have found an air-to-air missile in “perfect working order” alongside dozens of guns during raids on homes belonging to members of far-right groups. The raids took place in several northern Italian cities and were coordinated by the Digos, a special unit of the Turin Municipal Police that deals with organized crime and terrorism. Aside from Turin, synchronized raids took place in Varese, Novara, Forli and Milan. According to reports in the Italian media, the raids were part of a large-scale investigation into an extensive network of Italian far-right groups whose members provided logistical and material support to Russian-backed separatists in southeastern Ukraine.

At least three men were arrested in connection with the raids, two of them in Forli and one in Galarate, a small town near Varese on the Italian-Swiss border. They were named as Alessandro Monti, 42, a Swiss national, and Fabio Bernardi, 51, an Italian national. A third man, Fabio Del Bergiolo, 50, also an Italian national, is reportedly a retired customs officer who in 2001 run for office with Forza Nuova, a neo-fascist Italian grouping. Until 2014, Forza Nuova activists were known to have close links with Svoboda, the far-right Ukrainian paramilitary group. But in the past five years, the Italian neo-fascist group’s leaders have openly sided with Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels. Italian police reported that they found several guns in Bergiolo’s home, including nine unspecified “assault weapons” and 29 hunting rifles, as well as pistols and ammunition. But the most worrying find was an air-to-air guided missile at an airport hangar, which was placed inside a box that belonged to one of the three men. The missile is designed to be fired from an aircraft to target another aircraft. It is reportedly a Matra Super 530F, which was manufactured by France in 1980. According to the police report, it is “in perfect working order”. The most recent legal owner of the missile was the Qatar Air Force. It is not known how it ended up in the hands of the three suspects, but it is believed that they have been seeking to sell it in the black market.

The police raids took place less than two weeks after a court in Genoa sentenced three men for traveling to Russia and taking up arms alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The three men were identified in court reports as Antonio Cataldo, an Italian citizen, Olsi Krutani, from Albania, and Vladimir Vrbitchii, who is from Moldova. The three men received jail sentences ranging from 16 months to 34 months. As a reminder, last September security agencies in Eastern Europe voiced concern about the rise of far-right paramilitary groups whose members allegedly have access to increasingly heavy weaponry, including in some cases armored vehicles and tanks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 July 2019 | Permalink

Italy rebukes France for blocking EU resolution calling for end to Libyan war

khalifa haftarSeveral European Union member states, led by Italy, have criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. The latest round of hostilities was sparked by an all-out attack by a group calling itself the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011, following an uprising that toppled Gaddafi, Haftar returned to Libya and launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Last week, Haftar launched an all-out attack to defeat the GNA and take Tripoli —a move that many observers have been expecting for several months. With the LNA receiving substantial military assistance from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, most observers expected that Haftar would be the ruler of Tripoli within days. But his troops were unexpectedly pushed back by GNA troops on Monday, and have been unable to enter Tripoli from the south, as was their initial plan. Meanwhile the EU attempted on Wednesday to issue a joint statement calling on all warring sides to put down their weapons and enter into negotiations. But France blocked the draft statement, prompting heavy criticism.

On Thursday, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini criticized France for blocking the EU statement “for economic and commercial reasons” and warned that he would “not stand by and watch” France continue to support “a party that is fighting” in the Libyan Civil War. Salvini expressed the view that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military intervention in Libya in 2011, which was strongly supported by France, was “triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns”. Unlike France, which has been a strong supporter of Haftar, Italy backs the UN-supported GNA and Libya’s legitimate Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.

In 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle. The Libyan warlord denies these charges against him.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 April 2019 | Permalink

Italian mafia may be supplying weapons to ISIS, say investigators

AK-47Organized criminal groups in southern Italy may be supplying assault weapons to groups and individuals that are associated with the Islamic State, according to European investigators. British newspaper The Guardian said last week that security officials in Italy, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe have traced weapons used by Islamists to at least one arms cache that entered the European black market through a Sicilian crime family with links to the mafia.

According to The Guardian, the initial link to the supply of weapons seems to originate with an organized criminal family in Catania, on Sicily’s eastern coast. The family, known locally as the “Ceusi”, is part of the “Santopaula” clan, which is the dominant criminal network in that part of Italy. Investigators have confirmed that two years ago the Ceusi family purchased a cache of 160 deactivated AK-47s from AFG Security Corporation, a Slovakia-based European weapons dealer. The purchase of the weapons, for $40,000, was legal. But the Sicilian mafia then illegally reactivated the weapons by removing the deactivating metal pins that had been inserted into the weapons’ barrels. The reactivated weapons were then supplied to the ’Ndrangheta, the Italian organized crime network that operates in the region of Calabria, in the Italian mainland. In turn, the ’Ndrangheta, which specializes in the trafficking of contraband to and from Europe, sold many of these reactivated weapons to a smuggling ring headquartered in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

It was the Egyptian network, say investigators, that sold the AK-47s to Islamist militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, who have close connections with the Islamic State in Syria and other Islamist groups. A few of the weapons even ended up in the hands of European Islamists in France and elsewhere. Much of the intelligence regarding the AK-47s comes from telephone intercepts, said The Guaridan. But the newspaper cautioned that concrete links between the Mafia and the Islamic State have not yet been established. Nevertheless, the paper said that, according to European investigators, “organized criminals are increasingly open to trading with extremists”, and there are mounting “signs of an even closer relationship between organized criminals and Islamists” operating in North Africa and the Middle East.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 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

Russian, Portuguese intelligence officers arrested in Rome on espionage charges

Frederico CarvalhãoTwo intelligence officers, one Russian and one Portuguese, have been arrested by Italian authorities on charges of espionage. The arrests took place in Rome on Monday by Italian police, who were reportedly accompanied by Portuguese counterintelligence officers. It is suggested in Portuguese media that the two men were arrested in the act of exchanging classified documents and money. The Portuguese intelligence officer has been identified in news reports as Frederico Carvalhão, a section chief for Portugal’s Security Information Service, which is tasked with domestic security and counterintelligence. The Russian intelligence officer has not been identified, but is believed to be an employee of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR. Interestingly, the Russian officer does not have diplomatic status and was therefore arrested, since he holds no diplomatic immunity.

A press release by the Portuguese government prosecutor said that Carvalhão had been arrested “along with a foreign subject linked to an intelligence organization” after a lengthy investigation into “concerns that [classified] information was being exchanged for money”. It is believed that Portuguese authorities began investigating Carvalhão in 2015, and now believe that he frequently traveled abroad to meet his Russian handler. He is thought to have been recruited by the Russians in 2014. According to Portuguese media reports, the documents that Carvalhão appears to have been giving the SVR contain information about the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Portugal is a member.

Carvalhão is said to have flown from Lisbon to Rome on Friday of last week in order to meet his SVR handler. The two men were meeting in a café on Saturday when they were arrested. The Portuguese government prosecutor said that Saturday’s arrests resulted from “rigorous collaboration between Portuguese and Italian authorities”. He also thanked Eurojust, a European Union agency based in the Netherlands, which focuses on cross-national judicial cooperation between European Union member-states. Security officers also raided Carvalhão’s home in Portugal, where they allegedly seized “documents and cash”. Both he and his alleged Russian hander remain in detention in Rome, while Italy is preparing to extradite them to Portugal.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2016 | Permalink | News tip: C.W.