Countries using Eastern Europe to flood Syria with weapons, study finds

AK-47Unprecedented quantities of weapons and ammunition worth in nearly $1.5 billion have been procured from Eastern Europe and sent to Syria to arm nearly every side in the ongoing civil war, a study has found. The weapons are transported through the Balkans and sold legally to countries bordering Syria, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Once there, they are secretly transported to Syria for use in the bloody five-year civil war, which has so far killed or displaced millions. The revelation resulted from a year-long investigative project by the Serbia-based Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in Bosnia.

The probe found that the weapons transferred to the Middle East include heavy machine guns, rocket and mortar launchers and shells, anti-tank weapons, as well as thousands of assault rifles and rounds of ammunition. Many originate from Ukraine, Belarus and the former Yugoslavia and are procured by companies in eight Eastern European countries including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, and Bosnia. The governments of these countries give the companies permission to sell weapons to Middle Eastern countries, even though it is informally understood that they will eventually end up in Syria, in contravention of international agreements.

Investigators say the smuggled weapons have been traced to various factions fighting in Syria, primarily the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But many have ended up in the hands of Islamist militias, including the Islamic State, Ansar al-Islam, and the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of the weapons have also surfaced in Yemen, in the hands of Sunni fighters there. According to the probe’s findings, Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, whose militaries use Western-made weaponry, were never large purchasers of Eastern European weapons. But that quickly changed in 2012, as the Syrian Civil War picked up pace.

According to British newspaper The Guardian, which published some of the findings of the BIRN-OCCRP report, the United States has used this weapons-smuggling channel as a way to arm Syrian opposition forces. The study found that, since December of last year, the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command has commissioned at least three cargo ships that left ports in the Black Sea for the Middle East carrying weapons for Syria. Regular intelNews readers will remember a report from November 2013, according to which the Greek authorities seized a ship that had left Ukraine heading for Syria or Libya, carrying 20,000 AK-47s, as well as explosives and ammunition. Two years later, in November 2015, we reported on allegations that Ukraine may be secretly arming the Islamic State in an effort to impair its regional foe, Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2016 | Permalink

Turkish media accuse US general, CIA, of plotting coup

Yeni Şafak’sAmerican officials have strongly denied accusations in the Turkish press that Washington was behind the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. On July 25, Yeni Şafak, a popular Turkish daily, alleged that the failed coup had been funded and organized by the United States government. The newspaper, which is headquartered in Istanbul, is known for its conservative political stance and close links to the AKP, the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Its editorials typically reflect the AKP’s position on the political affairs of the day.

In its leading article on Monday, Yeni Şafak cited “senior government officials” in claiming that the CIA had organized the plotters behind the July 25 military putsch. It also fingered retired US Army General John F. Campbell as the principal intermediary between the CIA and the coup plotters in the Turkish military. Born in 1957, General Campbell served as the US Army’s Vice Chief of Staff until 2014, when he assumed the command of all US armed forces in Afghanistan. Upon his retirement, in 2016, he stepped down from that post as the last commander of the International Security Assistance Force in the Central Asian country. Yeni Şafak’s July 25 front-page headline read: “This man led the coup”, next to a photograph of General Campbell. In the corresponding article, the retired American General was accused of having “organized and managed the soldiers” behind the coup, and having handled “at least $2 billion” in CIA funds, which he allegedly distributed to the coup plotters via the Nigeria-based United Bank for Africa (UBA).

But in a statement issued on Tuesday, UBA called Yeni Şafak’s allegations spurious and insisted it had “no involvement with, or connection to” the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, General Campbell also dismissed the allegations against him as “absolutely ridiculous”, adding that they “don’t even warrant a response”. On the same day, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, described the Turkish newspaper’s article as “absurd”. Speaking at a press conference held jointly with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Washington, General Dunford said: “I really don’t know where that report could have come from”. Last week, US President Barack Obama telephoned his Turkish counterpart to assure him that the US had no prior knowledge of, or involvement in, the coup.

Pro-AKP media in Turkey have repeatedly accused Washington of being behind the July 15 coup attempt. But the Yeni Şafak article marked the first time that a foreign individual was named as a leading coup plotter. Ankara claims that the main culprit of the coup is Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic religious figure who leads a large anti-AKP religious movement from his place of exile in the US state of Pennsylvania. Turkey has said that it will issue a formal request for Gülen’s extradition. But the White House says it will consider extraditing Gülen only in light of sufficient evidence from Ankara. Gülen himself denies all charges of involvement in the plot.

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

Two men held in Ireland over 2006 murder of Provisional IRA spy

Denis DonaldsonPolice in Ireland say they have arrested two individuals in connection with the 2006 killing of a senior member of the Irish Republican Army, who had previously been outed as a spy for the British state. Denis Donaldson joined the Provisional IRA as a volunteer in mid-1960s, before the outbreak of the Troubles, which rocked Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until 1998. He was trained in paramilitary operations in Lebanon and participated in many IRA actions. He served time at the Long Kesh Detention Centre along with IRA volunteer and Member of Parliament Bobby Sands, who died in the famed 1981 Irish hunger strike. After Sands’ death, Donaldson stood as a general election candidate in Belfast East for Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing. In the process, he became a close associate of Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. In 2000, shortly after the end of the IRA’s 30-year military campaign, Sinn Féin appointed Donaldson as the administrator of its parliamentary group in Stormont, the devolved Northern Irish parliament.

But on December 16, 2005, Adams stunned reporters during a press conference in Dublin, Ireland, by announcing that Donaldson had been a spy for the British government inside Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA. There were rumors at the time that Donaldson was deliberately outed to Adams by the British government. Soon after Adams’ revelation, Donaldson read a prepared statement on Ireland’s state-owned RTÉ television station, admitting that he had been recruited as a spy by the British Security Service (MI5) and the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (known today as the Police Service of Northern Ireland). Following his public admission, Donaldson was nowhere to be found. However, on March 19, 2006, a reported for a British tabloid newspaper found Donaldson living in a remote farmhouse outside the village of Glenties, in Northern Ireland’s County Donegal. Weeks later, Donaldson was shot dead in his cottage by persons unknown. Most saw the Provisional IRA behind Donaldson’s murder. In 2009, however, the Real IRA, a Provisional IRA splinter group that disagreed with the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent cessation of hostilities, took responsibility for Donaldson’s killing.

On Tuesday, the Garda Síochána, the police force of the Republic of Ireland, said it had arrested two men in connection with Donaldson’s murder. The two men, who are reportedly in their 40s and 70s, have not been named. They are being held under Ireland’s Offences Against the State Act, the Gardaí said. The precise connection —if any— between Tuesday’s arrests and the official inquest into Donaldson’s death, which continues after having been postponed or delayed 20 times, is unknown at this time.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 July 2016 | 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

India expels high-profile Chinese journalists, allegedly for spying

Wu XiangFor the first time in history, India has refused to extend temporary residency visas for three senior Chinese media correspondents, effectively expelling them from the country, allegedly for espionage activities. All three reporters are employees of China’s state-run Xinhua news agency. They include Xinhua’s bureau chief in the Indian capital, New Delhi, Wu Xiang, and the agency’s Mumbai bureau chief, Lu Tang. A third journalist, She Yonggang, also based in Mumbai, has been asked to leave India by no later than July 31.

According to several Indian news media, the decision to refuse visa renewals for the Chinese journalists was taken after Indian intelligence agencies confirmed that the three were engaging in activities that “were incompatible with their journalistic capacity”. The phrase typically refers to espionage and related activities. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the Chinese reporters have been officially asked to leave the country by the end of this month. All three are reportedly reputable experts in Indian affairs. Xinhua’s Mumbai bureau chief, Lu Tang, is typical: a fluent Hindi speaker and Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate, she specializes in Indo-Chinese relations and has written for some of Asia’s most best known publications.

Indian sources have not confirmed that the decision to expel the journalists relates to espionage activities. Government officials insist that the three had let their visas expire four months ago and were staying in India based on temporary fortnightly extensions. The Indian government simply made the decision not to renew the journalists’ already expired visas, they said. When asked about his impending expulsion, Xinhua’s New Delhi bureau chief, Wu Xiang, said he and his two colleagues had not been given a reason for the Indian government’s refusal to extend their visas. Indian officials told reporters that Xinhua would be allowed to replace the three reporters’ posts. The Chinese government has not yet responded to the news of the expulsions. There are reportedly five Indian journalists working in China for Indian news agencies.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 July 2016 | Permalink

French government acknowledges it has special forces, spies, in Libya

French special forcesThe death of three French Special Forces soldiers in Libya has prompted the first public acknowledgement by France that its troops are involved in “dangerous intelligence operations” in the North African country. The acknowledgement was made on Wednesday in an official statement issued by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister of Defense. In the statement, Le Drian said he “regretted the loss of three French officers who expired while on mission in Libya”. The acknowledgement came less than 24 hours after the Associated Press news agency claimed that a helicopter carrying French troops had been shot down in Libya. The report quoted unnamed Libyan officials as saying that the helicopter had been shot down by an Islamist militia in the outskirts of the city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya.

Paris has previously acknowledged the presence of French warplanes in Libya, which it says are only involved in reconnaissance operations. It is also known that France has set up a forward operating base in Niger, close to the southern Libyan border. But the French government has never before acknowledged the presence of French troops or intelligence operatives on Libyan soil. During the uprising that deposed longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, there were persistent rumors of daring operations by French commandos and intelligence operatives, which were never confirmed. In February of this year, French newspaper Le Monde claimed that French troops and spies were active in Libya. In a leading article titled “France’s Secret War in Libya”, the French daily said that President François Hollande had secretly authorized operations by elite special forces and officers of the DGSE, France’s General Directorate for External Security. But France’s Defense Ministry refused to comment on Le Monde’s allegations, while Laurent Fabius, who was then France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, denied the newspaper’s claims, saying that France did not have the means to intervene militarily in Libya.

Speaking shortly after Wednesday’s disclosure by the Defense Ministry, President Hollande said the three special forces soldiers had died while “carrying out perilous intelligence operations” in Libya. In a subsequent interview on the Paris-based France Info Radio, French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll admitted that French operatives are indeed active in Libya. Asked whether the Defense Ministry’s statement offered such an acknowledgement, Le Foll responded: “French special forces are [in Libya], naturally, to offer assistance and to ensure that France has a presence wherever the struggle against international terrorism is taking place”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 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

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