Taiwan president’s security detail implicated in cigarette smuggling scandal

Taiwan cigarette smugglingAt least 70 members of Taiwan’s presidential security detail used the president’s official trips abroad to smuggle thousands of cigarettes into the country, it has been announced by Taiwan’s’s spy chief. According to news reports from Taiwan, the smuggling scandal was uncovered last month, when the country’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, concluded an official tour of several Caribbean nations. Taiwanese customs officers stopped a security agent in President Tsai’s entourage, who allegedly tried to bring nearly 10,000 cartons of duty-free cigarettes into the country. The agent had ordered the cigarettes online prior to the presidential trip. He then concealed the cartons in an airport warehouse and planned to bring them into the country by disguising them as supplies used by President Tsai’s motorcade.

The customs officials contacted China Airlines, the national carrier of Taiwan, and requested information on the number of duty-free cigarette cartons that had been brought onboard by members of the president’s entourage during her foreign trips. The data revealed that thousands of cartons had been transported during presidential trips, which pointed to an organized smuggling operation by dozens of members of Tsai’s entourage. A subsequent investigation by the National Security Bureau (NSB), Taiwan’s spy service, revealed that the smuggling network had begun operating during the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai’s predecessor. The scandal prompted the resignation of the director of the NSB. On Friday, the NSB’s new Director, Chiu Kuo-cheng, gave a rare press conference in which he provided further details on the case. According to Chiu, 49 members of the presidential security detail, 25 NSB officers and two members of Taiwan’s Military Police, participated in the smuggling network. Most smuggled between 10 and 50 cartons of cigarettes per trip; but some smuggled over 1,000 cartons per trip.

Chiu said on Friday that two NSB officers had been placed under arrest for their participation in the smuggling ring, and further arrests were being planned. He warned those responsible that he had personally taken command of the NSB’s investigation, and that punishment would be “severe” for those found to have participated in the smuggling. Chiu added that a number of China Airlines officials were also implicated in the smuggling network and were being questioned. On Saturday, President Tsai said she had no knowledge that members of her own security detail were smuggling duty-free cigarettes into Taiwan.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 August 2019 | Permalink

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ISIS will launch ‘complex international attacks’, warns UN intelligence report

Sri Lanka Easter bombingsDespite its military defeat in the Middle East, the Islamic State retains the ability to launch “complex international attacks” and will likely do so this year, according to a new report by a United Nations monitoring team. These attacks will occur in “unexpected locations” around the world, says the report, which was authored by a committee of the UN’s Security Council that monitors the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions designed to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and groups aligned with them.

On April 21 of this year, the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) claimed responsibility for nine suicide blasts that targeted Catholic churches and five-star hotels in Sri Lanka’s western and eastern coastal regions. The near-simultaneous bombings killed 258 people and injured over 500. They are believed to constitute the bloodiest terrorist attack in Sri Lanka’s history. But the United Nations report published on Wednesday claimed that the Sri Lanka attacks were the beginning of a worldwide campaign by ISIS, which will continue to occur throughout 2019. The absence of major ISIS attacks after April 21 is a temporary “abatement”, says the report, and will likely end before the this year concludes. Between now and then, “more Islamic State-inspired attacks will occur”, it notes. Since the fall of its self-styled caliphate in the Middle East, the militant Sunni group has maintained a sophisticated online media profile and propaganda campaign and continues to “aspire to have global relevance”, according to the report. To achieve this aim, the Islamic State’s leadership believes that the group must continue to carry out large-scale international attacks. In their effort, ISIS planners are assisted by the group’s substantial fortune, which is estimated to approach $450 million. These funds are being used to sponsor terrorist operations by ISIS affiliates in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the report claims.

In an earlier intelligence report published in August of last year, the United Nations warned that the Islamic State had recovered from its recent defeats in the battlefield and retained as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria alone. The report appeared to contradict earlier proclamations by the Iraqi government that the war against the group had been won. Similar proclamations were issued last year by United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over.

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

Many countries, not just Russia, are trying to influence US elections, experts warn

TwitterSeveral countries are behind organized efforts to influence electoral politics in the United States, with Russia being one among a growing list of culprits, according to experts. Speaking to The Washington Post last week, cybersecurity experts issued what they described as “a wake-up call” to voters and warned that America’s information space is becoming “a free-for-all for foreign intelligence”. Foreign spy services that are utilizing information operations in order to influence US elections reportedly include —aside from Russia— Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and China.

The majority of foreign information operations take place on social-media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But there are also campaigns to influence more traditional American media, for instance by tricking newspapers into publishing letters to the editor that are in fact authored by foreign intelligence operatives. Analysts from FireEye, Graphika and other cybersecurity and network-analysis firms told The Post that some information operations are difficult to detect, because the presence of a state security service is not always apparent. However, the messages that are communicated in tweets, Facebook postings, online videos, etc., tend to echo —often word for word— the rhetoric of foreign governments, and promote their geopolitical objectives. As can be expected, these objectives vary. Thus, Russian, Israeli and Saudi information operations tend to express strong political support for US President Donald Trump, arguably because these governments see his potential re-election as a development that would further their national interest. In contrast, Iranian information operations tend to lambast Trump for his negative stance on the Iranian nuclear deal and for his support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War.

The Washington Post article notes that all major social-media companies employ teams of screeners whose mission is to detect and eliminate disinformation campaigns by both state and non-state actors. However, experts remain skeptical about their ability to combat the phenomenon, given that the quantity and sophistication of disinformation campaigns is constantly increasing. Many countries —including Israel and the United States— now maintain advanced information operations targeting national elections on several continents. There are also many governments —such as Qatar, the Philippines and Turkey— that use these techniques on their own voters and could potentially use them in the near future to target foreign populations, including Americans. The 2020 presidential election in the US is expected to be the most hotly contested in many decades, so it is certain that numerous foreign spy agencies will try to influence it in numerous ways, says The Post.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2019 | Permalink

Austria issues international arrest warrant for alleged Russian spy

Igor Egorovich ZaytsevThe Austrian government has issued an international arrest warrant for a Russian man who allegedly recruited a retired colonel in the Austrian Federal Army to spy for Moscow. The arrest warrant was issued on Tuesday by the public prosecutor’s office in the city of Salzburg. It identifies the Russian man as Igor Egorovich Zaytsev. Austrian officials allege that the Moscow-born Zaytsev is in fact an intelligence officer for the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Known as GRU, the organization is Russia’s primary military-intelligence agency.

In an accompanying press statement issued on Tuesday, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior said that Zaytsev had facilitated the “betrayal of state secrets” and that his actions had been “to the detriment of the Republic of Austria”. The arrest warrant accuses Zaytsev of having participated in the “intentional disclosure of a military secret”, but does not provide details. However, in a subsequent statement, Austrian police directly linked the search for Zaytsev with an espionage case that was reported in the Austrian media last year. The statement said that Zaytsev is believed to have recruited a man known as “Martin M.” to spy on Austria. This appears to refer to the arrest last November of a 70-year-old colonel in the Austrian Army, who was stationed in Salzburg. He is believed to have spied for Russia from at least 1992 until his arrest. Austrian media reported that the accused spy was believed to have given Russia information on a range of weapons systems used by the Austrian Army and Air Force, as well as the personal details of high-ranking officers in the Austrian Armed Forces.

Soon after the arrest of “Martin M.”, Austrian authorities arrested a second man, identified only as “O.”, who is also suspected on having spied for Russia. According to the Vienna Public Prosecutor’s Office, “O.” was an employee of the Austrian Office for Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism, known as BVT. He had been investigated on suspicion of espionage for more than a year prior to his arrest. The man’s arrest took place alongside simultaneous raids at two residential addresses associated with him, according to reports. No further details have been made available since the arrest. It is not known whether Zaytsev’s is also connected with the case of “O.”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 2019 | Permalink

‘Sonic attacks’ may have shrunk brains of US diplomats in Cuba, study finds

US embassy in CubaA series of alleged “sonic attacks” by a mysterious weapon may have caused the brains of American diplomats who served at the United States embassy in Cuba to shrink, according to a new scientific study. In 2017 Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from the US embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from the US consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing, and possibly from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. Subsequently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

The theory that a sonic weapon caused the diplomats’ ailments is not universally held, with some scientists doubting the validity of such claims. But now a new study may have provided a tangible and measurable link that connects the physiological symptoms suffered by the diplomats. The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association,The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a detailed examination of data from magnetic resonance imaging studies that assessed both structural and functional endpoints of the brains of the victims of the alleged sonic attacks. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania took these images of the brains of 40 individuals who complained of acute auditory and other sensory disturbances while in Cuba, and compared them with those of healthy participants. The latter were matched with the patients for age, lifestyle and general background. According to the study, the comparison revealed statistically significant differences in various structures of the subjects’ brains. The differences were most pronounced in the white matter of their brains. The white matter is important because it is comprised of the myelin-protected nerve fibers that are responsible for transmitting the electrical signals from one brain cell (neuron) to another. Damage to these regions would result in a reduction of the brain’s ability to process information as rapidly as the brains of non-affected individuals. According to the study, the volume of white matter in the brains of the alleged sonic attack victims was approximately five percent smaller than that in the brains of healthy adults.

One of the scientists behind the study told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph that his team of researchers have not seen “anything like it before”. But he added that he and his colleagues are “not sure […] what it is”, though “there does appear to be something there”. Another expert told the paper that the findings of the University of Pennsylvania study supported the validity of the symptoms reported by the American diplomats. However, they do not help answer the question of whether they suffered actual brain injuries. A spokesman from the United States Department of State told The Telegraph that the Department is “aware of the study and welcomes the medical community’s discussion of this incredibly complex issue”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 July 2019 | Permalink

Hundreds of ISIS fighters returning to Iraq to wage low-level insurgency

Islamic State ISISAbout 1,000 Islamic State fighters have returned to Iraq in recent months and are waging a low-level insurgency that threatens to destabilize rural areas and may be the forerunner of a new sectarian war, an expert has warned. Thousands of fighters belonging to the Islamic State —known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS— crossed into Syria in late 2017. In December of that year, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory in the war against the militant Sunni group. Since then, however, many of these fighters have been slipping back into Iraq from Syria and are now picking up arms again against the Iraqi state, which they see as being dominated by Iran-allied Shiites.

In an article published on Sunday, The Washington Post cites Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi security advisor to the government in Baghdad, as well as several foreign aid groups, who warns that ISIS is regrouping in Iraq. Al-Hashimi told The Post that approximately 1,000 ISIS fighters are believed to have crossed into Iraq from Syria since December of 2018. Most of them are Iraqi nationals who are essentially returning to the Sunni-majority areas of the country that were considered ISIS strongholds before 2018. Upon their return, the fighters join small ISIS cells that operate mostly in rural areas in central and northern Iraq. They move at night and are intimately familiar with the local terrain, which allows them to utilize effectively a variety of hiding places. These cells can now be found in locations ranging from the city of Kirkuk in the north to the province of Diyala, east of Baghdad. They are responsible for scores of kidnappings, roadside bombings and sniper attacks that target local officials and security personnel. Local observers stress that the re-emerging ISIS cells are too weak to threaten the territorial control of the country by the Iraqi government. However, they are rapidly destabilizing rural areas in the country and appear to be preparing for a protracted insurgency that could potentially lead to another major sectarian war.

The Washington Post report comes a month after a group of researchers with the Institute for the Study of War warned that the Islamic State is capable of making a sudden comeback in the Middle East that could be “faster and even more devastating” than 2014, when the group quickly conquered territory the size of Britain. In a 76-page paper entitled ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, the researchers said that the militant group had managed to subvert Iraqi and Syrian government efforts to reintroduce stability and safety in areas previously under ISIS domination. Not only were government forces finding it “increasingly difficult to establish durable and legitimate security and political structures” in those areas, but they should be worried about the possibility of ISIS actually reconquering territory in both Iraq and Syria, the report warned.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 July 2019 | Permalink

South Korean spy agency says North Korean nuclear negotiators were not executed

Kim Jong-unThe spy agency of South Korea has dismissed media reports that North Korea had several of its top nuclear negotiators executed or sent to labor camps, but has not rejected rumors of a major reshuffle in Pyongyang. In early June, media reports in Seoul claimed that North Korea had executed at least five of its senior nuclear negotiators and imprisoned several others. Prior to these reports, rumors of executions of North Korean nuclear negotiators had circulated in international diplomatic circles since February, but no specific allegations had surfaced in the news media. That changed when Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s highest-circulation newspaper, alleged that at least five executions of nuclear negotiators had taken place in Pyongyang in March.

The paper claimed that the most senior North Korean official to be executed was Kim Hyok-chol, who led the nuclear negotiations with Washington prior to the Vietnam summit. The summit culminated with a —seemingly fruitless— face-to-face meeting between the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Citing an “anonymous source” Chosun Ilbo said that Kim had been executed by a firing squad at the Pyongyang East Airfield in Mirim, a suburb of the North Korean capital. Four other Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were executed at the same time, allegedly for having been “swayed by American imperialists to betray the Supreme Leader”, said the newspaper. Two more senior North Korean nuclear negotiators, Kim Yong-chol and Kim Song-hye, were allegedly stripped of their government posts and sent to labor camps, according to the report.

On Tuesday, however, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) directly contradicted Chosun Ilbo’s account. The spy agency told a closed-door meeting with members of parliament in Seoul that Kim Yong-chol had made recent appearances at senior-level events of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), and that Kim Hyok-chol was still alive. But the NIS did not rule out the possibility of a major reshuffle among the ranks of Pyongyang’s nuclear negotiators and the replacement of some of the top figures with new officials from the ranks of the WPK. Most international observers agree that Kim Jong-un is displeased with the impasse in the nuclear negotiations with Washington and has criticized —in some cases publicly— the performance of his team of negotiators.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2019 | Permalink