US Homeland Security Department accused of disbanding homegrown terrorism unit

Department of Homeland Security DHSSome employees of the United States Department of Homeland Security claim that a unit specializing on homegrown and domestic terrorism was inexplicably disbanded, leaving America vulnerable to attack. The allegations were published on Tuesday on the website of The Daily Beast, an investigative news and opinion website. In a leading article published on the site, reporter Betsy Woodruff cites “current and former DHS officials” with knowledge about the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A), which is the intelligence wing of the DHS.

Woodruff claims that, until recently, I&A employoed a team of analysts that worked on potential threats from domestic terrorism activity and homegrown violent extremist individuals or groups. They then shared their reports with law enforcement on the state and local level, which is DHS’s mission. But in August of 2017, when David Glawe assumed the post of Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Intelligence and Analysis, I&A experienced a major reorganization. The article alleges that Glawe —who was appointed by President Donald Trump— did away with the I&A unit that monitors domestic militancy, including far-right radicalization. Ever since that move, I&A have “significantly reduced their production [of analysis] on homegrown violent extremism and domestic terrorism”, according to a DHS official quoted in The Daily Beast piece. The I&A’s reduction in output has “generated significant concern at headquarters given the growth in right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism we are seeing in the US and abroad”, said another DHS official.

But in a written response to the website’s allegations, Glawe dismissed the claims as “patently false and the exact opposite of what we have done”. He went on to state that I&A has “significantly increased tactical intelligence reporting on domestic terrorists and homegrown violent extremists since 2016”. Referring to The Daily Beast’s claims, Glawe said that “those pushing such a narrative either do not understand intelligence collection efforts or don’t care about the truth”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 04 April 2019 | Permalink

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US Secret Service arrests Chinese woman for entering Trump’s vacation property

Donald TrumpA Chinese woman who entered President Donald Tump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, was found to be in possession of two passports, four mobile phones and a flash drive containing “malicious software”, according to the United States Secret Service. Secret Service agents told a US District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Monday that the woman, identified as Yujing Zhang, entered the private club –which serves as President Trump’s vacation home– on Saturday afternoon. She allegedly approached Secret Service personnel and sought entrance to the property. When asked to identify herself, she reportedly took out of her bag two Chinese passports and said she intended to use the Mar-a-Lago swimming pool.

When Mar-a-Lago personnel could not find her name on the list of the private club’s members, Zhang told them that she was related to a man with the same last name, who appeared on the membership list. She was allowed onto the property on the assumption that the club member was her father, in what security personnel later described as an error caused by “a language barrier issue”. Once inside Mar-a-Lago, Zhang then reportedly told a receptionist that she was there to attend a meeting of the United Nations Chinese American Association. Some of the club personnel, who knew that no such event had been scheduled to take place at Mar-a-Lago, contacted the Secret Service. Zhang told Secret Service agents that she had been told by “a friend” called “Charles” to travel from Shanghai to Florida in order to attend the United Nations Chinese American Association meeting. But she said she was unable to provide further details.

After detaining her, Secret Service agents found that she was carrying –aside from the two Chinese passports– four cellphones, a laptop computer with an external hard drive attached to it, and a thumb drive. Secret Service agents said that, upon further examination, the thumb drive was found to contain “malware”. Zhang was then arrested for entering a restricted property and making false statements to Secret Service officials. On Tuesday, Zhang’s lawyer said she was “invoking her right to remain silent”. The US Department of Justice said it would not comment on the case. If found guilty, Zhang could spend up to five years behind bars.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 April 2019 | Permalink

Russian diplomat involved in espionage leaves Sweden after ‘unusual’ delay

Russian Embassy SwedenRussia has recalled one of its diplomats from Sweden after he was caught receiving classified information from a computer expert at a nightclub in Stockholm. The computer expert was later identified as Kristian Dmitrievski, a 45-year-old naturalized Swede who was born in Russia. The Swedish government accuses him of having been recruited by Russian intelligence in 2017 or earlier. He allegedly met with his Russian handlers on a regular basis since his recruitment, passing them classified information of a technical nature.

Dmitrievski was reportedly arrested on the evening of February 26, while meeting his alleged Russian handler in a downtown area of the Swedish capital. Both Dmitrievski and his alleged handler were detained by officers of the Swedish Security Service, known as SÄPO. Swedish authorities later said that Dmitrievski’s alleged handler was a member of staff of the Russian embassy in Stockholm and had diplomatic immunity. SÄPO added that the Russian diplomat was believed to be a Russian intelligence officer who worked under diplomatic cover. The Russian man’s diplomatic status granted him immunity, so Swedish authorities were unable to file espionage charges against him. However, the Swedish Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador to file a protest, while the alleged intelligence officer was told to leave the country.

Surprisingly, however, Moscow did not recall the diplomat, as expected, and no further reports were issued about the incident. Then on March 28, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter named the Russian diplomat as Yevgeny Umerenko. Later that day, the Associated Press news agency said that it had seen “an intelligence report from a European service” that identified Dmitrievski’s Russian handler as Yevgeny Umerenko. The Associated Press described Umerenko as a “Line X officer” —a Soviet-era classification referring to case officers specializing in technological espionage. Western intelligence agencies had apparently been monitoring Umerenko’s activities ever since he had a similar role at the Russian embassy in Berlin, immediately before being transferred to Stockholm.

In its report, the Associated Press said that Moscow had finally recalled Umerenko from its embassy in Sweden, and that he was back in Russia. The news agency added it spoke to Anna Lundbladh, a spokeswoman for Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who confirmed that Umerenko had left Sweden, but went on to say that the Swedish government would “not discuss this matter in further detail”.

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

French ex-spy accused of plot to assassinate Congolese politician found dead in Alps

Lucinges FranceA former paramilitary officer in the French intelligence service, who was under investigation for allegedly plotting to kill a senior Congolese opposition figure, has been shot dead near a village in the French Alps. Daniel Forestier, 57, served for nearly 15 years in a paramilitary unit of the Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) —France’s equivalent of the United States Central Intelligence Agency. After his retirement from the DGSE, he moved with this wife and two children to the alpine village of Lucinges, near Geneva, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France. He reportedly operated a tobacconist shop, served in the village council, and wrote spy novels in his spare time.

Last September, however, a judge placed Forestier under a pre-trial investigation for allegedly participating in a plot to kill General Ferdinand Mbahou. From 1992 to 1997 Mbahou (a.k.a. Mbaou) served as Director of Presidential Security in the Republic of the Congo. In 1997, Mbahou fled the country along with his employer, President Pascal Lissouba, who was ousted in a brutal civil war by militias loyal to Colonel Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congolese Labor Party. From his new home in Val d’Oise, just outside of Paris, Mbahou has continued to criticize Colonel Sassou Nguesso, who is the current president of the Republic of the Congo. Forestier and another former DGSE officer, Bruno Susini, were accused of having hatched a plan to kill Mbahou. Their indictment mentioned “participation in a criminal organization” and “possession of explosives”. Forestier reportedly told the magistrate that he was a member of a group that planned to assassinate Mbahou, but that he abandoned the effort after conducting reconnaissance and realizing that the plan was “impractical”.

Forestier’s body was discovered on Wednesday “in a pool of blood” in a parking lot in Haute-Savoie, an alpine resort area on the shores of Lake Geneva. According to a police report, he had been shot five times in the chest and head in what public prosecutor Philippe Toccanier described as “a professional job”. He added that Forestier’s killing was “almost undoubtedly […] a settling of scores”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 March 2019 | Permalink

Dissident group ‘approached the FBI’ after raid on North Korean embassy in Madrid

North Korea embassy SpainMembers of a self-styled dissident group that raided North Korea’s embassy in Madrid last month reportedly approached the authorities in the United States, offering to share material taken from the embassy. The attack took place in the afternoon of February 22 in a quiet neighborhood in northern Madrid, where the North Korean embassy is located. Ten assailants, all Southeast Asian-looking men, entered the three-story building from the main gate, brandishing guns, which were later found to be fake. They tied up and gagged the embassy’s staff, as well as three North Korean architects who were visiting the facility at the time. The assailants later abandoned the building in two embassy vehicles that were later found abandoned.

Initial reports alleging that Washington was involved in the raid were later found to be inaccurate, as an obscure North Korean dissident group, calling itself Cheollima Civil Defense —also known as Free Joseon— claimed responsibility for the attack. Cheollima Civil Defense is North Korea’s first known active resistance group in living memory, and has called for the overthrow of the Kim dynasty. But little is known about its members.

On Tuesday, however, Judge José de la Mata, of the Spanish High Court, told reporters that three members of the group had been identified by Spanish authorities. He named them as: Adrian Hong Chang, a Mexican national who is a resident of the United States; Sam Ryu, an American citizen; and Woo Ran Lee, a South Korean. Judge de la Mata said that all ten members of the group had managed to leave Spain in the hours following the attack on the North Korean embassy. Interestingly, however, Chang, who left Europe through Portugal, appeared in New York on February 27 and approached the local field office of the FBI. He allegedly met with FBI agents and described the raid on the North Korean embassy. He then offered to give the FBI some of the material that Cheollima Civil Defense stole from the embassy, including a mobile phone, USBs, laptops, as well as several hard drives.

It is not known whether the FBI accepted Chang’s offer. But, according to Judge de la Mata, Chang “handed over audiovisual material” to the FBI. When asked about Judge de la Mata’s statement, the FBI said it does not comment on investigations that are in progress. The US Department of State said that the American government “had nothing to do” with the attack on the North Korean embassy in February.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 March 2019 | Permalink

Moscow confirms arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela

Russian planes CaracasRussian media reports have confirmed that an airplane carrying 100 Russian troops arrived in Caracas on Saturday, causing tensions to rise between Washington and Moscow over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. The arrival of the Russian troops in the Venezuelan capital was first reported on Saturday morning by Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca, who said on Twitter that two Russian military airplanes had landed in Caracas. The reporter said that an Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to the Russian Air Force could be seen on the tarmac of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in the Venezuelan capital. Another, smaller aircraft, also bearing the Russian flag on its fuselage, landed shortly afterwards, said Mayorca.

Within hours, several Venezuelan media reports appeared to confirm Mayorca’s claims, some even posting photographs of the two Russian planes surrounded by what appeared to be uniformed Russian soldiers. The BBC reported that the Russian cargo plane had delivered 100 Russian troops and 35 tons of military equipment. The force was led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, commander of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, according to the BBC. Later on Saturday, the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik confirmed that Russian troops had arrived in Caracas. Citing anonymous “diplomatic sources”, Sputnik said the Russian troops had been sent to Caracas in order “to fulfil technical military contracts” and “to take part in consultations […] on defense industry cooperation” with Venezuelan officials. It added that there was “nothing mysterious” about the visit and that it was “related to [military] contracts that had been signed by the two countries years ago”.

Russia has supported Venezuela militarily, economically and diplomatically ever since 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president. The recent political crisis in the Latin American country, which has prompted a direct diplomatic intervention by Washington, has brought Caracas and Moscow closer together, as Russia has strongly opposed efforts by the United States to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, Russia sent two Tu-160 long-range bomber aircraft to take part in a military exercise organized by the Venezuelan government.

On Monday, Washington said that the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pompeo told his Russian counterpart that Moscow should “cease its unconstructive behavior” and warned him that the United States would “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbated tensions” in Venezuela. Late on Monday, Sputnik quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying that that the “visit of Russian military personnel to Venezuela [was] in no way connected to the statements of the United States on potential intervention in Venezuela”.

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

Documents show ISIS plans sleeper cell attacks in Middle East, Europe

Islamic State - IADocuments acquired from retreating Islamic State fighters in Syria appear to show that the militant group is planning a series of high-profile attacks in Europe and the Middle East, using newly formed sleeper cell units. The information was revealed over the weekend by the British newspaper The Sunday Times. The London-based broadsheet said that the information was found last month in flash drive, which was left behind by retreating Islamic State forces in Syria, and acquired by Kurdish militia forces. The flash drive was found to contain dozens of internal documents belonging the militant group, which is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Among them, said The Times, are several memoranda authored by an ISIS leader and operations planner known as Abu Taher al-Tajiki. In his memoranda, al-Tajiki informs the group’s senior leadership that he commands numerous fighters who are willing and able to carry out strikes “far away” from the Islamic State’s strongholds in the Middle East and Africa. He states that he is in regular communication with them and that they are awaiting instructions to “undertake the operations”. Al-Tajiki then calls for the creation of a Foreign Relations Office under the Islamic State’s Department of Operations, which would be tasked with launching attacks throughout Europe. He adds that the new Office can also count on the assistance of computer hackers and other technically literate Islamic State members. In another memorandum, al-Tajiki suggests the creation of what he calls “crocodile cells” in Syria and Iraq. These cells will “lurk beneath the surface” and “attack at the right moment to assassinate the enemies of Allah”, says al-Tajiki.

The Times report comes as experts warn that the Islamic State retains significant financial power, despite the loss of its territories in the Middle East. In a well-informed article in The Atlantic, David Kenner reports from Beirut that the Islamic State without its territories is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the group cannot rely on taxation and oil revenues that used to enrich its coffers by $1 million per day during the height of its power. On the other hand, argues Kenner, the loss of its territory has freed the Islamic State from the costs associated with state-running and allows it to devote its financial resources “exclusively to terrorist activity”. These resources —cash and other assets— are formidable, says Kenner. In the words of Howard Shatz, senior economist at the Rand Corporation and an expert on ISIS’ finances, we “don’t know where it all went” after ISIS lost its territory. We do know that much of it has been invested in “legitimate commercial enterprises”, says Shatz, with the help of profit-oriented middlemen with access to markets that are as far away as Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. A lot of it is hidden in suitcases and boxes throughout Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All of it is intended to be used to fund terrorist attacks, warns Kenner.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 March 2019 | Permalink