Hardline military official to take command of Pakistan’s powerful spy agency

Lieutenant General Asim MunirThe hardline former director of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is preparing to take the helm of the country’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI). Lieutenant General Asim Munir, who has spent more than two decades as a career military officer, has been officially appointed as director-general of ISI. In one of his first notable assignments, Munir served as a military attaché in Pakistan’s embassy in Saudi Arabia. After being promoted to a two-star general, he was appointed commander of Force Command Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan’s northernmost region. The area borders Jammu and Kashmir, an autonomous Indian-administered region, which the Pakistanis claim belongs to them. Gilgit-Baltistan is also a strategic geopolitical corridor that connects Pakistan with one of its major regional allies, China.

In late 2016, after concluding his service in Gilgit-Baltistan, Munir was appointed by Chief of the Pakistan Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa to serve as director-general of Military Intelligence, the spy wing of the Pakistan Army. In September of this year, Munir was promoted to lieutenant general, a move that prompted rumors that he would soon become head of ISI. According to The Asia Times, which published a summary analysis of Munir’s career, his recent promotion confirmed that he was “the army chief [General Bajwa]’s guy” and that he was favored to lead the ISI. Technically it is Pakistan’s prime minister who appoints the head of ISI. But in reality the chief of the Army is the one who selects the spy agency’s director. The past four directors of the ISI have all been handpicked by Pakistan’s military leadership.

Munir’s appointment as head of Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency was due to his experience in working closely with Pakistan’s most important strategic partners, China and Saudi Arabia, said The Asia Times. The career military officer is known within army ranks as a nationalist hardliner who views the army as a central guarantor of political stability in Pakistan. He is also a practicing Muslim and has sought to strengthen the ties between Islam and the Pakistani armed forces. According to The Asia Times, Munir is expected to deepen the ISI’s involvement in Pakistan’s domestic political affairs. This is something that concerns pro-democracy and other opposition activists in the country, who have been alarmed by the recent rise to power of /Imran Khan, a former cricket player and Pakistan’s newly elected prime minister. Munir will be formally sworn in his new position on October 25, when the current director-general of ISI, Lieutenant General Naveed Mukhtar, is expected to announce his retirement.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 October 2018 | Permalink

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Pakistan removes judge who accused spy agency of trying to rig general election

Shaukat Aziz SiddiquiThe government of Pakistan has dismissed a High Court judge who accused the country’s powerful intelligence agency of interfering with the judicial process in order to rig the outcome of last July’s general election. On July 25, the governing center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) was unseated by the conservative-centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former cricket star Imran Khan. The elections took place amidst a corruption scandal that saw Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan and leading member of PML-N, arrested on charges of fraud. Sharif was charged following the release of the so-called Panama papers, the massive data leak of documents belonging to Panamanian offshore firm Mossack Fonseca. The leak disclosed that Sharif and his family were owners of a large number of high-end properties in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world.

Shortly after the revelations, Sharif moved to Britain, where he and his children cared for his ailing wife. During his absence, he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. Sharif chose to return to Pakistan on July 13, less than two weeks prior to the general election, and was arrested upon arriving in Islamabad. His supporters claim that the media spectacle surrounding his imprisonment severely hurt PML-N’s electoral performance. Last month, the High Court in Islamabad suspended Sharif’s prison sentence and ordered his release on bail, saying that the prosecution had failed to prove conclusively that the high-end properties in the UK belonged to him. Sharif’s release prompted renewed accusations of electoral rigging by PML-N supporters, who claim that Sharif could have been released from prison before the elections, and that the High Court deliberately withheld its decision until this month in order to hurt PML-N.

In July, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a High Court judge, publicly added his voice to those claiming that Sharif’s arrest had been politically motivated. In a speech given before the Rawalpindi Bar Association, the High Court judge accused Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of exercising pressure on High Court judges in order to delay the decision to release Sharif on bail until after the general election. Justice Siddiqui’s charges made national headlines and prompted strong denials from the Pakistani military, which governs the ISI, and the Pakistan High Court. The latter launched an investigation of Justice Siddiqui, following a complaint issued by the country’s military leadership.

On Friday, the panel of judges that carried out the investigation on Justice Siddiqui, accused him of “conduct unbecoming of a judge of a high court” and recommended his removal from the High Court. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice of Pakistan announced that the country’s President, Arif Alvi, was “pleased to remove Mr. Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui […] from his office with immediate effect”. The announcement did not elaborate on the precise reasons that led to Justice Siddiqui’s removal from the country’s High Court. Siddiqui’s firing marks the first time that a judge has been dismissed under an elected government in Pakistan. In the past, such incidents have occurred only under military dictatorships, which have ruled Pakistan for prolonged periods since the country’s independence in 1947.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2018 | Permalink

Spy chiefs from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan hold high-level meeting

Sergei NaryshkinIntelligence directors from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan met on Tuesday to discuss regional cooperation with particular reference to combating the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Information about the high-level meeting was revealed yesterday by Sergei Ivanov, media spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Ivanov told Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency that the meeting was held in Pakistan and included the participation of SVR director Sergei Naryshkin. TASS reported that the meeting was held under the auspices of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and was attended by “senior intelligence officials” from Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China.

Ivanov said that discussions during the meeting “focused on the dangers arising from a buildup of the Islamic State on the Afghan territory”. The Islamic State announced the formation of its Afghan province (wilayah in Arabic) in January 2015, using the term “Khorasan Province”. By July 2016, two of its most prominent leaders had been killed in coordinated drone strikes by the United States, but the group continues to launch operations to this day. Its core is thought to be made up of nearly 100 fighters from the Islamic State’s former strongholds in Syria and Iraq. According to Russian reports, security officials in China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran are concerned that the Islamic State’s Afghan command is becoming stronger as fighters from the group are leaving the Middle East and moving to Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s high-level meeting in Islamabad follows an announcement last month by the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that it would adopt a more active stance on security issues in Afghanistan. Early in June, Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani described the SCO as “an important platform for anti-terrorist cooperation and enhancing regional connectivity” in Central and South Asia. President Ghani made these comments shortly before traveling to China to attend the annual summit of the SCO, of which Afghanistan is an observer country.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 11 July 2018 | Permalink

Pakistan bars its former spy chief from leaving the country over controversial book

Asad Durrani

Pakistan has officially barred a former director of its powerful intelligence agency from leaving the country, after he co-authored a controversial book with his Indian counterpart. Asad Durrani is a retired Pakistani Army general who served as director-general of Pakistan’s Directorate for Military Intelligence between 1988 and 1989. From 1990 to 1992, he served as director of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, arguably Pakistan’s most powerful government institution. Durrani, 77, has been severely criticized in some Pakistani circles for co-authoring a book entitled The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, with his Indian counterpart, A.S. Daulat. Daulat, 78, headed India’s Research and Analysis Wing from 1999 to 2000.

The book, which was edited by the widely respected Indian journalist Aditya Sinha, has prompted heavy criticism of its two co-authors in nationalist circles in the two rival regional powers. But Durrani’s position became more tenuous on Monday, after the government of Pakistan announced that he had been placed under formal investigation. Pakistani Army spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told reporters in Islamabad on Monday morning that the revelations made in Lieutenant General Durrani’s book would be investigated by a formal court of inquiry, headed by a three-star general. He also said that Durrani had been urgently summoned to the Pakistani Army’s headquarters to answer allegations that he violated the Pakistani military’s code of conduct. Additionally, Ghafoor announced that Durrani had been placed on an official government-administered “exit control list”, which means that he is not allowed to leave Pakistan until further notice.

The Pakistani armed forces have not explained the precise reasons why Durrani is under investigation. His book makes several controversial allegations relating to Islamabad’s intelligence operations. A large part of the book contains details about Pakistan’s systematic efforts to foment armed unrest in the heavily Muslim Indian state of Kashmir, for instance by funding and training a host of Islamist paramilitary organizations that operate in the disputed region. The book also claims that the Pakistani government was aware of the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and that it cooperated closely with the United States to kill the co-founder of al-Qaeda. Islamabad has consistently denied allegations that it knew of bin Laden’s hideout in the city of Abbottabad, and that it gave permission to US Special Forces troops to raid his compound. If Durrani is charged with having violated the Pakistani military’s code of conduct, he could face a minimum of two years in prison.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 May 2018 | Permalink

Spy collection program using fake mobile phone apps linked to Pakistani military

Cellular telephoneThe Pakistani military is suspected of having orchestrated a lucrative intelligence collection campaign using mobile phones, which targeted diplomats from India, Israel and Australia, as well as from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries such as the United States and Britain. Others targeted in the operation include officials from Iraq, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. News of the alleged spy operation was published earlier this month by Lookout Mobile Security, a security software company based in the United States.

The company said that the perpetrators of the operation managed to hack into a number of diplomats’ phones by creating a number of fake applications for Android and iOS mobile phone systems. The applications, called Tangelo (for iOS) and Stealth Mango (for Android), took control of mobile phone devices once their owners downloaded them through fake third-party app stores advertising online. According to Lookout, the two apps were designed by a consortium of freelance software developers who have close links with the Pakistani military establishment. The technical report published by Lookout points to the use of IP addresses that lead to a server housed in Pakistan’s Ministry of Education in the country’s capital, Islamabad. Lookout also said that it managed to trace the identity of the person who was the main developer of the two fake mobile phone applications. He is reportedly a full-time government employee who “moonlights as a mobile app developer”. The group that built the fake apps is known for creating legitimate apps, said Lookout, but also works for hire creating surveillanceware for mobile phone systems. In the past, the same group has been found to target military and civilian government officials in India, according to Lookout.

In its technical report, the Lookout security team describes how the Pakistani hackers collected a variety of data from their victims, by having it stealthily transmitted from compromised mobile phones to servers in Islamabad. The data included photos and videos, lists of contacts, logs of phone calls and texts, as well as detailed calendar entries. German and Australian diplomats had their travel plans stolen, and a letter from the United States Central Command to Afghanistan’s assistant minister of defense for intelligence was also acquired by the hackers. The latter also gained access to the contents of an entire database of pictures of traveler passports —many of them diplomatic— from the Kandahar International Airport in southern Afghanistan. The report said it was impossible to know for certain when Tangelo and Stealth Mango were first developed and utilized. However, the most recent version of the apps was released in April of this year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 May 2018 | Permalink

Pakistan denies it plans to release doctor who helped CIA find bin Laden

Dr Shakil AfridiAuthorities in Pakistan have dismissed rumors that a medical doctor who helped the United States Central Intelligence Agency find and kill al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in 2011 is to be released from prison. Dr. Shakil Afridi was arrested in 2011, soon after bin Laden was killed in a CIA operation in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. In the weeks following the CIA raid, it emerged that a team of local doctors and nurses had helped the American spy agency confirm bin Laden’s presence in the compound. The team of nearly 20 healthcare workers participated in a fake vaccination scheme carried out in Abbottabad, whose true purpose was to collect DNA samples from the residents of the compound where the CIA believed bin Laden was hiding.

Pakistani authorities fired 17 healthcare workers who participated in the CIA scheme and arrested its head, Dr. Afridi. Bizarrely, Dr. Afridi was arrested for having alleged links with an Islamist group that operates in the region, known as Lashkar-e-Islam. He then faced charges for alleged medical malpractice, which, according to the prosecution, resulted in the death of one of his patients. He is currently serving a 33-year prison sentence in Pakistan’s northwestern border city of Peshawar. Ever since his arrest, the US has pressured Pakistan to release Dr. Afridi, and Pakistani media often publish sensational reports about alleged covert attempts by the CIA to free the imprisoned medical doctor. Last week, Dr. Afridi was transported by helicopter from Peshawar to a jail near the village of Adiala, located near Pakistan’s border with the Indian region of Kashmir. Dr. Afridi’s move, which took place amid heavy security, sparked rumors in the media that the alleged CIA agent was about to be released and transported to America.

But on Thursday, Muhammad Faisal, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, dismissed intense media speculation that Dr. Afridi was about to be released. He also denied that Islamabad was attempting to swap Afridi with Pakistani nationals living in the US, including Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year prison term in the US for killing an American soldier in Afghanistan. Additionally, Faisal described as “nonsense” media reports of an alleged failed CIA attempt to organize a jailbreak in Peshawar, in order to free Dr. Afridi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 4 May 2018 | Permalink

Another US diplomat detained in Pakistan over traffic accident that injured two

US embassy Islamabad PakistanAnother American diplomat was detained in Pakistan last week, following the second serious traffic accident involving United States diplomatic personnel in Islamabad in less than a month. The incidents are said to be contributing to ongoing diplomatic tensions between the United States and Pakistan. Many in the South Asian country remain angry about a controversial episode in 2011, when a Central Intelligence Agency officer serving at the US consulate in Lahore killed two men by shooting them in the head with a Glock pistol. The CIA officer, Raymond A. Davis, told Pakistani police that the two men had tried to rob him. He was eventually released from detention due to his diplomatic immunity, but only after the personal intervention of the then Secretary of State John Kerry, and after Washington offered monetary compensation to the two dead men’s families.

In the latest incident, Pakistani authorities detained an American diplomat on Sunday, after his Toyota SUV ran over two men riding on a motorcycle in Islamabad. The diplomat, identified in Pakistani media as the US embassy’s Second Secretary Chad Rex Ausburn, was accused by police of having been involved in a hit-and-run incident in the Pakistani capital. According to local reports, Ausburn refused to emerge from his vehicle immediately following the accident, but eventually stepped out and identified himself to police officers. They then took him into custody and impounded his vehicle, which is believed to belong to the US embassy. Ausburn was released once the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed his diplomatic status, which grants him immunity from prosecution. The two men injured in the accident are said to be in stable condition at a nearby hospital. Police have reportedly charged the driver of the motorcycle with reckless driving.

However, Pakistani authorities have also charged Taimur Iqbal Pirzada, a security adviser for the US embassy in Islamabad, with seeking to obstruct the police investigation into Sunday’s incident. Pirzada stands accused of trying to stop police officers from detaining Ausburn and impounding his vehicle. He was released on bail on Monday and is currently awaiting trial. US State Department spokesman Nolen Johnson told The New York Times on Monday that the issue involving Ausburn had been “resolved” and that the US government had been “in close contact with Government of Pakistan officials on this matter”. This past April, Pakistani authorities barred another American diplomat from leaving the country, after the car he was driving was involved in an accident in Islamabad, which left a motorcyclist dead. The US embassy’s military attaché, Colonel Joseph E. Hall, remains in Pakistan. Authorities there have demanded that the US Department of State rescinds his diplomatic immunity, so he can face a criminal trial. But the US government has so far refused to grant Islamabad’s request.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 May 2018 | Permalink | Research credit: C.F.