Pakistani man sought out assassination targets for Iran, says Germany

Reinhold RobbeAuthorities in Germany have pressed espionage charges against a Pakistani man who allegedly spied for Iran and even compiled lists of potential targets for assassination. The man, who has been identified in media reports only as “Syed Mustafa H.”, is a 31-year-old worker at the German Aerospace Center in the northern German city of Bremen. He is also reportedly a graduate of the Materials Science and Production Engineering department of the Universität Bremen. According to court documents, he is believed to have been spying for Iranian intelligence since the summer of 2015. It appears that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, had been aware of the man’s espionage activities for at least a year prior to his arrest.

German media, including the newspapers Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit, as well as public broadcasters Taggesschau, WDR and NDR, report that Syed Mustafa H.’s main task was to compile lists of potential assassination targets. These included prominent Jews or German-Israelis living in northern Germany. Among them was Reinhold Robbe, a politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who served for a number of years as president of the German-Israeli Congress (DIG). According to reports, the Pakistani spy had compiled detailed maps of Robbe’s daily movements, which outlined his travel routines and the routes he took from his home to the DIG headquarters in Berlin. German officials believe that the type of surveillance that Syed Mustafa H. carried out against Robbe indisputably leads to the conclusion that the politician’s assassination was being planned.

Reports in the German media suggest that Syed Mustafa H.’s work was a small part of a much broader operation by Iranian intelligence. The operation aims to identify prominent individuals throughout Europe, who have Israeli connections. These individuals can be targeted during a future conflagration between Israel and Iran, or in retaliation to an Israeli intelligence operation against Tehran. If Syed Mustafa H. is found guilty of targeting Robbe, it will mark the first proven case of a German political figure who has been targeted for possible assassination by an Iranian intelligence agency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 January 2017 | Permalink

New director appointed to head Pakistan’s all-powerful intelligence agency

 Lt. Gen. Naveed MukhtarA new director, with considerable experience in counterterrorism, has been appointed to lead Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), believed by some to be one of the most powerful spy agencies in the world. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense announced on Sunday that Lt. Gen. Naveed Mukhtar will be replacing Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, who has led the ISI since November of 2014. The appointment of Gen. Mukhtar comes less than a month after a major change of leadership in the Pakistani military, which saw the appointment of General Javed Qamar Bajwa as the new Chief of Army Staff. It is believed that the appointment of the new ISI director represents a personal choice of the newly appointed Gen. Bajwa.

Both the outgoing and incoming directors of the ISI are from the same generation of military officers, having been commissioned in 1982 and 1983 respectively. Both attended Pakistan’s prestigious National Defense University and earned graduate degrees at the United States Army War College in Pennsylvania. But while Gen. Akhtar specializes in counterinsurgency, and spent much of his career in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, his successor, Gen. Mukhtar, has a background in intelligence with a focus on counterterrorism. Although he most recently served in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest and most populous metropolitan center, Gen. Mukhtar made his mark in the military by leading the ISI’s counterterrorism branch in the capital Islamabad. It is said, therefore, that his appointment to the directorship of the ISI may signal a turn away from running Taliban agents in Afghanistan, for which the ISI is notorious, and concentrating instead of combatting militant groups at home.

The change in the ISI’s leadership comes at a particularly complicated period in Pakistani security. The country’s relations with its neighbor and arch-nemesis India are experiencing a major crisis following the so-called ‘summer of unrest’ in Kashmir. The term refers to a period of tension between the two countries, sparked by popular unrest and violent protests by the predominantly Muslim inhabitants of the Indian-administered region of Jammu and Kashmir. The region remained under a military curfew for nearly two months, during which nearly 100 people died and over 15,000 were injured. There are some in Islamabad who believe that Gen. Akhtar was removed from the ISI because he failed to contain the unrest in Kashmir. He has now been appointed president of Pakistan’s National Defense University in Islamabad.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 December 2016 | Permalink

India and Pakistan recall diplomats accused of espionage

Pakistani embassy in IndiaIndia is in the process of recalling eight of its diplomats from Pakistan, after their names and photographs were published in Pakistani newspapers with accusations that they are intelligence officers. According to anonymous sources in the government of Pakistan, three of the eight recalled diplomats have already left Islamabad for New Delhi. Five more are expected to leave the country before the end of the week. The three who left Pakistan yesterday were identified in the Pakistani media as Madhavan Nanda, Vijay Kumar Verma and Anurag Singh. Pakistani media said earlier this week that the three are “undercover agents”, suggesting that they are intelligence officers posted in India under diplomatic cover.

The eight Indian diplomats were recalled less than a week after Pakistan withdrew six of its diplomats from its embassy in New Delhi. Their names were released to the Indian media by the country’s intelligence services, following the arrest of Mahmood Akhtar, a Pakistani diplomat who was detained by Indian authorities, allegedly while committing espionage. Indian authorities said Akhtar admitted he was an intelligence officer under interrogation, and identified five more Pakistani diplomats as undercover intelligence operatives. All six were accused of espionage by New Delhi, declared persona non grata (unwanted persons) and were ordered to leave the country. Observers see the recent outing of the Indian diplomats in the Pakistani media as a tit-for-tat response by Islamabad.

Interestingly, none of the eight Indian diplomats were officially declared persona non grata by Pakistani authorities. But the publication of their names and photographs in the Pakistani media were sufficient to prompt the Indian government to recall them back to New Delhi. Tensions between the two neighboring countries have been rising in recent months, mostly over ethnic and religious tensions in the disputed region of Kashmir, which belongs to India but is populated primarily by Muslims. On Tuesday, one Indian soldier and thee Pakistani civilians were killed on both sides of the border, after fire was exchanged between warring sides.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 November 2016 | Permalink

Late Taliban leader’s regular trips to Iran helped US spies track him down

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad MansourFrequent trips to Iran caused the demise of the late leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was killed in a secret American operation on May 21. The death of Mansour, who had led the Afghan Taliban since July 2015, when he succeeded Mullah Mohammad Omar, was announced by the Taliban on May 26. Early reports stated that Mansour was killed while traveling to the Pakistani city of Quetta from Iran. He is believed to have been visiting family or seeking medical treatment in Iran, which he appears to have entered using a forged passport.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the United States found out in February that Mansour made regular trips to Iran, as well as the precise route that the Taliban leader took to enter the country. American intelligence agencies also received “details about the devices [Mansour] used for communications” while in Iran. They then intercepted communications from Iran that matched Mansour’s electronic signature and followed these signals across the border into Pakistan. The Taliban leader entered Pakistan’s Baluchistan province on Saturday, May 21. Once in Pakistan, Mansour entered a Toyota Corolla, believed to be a taxi, and made his way through the N-40 National Highway, heading to Quetta.

The Journal report states that the Taliban were aware that Baluchistan’s airspace is outside the Central Intelligence Agency drones’ operational area, and thus “felt more comfortable there”. Indeed, the paper claims that no CIA drones were actively targeting Mansour at the time. However, US President Barack Obama had given ordered the Joint Special Operations Command to have the Taliban leader killed. Reaper drones were deployed to launch two Hellfire missiles at Mansour’s car, which was totaled, killing the Taliban commander and his driver. According to the Journal, the White House had decided to ambush Mansour before he entered the city of Quetta, in order to prevent civilian casualties. After firing at it, the American drones hovered over the remains of Mansour’s vehicle to ensure that there were no survivors, before exiting Pakistani airspace.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 May 2016 | Permalink

Analysis: Mullah Mansour’s killing will shape future of Afghan War

Mullah MansourThe American operation that killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, on May 21, was unprecedented in more ways than one. It marked the first known effort by the United States to neutralize the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. It was also the first US drone strike in Pakistani Baluchistan, a region that is far removed from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where American operations have traditionally focused. Mullah Mansour’s killing also marked the most high-profile American incursion into Pakistani territory since the May 1, 2011 attack that killed al-Qaeda co-founder Osama bin Laden. Q QuoteIronically, just hours before killing Mansour, Washington was calling the Taliban to join the negotiation table for peace talks with the Afghan government. So what exactly was America’s intention in killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban?

PROSPECTS FOR A MODERATE SUCCESSOR

There is no question that Mansour represented the most intransigent and militant segment of Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns. He consistently dismissed efforts by Washington and Kabul to strike a deal with his forces as a ploy designed to weaken the Taliban’s role in Afghan politics. So the primary outcome that the US is seeking from his death is the possibility that a more moderate figure will emerge from within the ranks of the Taliban. That, however, is far from guaranteed. Even if it does happen, it will probably come after a period of leadership struggle between different factions and tribes within the Taliban, much like the heated infighting that broke out after the announcement of the death of the Taliban’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. There are even some who believe that the death of two successive Taliban leaders in such a short period may split the group into three or more factions.

To avoid such a prospect, the Afghan Taliban have already begun internal consultations in order to quickly enthrone a new emir. Major candidates include the late Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yakoub, and his brother, Mullah Abdul Manan Akhund. The list of contenders also features the late Mullah Mansour’s deputies, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani Network, which recently consolidated its forces with those of the Afghan Taliban. Many observers believe that Haqqani is Mansour’s most likely successor, as well as the most militant of all contenders for the group’s leadership.

THE END OF PEACE NEGOTIATIONS?

If the Afghan Taliban are led by Haqqani, a man described by the White House as a terrorist mastermind, the chances of seeing Afghanistan’s militant Pashtuns join peace negotiations with Kabul are slim to none. The country’s President, Ashraf Ghani, said last week that he hoped that the death of Mansour would weaken the Taliban hardliners and open the path to negotiations with his government. It is difficult to see, however, how the Taliban could sit at the table with the Afghan government and its American allies, namely the same people who just Q Quotekilled the group’s leader.

They only way that could possibly happen is if Pakistan, which is the Afghan Taliban’s state patron, compels them to do so. But such a prospect is unlikely. In the hours after Mansour’s assassination, the US Secretary of State John Kerry described it as an “action that sends a clear message to the world that we will continue to work with our Afghan partners”. Indeed, Mansour’s killing was a source of jubilation in Kabul. But there were no celebrations in Islamabad, which was notified about the US drone strike on its soil after its completion. The Pakistani position has always been that military action against the Afghan Taliban will only push them further underground. Instead, Pakistan argues that the Taliban should be brought to the table to sign a comprehensive peace treaty that will ensure ethnic rights for Afghanistan’s Pashtun population. But the prospect of that happening after Mansour’s assassination are slim, even if a more moderate figure succeeds him at the helm.

THE FUTURE OF THE AFGHAN WAR

What are, then, the prospects for peace in Afghanistan? A notable rise in violence should be expected, as various Taliban factions lash out against the government in Kabul with the aim of augmenting their standing against internal competitors. The Taliban now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any other point following the 2001 US invasion. If their alliance with the Haqqani Network survives, they will continue to be a formidable force in the country and the surrounding region, and will become increasingly difficult to defeat militarily. The group will continue to operate with considerable force even if Mansour’s position is not filled soon, as local Taliban forces have shown that they are capable of taking unilateral initiative in times like this. In the meantime, observers in Kabul and Islamabad, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s leadership in Quetta, will be wondering whether the assassination of Mansour marks the beginning of a more aggressive approach by Washington in the ongoing Afghan war. The answer to that question remains elusive, but will likely shape the future of the 40-year-old Afghan war.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 24 May 2016 | Permalink

Did Pakistan poison the CIA station chief in Islamabad?

US embassy Islamabad PakistanA leading article in The Washington Post suggests that the United States Central Intelligence Agency suspected that its most senior officer in Pakistan was poisoned by the host country’s intelligence services, in an attempt to kill him. The CIA pulled its station chief from Islamabad in the summer of 2011, two months after Operation NEPTUNE SPEAR, which saw the killing in Abbottabad of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The CIA official, who has since been identified as Mark Kelton, acted as the senior US intelligence representative in the Asian country. He had assumed the post, which was supposed to last at least two years, only seven months earlier. His abrupt removal raised questions, which were informally answered by Langley. There were rumors that Kelton’s return to the US was health-related, but that the decision to replace him was also affected by his extremely poor relations with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, Pakistan’s powerful spy service.

On Thursday, however, The Washington Post’s Greg Miller said in a leading article that Kelton’s illness, which led to his replacement, had been so violent that it led him and others in the CIA to suspect that he had been poisoned. Prior to replacing him, the Agency had repeatedly flown the official back to the US for medical treatment, which proved fruitless. Eventually, some at Langley began to examine the possibility that the Pakistanis had poisoned Kelton, at a time when relations between the CIA and the ISI had sunk to unprecedented lows. Miller cites unnamed US intelligence officials who confirmed that the CIA had strong suspicions that Kelton had been deliberately poisoned. Even if the suspicions were groundless, said Miller, “the idea that the CIA and its station chief considered the ISI capable of such an act suggests that the breakdown in trust [between the two agencies] was even worse than widely assumed”.

Kelton has since recovered and assumed the post of deputy director for counterintelligence at the CIA before retiring from the Agency. The 59-year-old has since revealed his CIA background and even spoke with Miller on the phone as the Post correspondent was preparing his story. Although he declined Miller’s request for a detailed interview, the former CIA Islamabad station chief said that the initial suspicions about his poisoning “did not originate with” him. He added, however, that he would “rather let that whole episode lie”. The CIA told Miller that it had not uncovered any concrete evidence that the elements in the Pakistani government had poisoned Kelton. The embassy of Pakistan in Washington told The Washington Post that Miller’s story was “fictional and not worthy of comment”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 May 2016 | Permalink

Were Pakistani spies behind 2009 attack that killed seven CIA employees?

FOB ChapmanTwo recently declassified United States government documents suggest that Pakistani intelligence officers may have been behind a suicide attack that killed seven employees of the Central Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan. The attack took place at the Forward Operating Base Chapman, a US military outpost in Khost, Afghanistan. It was carried out by Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who posed as a disillusioned member of al-Qaeda and had convinced his CIA handlers that he could lead them to the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s deputy Emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri. During a scheduled visit to FOB Chapman on December 30, 2009, al-Balawi detonated a suicide vest, instantly killing himself and nine other people, including a Jordanian intelligence officer and seven CIA employees. The bloody incident, which marked the most lethal attack against the CIA in nearly three decades, was widely blamed on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban.

However, a set of newly released US State Department cables seem to suggest that Pakistani intelligence may have been behind the attack. The documents were released by George Washington University’s National Security Archive through a Freedom of Information Act request. One document, dated January 11, 2010, discusses the FOB Chapman attack in association with the Haqqani network, a Taliban-aligned Pashtun militant group that operates in Afghanistan but is headquartered in Pakistan. Western security observers have long considered the Haqqani network to be a paramilitary arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. The January 11 State Department cable suggests that senior Haqqani network operatives met with their ISI handlers at least twice in the weeks prior to the FOB Chapman attack. Another cable, dated February 6, 2010, suggests that the ISI gave the Haqqani operatives $200,000 to step up attacks against Western forces in Afghanistan. A specific order was given at the meeting to carry out “the attack on Chapman [and] to enable a suicide mission by an unnamed Jordanian national”, presumably al-Balawi.

But an unnamed US intelligence official, who read the declassified documents, told the Associated Press news agency that the documents were “information report[s], not finally evaluated intelligence”. The material was thus “raw, unverified and uncorroborated”, said the official, and clashed with the broad consensus in the US Intelligence Community, which was that the attack was planned by al-Qaeda, not by the Haqqani network. The Associated Press contacted the Pakistani embassy in Washington, DC, about the National Security Archive revelations, but received no response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 April 2016 | Permalink