New report details growing presence of Russian private security firms in Africa

Central African Republic RussiaA new report by the American news network CNN has shed new light into the little-researched subject of Russian-owned private military and security operations in Africa. CNN said the report took a month to complete. It claims that a Russian tycoon by the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin has been instrumental in the growth of Russian private security operations in the continent. Prigozhin is one of the closest confidantes of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The United States accuses him of helping fund the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company based in Saint Petersburg, which allegedly participated in the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election. CNN claims that Prigozhin is also connected with PMC Wagner, a Russian security contractor with presence on the ground in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Western officials allege that firms like Wagner could not operate without permission from the Kremlin.

According to the CNN report Prigozhin turned to African countries like Sudan, Libya and the Central African Republic in order to make up for his financial losses in Syria and Ukraine. He allegedly has a role in many of Russia’s 20 military agreements with African states where he provides security and weapons training on behalf of Moscow. In return, his group of companies, headed by a firm called Concord, receives exploration permits and the rights to exploit precious metals found throughout Africa, according to CNN. The network sent correspondents to the Central African Republic where they found that a radio station and a major military training base are run by a group of 250 Russian contractors. None of them will say who pays them, according to CNN, and at least one of them claims to be a “security adviser” for Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Most of the Russians operate out of Palais de Berengo, a dilapidated presidential palace located 30 miles south of the capital Bangui, which used to belong to the country’s late dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa. At a nearby mining site there are now hundreds of locals who work for the Russians, said CNN.

The CNN report also notes that last year three Russian journalists, Kirill Radchenko, Alexander Rastorguyev and Orkhan Dzhemal, were ambushed and executed near Sibut in the central region of the country, allegedly “by men wearing turbans and speaking Arabic after refusing to surrender their vehicle and equipment”. They were in the Central African Republic to research the presence of Russian private security firms. Their trip was funded by the Center for Investigation, a London-based foundation owned by the Russian exiled billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. No one has been arrested or charged for the killings of the three Russian journalists. Central African Republic authorities told CNN that “investigations were continuing” into the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 August 2019 | Permalink

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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

Western spies used ‘crown jewel’ of espionage tools to hack into Russia’s Google

Yandex RussiaHackers used a malware described by experts as the “crown jewel” of cyber-espionage tools to hack into Russia’s version of Google, in an effort to breach user accounts, according to the Reuters news agency. The hackers targeted Yandex (Яндекс), a Moscow-headquartered company that operates as the Russian version of Google. Yandex is the largest technology venture company in the Russian Federation and the fifth most popular search engine in the world. It also provides services such as mapping and email in Russia and several other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. It claims that it serves more than 150 million monthly users worldwide.

On Thursday, Reuters cited “four people with knowledge on the matter […] in Russia and elsewhere”, who said that Yandex was targeted by a sophisticated hacking operation between October and November of 2018. The news agency said that three of its sources had direct knowledge of the details of the cyber-espionage operation against Yandex. According to the unnamed sources, the hackers appeared to be primarily interested in breaching the accounts of specific employees in Yandex’s research and development unit. Their purpose was to acquire technical information about how Yandex authenticates user accounts. That information could potentially enable them to impersonate Yandex users and access private information, including email messages, geolocation information, and other sensitive private data. Reuters said that the hackers attempted to breach Yandex for purposes of espionage, not sabotage or disruption, or stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes.

Moreover, the hackers used Regin, a highly sophisticated malware that a technical expert from the Symantec Corporation described as “the crown jewel of attack frameworks used for espionage”. Regin was identified as a malware employed by intelligence services of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance between spy agencies of the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. It was identified as a Western cyber-espionage tool in 2014, based on revelations made by Edward Snowden, the American former employee of the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency who defected to Russia. The same malware was used in 2013 to access about a dozen mainframe computers of Belgacom, Belgium’s largest telecommunications service provider, which is partly state-owned. The attack was widely attributed to a consortium of Western intelligence services led by the NSA.

According to Reuters, the hackers were able to penetrate Yandex’s networks for several weeks or longer, without being noticed by the company’s cyber-security monitors. When the penetration was detected, Yandex hired a cyber-security team from the Russian anti-virus firm Kaspersky. The Kaspersky team identified Regin and, according to Reuters, concluded that the hackers behind the cyber-espionage operation were tied to Western intelligence agencies. Kaspersky, the Russian government, and intelligence agencies from the Five Eyes alliance declined requests by Reuters to comment on the story. Yandex confirmed the cyber-espionage attack in a statement to Reuters, but said that its cyber-security experts had been able to detect and “fully neutralize [it] before any damage was done”. Consequently, said Yandex, “no user data was compromised in the attack”.

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

Israel leaked video that brought down Austrian government, says German ex-spy chief

Strache GudenusIsraeli intelligence was likely behind the leaked video that brought down the far-right governing coalition in Austria on Monday, according to the former deputy director of Germany’s spy agency. The surreptitiously recorded video was leaked to two German media outlets on May 17, days before Austrian voters participated in the continent-wide elections for the European Union. In the video, two senior members of Austria’s governing far-right Freedom Party are seen conversing with an unnamed woman posing as a Russian investor. The two men in the video were Heinz-Christian Strache, the the Freedom Party’s leader and until recently Austria’s Vice Chancellor, and Johannes Gudenus, the party’s deputy leader and a member of parliament. In the video, Gudenus and Strache promise to award the woman’s firm state contracts if her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchases an Austrian newspaper and uses it to support the Freedom Party. The video threw Austria’s political system into disarray and prompted the resignations of both Strache and Gudenus. On Monday, Austria’s Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, was removed from power during a special parliamentary session in Vienna.

But the question is who leaked the video, and why? In an article in the Cicero, a monthly political magazine based in Berlin, a former senior official in Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) argues that Israeli intelligence was probably behind the leak. The article’s author is Rudolf Adam, who served as deputy director of the BND from 2001 to 2004, before serving as president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy of the German Ministry of Defense. Adam argues that the actions of Strache and Gudenus, as shown in the leaked video, seem “half mafia-like and half-treasonable”, and that the two should face legal consequences. But he goes on to ask “a far more interesting question”, namely “who is behind this intrigue [and] what were the intentions of its initiators?”. Adam points out that nothing is known about the woman in the video; she reportedly met Gudenus several months before the video was filmed. She posed as the Latvian niece of a Russian oligarch with ties to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In exchanges that lasted for several months, the woman told Gudenus that she planned to move with her daughter to Vienna and was interested in investment opportunities. She eventually invited him and Strache to a meeting in a villa in the Spanish resort island of Ibiza. It was there where the video was recorded. Read more of this post

ISIS threatens stability of former Soviet Republics, says Russian spy chief

ISIS Afghanistan

Thousands of Islamic State fighters are operating in Afghanistan’s northern border regions and are attempting to destabilize former Soviet Republics with substantial Muslim populations, according to Russia’s domestic spy chief. This warning was issued by Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), which functions as Russia’s primary counter-terrorism agency. Bortnikov made these remarks during a visit to the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe, for a meeting of the heads of intelligence agencies of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an intergovernmental organization comprised of former Soviet Republics in the Eurasian region. The meeting was reportedly held behind closed doors, but Russia’s government-owned news agency TASS carried a summary of Bortnikov’s remarks.

The Russian intelligence chief said that, with the aid of the intelligence services of CIS states like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and others, the FSB was able to uncover and suppress eight Islamic State cells in the past year, which operated in the Central Asian region. However, the reach of the CIS countries does not extend to Afghanistan, said Bortnikov, where as many as 5,000 Islamic State fighters are congregating along the country’s border with three CIS states, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Many of these fighters are Turkmens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, and other citizens of CIS states, who previously fought with the Islamic State in Syria and elsewhere, and now form integral components of the Islamic State’s fighting force in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It appears that the Islamic State is now attempting to exploit the mountainous and porous borders of northern Afghanistan in order to destabilize neighboring countries, he said. These fighters intend to exploit “migrant and refugee flows [in Central Asia] in order to operate covertly from the Afghan battle zones to neighboring countries” and from there possibly to Russia, according to Bortnikov.

These covert activities of Islamic State fighters have already caused an escalation of tensions in the region and can be expected to continue to do so, as these groups radicalize and co-opt Muslim communities in CIS countries, noted Bortnikov. He added that popular responses to Islamist radicalization are prompting increasing incidents of “anti-Islamic terrorism”, which further-fuel religious and ethnic tensions in the region. As a reminder, last week the Islamic State announced that its so-called Khorasan Province fighters would be amalgamated into a new armed group calling itself Islamic State – Pakistan Province. Earlier this month, the group also proclaimed the establishment of a new overseas province in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state, called “wilayah al-Hind” (province of Hind). In addition to these two forces, there are currently an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan’s Pashtun regions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 May 2019 | Permalink

German spy agency concerned about Russian penetration of Austrian government

Sebastian Kurz Vladimir PutinA day after Austria’s political system was thrown into a disarray by a covert video featuring the country’s vice chancellor and a woman posing as a Russian investor, German intelligence sources have raised fears that Russia may have penetrated the Austrian government with informants. Heinz-Christian Strache, who heads Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, stepped down from the post of vice chancellor on Saturday. His resignation came a day after two German media outlets aired a covert video in which Strache appears to be promising to award state contracts in the construction sector to a woman posing as a Russian investor. In return for the state contracts, the unnamed woman said that she would have the firm of her uncle —a Russian oligarch— purchase an Austrian newspaper and use it to support Strache’s political party.

According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the video was filmed in Spain in 2017, two months before the Freedom Party won a record 26 percent in Austria’s national election. This gave the party 51 seats in the Austrian parliament and propelled Strache to the post of vice chancellor. In his resignation statement, Strache said he was filmed while drunk and was engaged in “macho talk” in an atttempt to “impress the attractive hostess”. He also dismissed the airing of the covertly filmed video as “a targeted political assassination”, but added that he was resigning from the government as a matter of principle. Shortly afterwards, the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Chairman of the rightwing Austrian People’s Party, announced that new national elections would be held “as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag reported on Saturday that the director of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), warned that sharing intelligence with Austria was “risky”. The Berlin-based newspaper said that BfV director Thomas Haldenwang was speaking at a closed-door meeting with German parliamentarians. He reportedly told his parliamentary audience that, due to the close relationship between the Freedom Party and Moscow, members of the Austrian government could potentially “misuse” and in some cases “forward to Russia” intelligence that they receive from other European Union member-states. This is not the first time that such warnings have come out of Germany. Last year August Hanning, who served as director of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND) openly warned Western officials to stop sharing intelligence with the government of Austria, because of its alleged proximity to the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 May 2019 | Permalink

Russian teams bribed Madagascar presidential candidates, BBC claims

Marc Ravalomanana Andry RajoelinaTeams of “Russian technical specialists” bribed several leading candidates in last year’s presidential elections in Madagascar, in an effort to influence the outcome, according to an investigation by the BBC. The 2018 presidential campaign was among the most closely fought in Madagascar’s 60-year post-independence history. The electorate’s attention concentrated mostly on two former presidents, Marc Ravalomanana, and Andry Rajoelina. Following a closely contested second round in late December, Rajoelina was elected president, having received 500,000 votes more than his opponent. Since his election, Rajoelina has promoted closer ties with Russia. Most notably, he has strengthened his country’s military cooperation with Moscow —a process that was initiated by his predecessor in October of last year.

But a new investigation by the BBC suggests there was a “systematic and coordinated operation” by a group of Russian businessmen with ties to the Kremlin to help Rajoelina get elected. There were “clear signs of Russian meddling in the polls”, claims the BBC, adding that at least six leading candidates in the election were offered money by the Russians to support rival candidates in the second round of the elections. Among them was Andre Mailhol, a Christian pastor who ran for president and ended up in fourth place with around 60,000 votes. He told the BBC that a group of Russians paid his deposit to run in the election and funded his campaign. In return, they asked that he would support their preferred candidate in the second round of the elections. Mailhol said that the Russians made him sign a contract promising to do as he was told.

The BBC claims that the payments to several presidential candidates were made by “dozens of Russians” who are central figures in Madagascar’s business community. They allegedly include Andrei Kramar and Roman Pozdnyakov, who live permanently in the island country. Other alleged accomplices are diamond trader Vladimir Boyarishchev, as well as Maksim Shugaley, a political campaign manager who lives in Russia. The BBC claims that their activities were funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin operative who has been indicted in the United States for his alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Prigozhin has allegedly been financing “teams of Russian technical specialists” to sway the results of elections in Madagascar and other African countries, according to the BBC.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 April 2019 | Permalink