Saudis say they busted spy ring, foiled suicide attack on defense ministry

Saudi security forcesOfficials in Saudi Arabia said on Tuesday that they foiled an elaborate suicide attack on the country’s defense ministry headquarters and infiltrated a foreign spy ring in the Kingdom, arresting its members. The near-simultaneous announcements were made by a member of the Presidency of State Security, an intelligence body founded only in July of this year, which is directly accountable to the county’s prime minister.

The government-controlled Saudi Press Agency reported that two Yemeni and two Saudi nationals were arrested in early-morning raids in the capital Riyadh. The four men, said the news agency, were preparing to launch a sophisticated attack against the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, which is centrally located in the nation’s capital. According to the report, the four would-be attackers had trained in explosives and in the use of suicide belts. Upon searching their safe house in Riyadh, Saudi security officers reportedly found firearms and hand grenades, as well as knives and at least two ready-to-use suicide belts, each weighing in excess of 15 pounds, or 7 kilos. The four men are believed to be members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

In a near-simultaneous announcement, the Presidency of State Security said that its officers had managed to infiltrate an alleged foreign spy cell. The Reuters news agency quoted an anonymous Saudi government source who said that “a group of people” were arrested in Riyadh for carrying out “intelligence activities for the benefit of foreign parties”. The members of the alleged spy ring had regular “contacts with external entities, including the Muslim Brotherhood”, said the anonymous source, referring to the Egyptian-based group that has branches in many Arab countries. The source added that the leaders of the alleged spy ring had received intelligence training and financial support from two foreign countries, which have not been publicly named.

It was not clear on Wednesday morning whether the two developments —the arrest of the alleged terrorists and the spy ring infiltration— were related.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 September 2017 | Permalink

Advertisements

Saudi government secretly abducting its critics from abroad, say dissidents

Salman of Saudi ArabiaAt least three prominent Saudi dissidents living in Europe, who openly criticized Saudi Arabia’s system of government, have been illegally abducted by the country’s monarchy in the past two years, according to a report by the BBC. All three, who are members of the Saudi royal family, are missing, believed to be dead or held against their will in Saudi Arabia. But the country’s government will not comment on their fate.

According to the BBC World Service, one of the missing dissidents is Prince Turki bin Bandar, a former major in the Saudi police force. In 2010, the prince began falling out with the Saudi royal family over a disputed inheritance. He was reportedly arrested and imprisoned. Once released from prison, in 2012, he moved to France, from where he began criticizing the Saudi government by posting videos and messages on social media. But his messages calling for political reform and an end to corruption in Saudi Arabia stopped in the summer of 2015 when, according to his friends, he disappeared. One of them, the blogger Wael al-Khalaf, told the BBC that Prince Bandar was visiting Morocco where he was detained following a request by the Saudi government. It is believed that he was then deported to Saudi Arabia, where he remains today, almost certainly against his will.

Another Europe-based Saudi royal, Prince Saud bin Saif al-Nasr, has been missing since 2015. His disappearance came after a year-long social-media campaign in which he called for the prosecution of senior Saudi officials for backing the overthrow of the now deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. In September 2015, shortly before his disappearance, Prince Nasr had publicly endorsed two anonymous open letters —allegedly written by a Saudi prince— calling for the violent overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. According to the BBC, Prince Nasr was the only Saudi royal to publicly and openly endorse the letters. He then disappeared and is presumed to be in Saudi Arabia.

The third case, that of Prince Khaled bin Farhan, is more complicated. The prince was living in Switzerland and was a prominent figure among Saudi exiles calling for political reforms in their homeland. In 2003, he took a flight from Milan to Rome on a private jet, which, according to the BBC, had been provided to him by a Russian-Italian company seeking to strike a business deal with him. But Prince Farhan alleges that the trip was a ruse, and that the jet took him instead to Saudi Arabia, where he was imprisoned. Seven years later, the Saudi government allowed him to seek medical treatment in the United States. But when he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, the prince immediately filed a criminal complaint against his abductors in the Swiss courts. Amazingly, in 2016 he was convinced by the Saudi government in Paris, where he was living at the time, to use a Saudi government plane to visit his ailing father in Cairo, Egypt. But, predictably, the airplane took him and his 18-member entourage —which included non-Saudi citizens— to Riyadh. When the jet landed, Prince Farhan was “dragged […] from the plane” by heavily armed guards while “screaming at his team to call the US embassy”, according to two members of his entourage who spoke anonymously to the BBC.

The two anonymous sources told the British broadcaster that they had their passports taken away and were kept in a hotel for three days without being allowed to use a telephone to contact their family abroad or their country’s embassy in Saudi Arabia. They were then allowed to “fly to a destination of their choice” with their expenses paid by the Saudi government. The BBC said it contacted the Saudi government seeking information about the three missing royals, but Saudi officials declined to respond to questions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 August 2017 | Permalink

US spies confirm Qatar’s claims that its media were hacked by Emirates to spark crisis

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-ThaniAmerican officials appear to confirm Qatar’s allegations that its news media were hacked by its Gulf adversaries, who then used the fake news posted by hackers to launch a massive campaign against it. Tensions between Qatar and other Muslim countries have risen since late May, when the country’s state-controlled news agency appeared to publish an incendiary interview with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. In the interview, which appeared on May 24, the sheikh appeared to praise Saudi regional rival Iran as a “great Islamic power” and to express support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas. On the following day, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain immediately banned all Qatari media —primarily Al Jazeera— from broadcasting in their territories and broke diplomatic relations with Doha. Later on, they declared a large-scale commercial embargo against the small oil kingdom. They have since threatened war unless Qatar changes its alleged support for Iran and for a number of militant groups in the region.

The Qatari government has dismissed the embargo as unjust and has claimed that Sheikh al-Thani’s controversial interview was fake, and was placed on the country’s state-owned news agency and social media as a result of a computer hack. It has also claimed to have evidence of a number of iPhones that were used from locations in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to launch the hacks on its networks. Qatari officials have also said that an investigation into the incident is underway, but their claims have been criticized as outlandish by Qatar’s regional rivals.

Now, however, a report by The Washington Post claims that American officials have uncovered evidence that Qatar’s allegations of a computer hack are true. The paper cited “US intelligence and other officials” who spoke “on the condition of anonymity”. The officials said that US intelligence agencies recently became aware of a meeting of senior UAE state administrators that took place on May 23 in Abu Dhabi. At the meeting, the officials discussed a plan to hack Qatari news websites and social media, in order to post incendiary messages that could be used to spark a row between Qatar, the Saudi government and its allies. The alleged computer hacks is reported to have taken place on the following day. According to The Post, the only thing that US intelligence is unsure about is “whether the UAE carried out the hacks itself or contracted to have them done” by a third party.

The Post said that several US intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, refused to comment on its report. The paper received a response from the UAE embassy in Washington, DC, which said that the Emirates had “no role whatsoever in the alleged hacking described in the article”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 July 2017 | Permalink

Saudi Arabia’s recently deposed crown prince reportedly under house arrest

Prince Mohammed bin SalmanOne of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful men, who until last week was first in line to the throne, is reportedly under house arrest. If true, this development would reveal a deep and growing division within the ruling House of Saud. Until the early hours of June 21, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, was the officially appointed successor to the Saudi ruler, King Salman. In addition to running the country’s feared security services, Prince Nayef was close to Washington, and is a trusted friend of numerous American intelligence officials. But on June 21, King Salman announced radical changes to the line of succession to the throne, stunning the Saudi establishment and international observers alike. The announcement, which came shortly after midnight, completely deposed Prince Nayef from the line of succession.

In Prince Nayef’s place, the King appointed his favorite son, Mohammed bin Salman, 31, who is now the new crown prince. Prince Salman was virtually unknown until 2015, when his father became monarch. He quickly appointed him to Secretary of Defense in the oil kingdom. Since that time, Prince Salman —the world’s youngest defense minister— has been tasked with overseeing Saudi Arabia’s oil monopoly, and finding ways to diversify the country’s economy. Additionally, he has raised eyebrows at home and abroad, by promoting an aggressive foreign policy in Yemen and Syria. He is also believed to have spearheaded Riyadh’s aggressive foreign-policy maneuvers in relation to Iran and Qatar.

Since the day of the surprise announcement, Prince Nayef has virtually disappeared from public life. It subsequently emerged that he was also fired from his post as Minister of Interior, and replaced by one of his nephews. According to The New York Times, the reason for the prince’s disappearance is that he has been virtually under house arrest. Citing “four current and former American officials” and an unspecified number of “Saudis close to the royal family”, The Times said on Wednesday that Prince Nayef has been “confined to his palace” in the coastal city of Jeddah. The paper alleged that, as soon as he went to his palace in the early hours of Wednesday, the prince found that his trusted security guards had been secretly dismissed and replaced with men who are loyal to Prince Salman.

Sources in the Saudi government, who are close to the king, have dismissed The Times’ report as “baseless and false”. However, no member of Prince Nayef’s inner circle has come forward to dismiss the allegations about his house arrest. If true, the reports would suggest that there is a deep split inside the Saudi royal family and that Prince Nayef, along with members of his immediate family, are being kept in isolation from their supporters.

Meanwhile, there have been no comments from Western governments on Prince Nayef’s surprise dismissal. Regular intelNews readers will recall a leaked German intelligence report from 2015, in which Prince Salman —who is now first in line to the throne— was described as spearheading an “impulsive policy of intervention”. The report, authored by the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, warned that Prince Salman’s radical maneuvers were jeopardizing the Kingdom’s relationship with important regional allies and with Washington. Things have changed since then, however, with the ascent of Donald Trump to the White House. The new American president and his senior aides have repeatedly expressed strong support for King Salman and his son.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 June 2017 | Permalink

Former head of Qatar spy agency sides with Saudis in diplomatic quarrel

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani with US President Donald Trump A former director of Qatar’s intelligence agency broke ranks with the government of Qatar and accused Doha of supporting terrorism. He also warned that the United States, which has a base in Qatar, would not allow the presence of foreign troops there.

Tensions between Qatar and other predominantly Muslim countries rose dangerously in recent weeks. The crisis erupted soon after Qatar’s state-controlled news agency published an interview with the country’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, in which he appeared to praise Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia’s primary regional adversaries. Despite protestations by the Saudi government, the Qatari emir then contacted Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, to congratulate him on his reelection, a move that was interpreted as adversarial by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia also feels threatened by Al Jazeera, a Qatari-based television network with worldwide reach, which is often critical of the Gulf’s oil monarchies other than Qatar.

Last week, Saudi Arabia and 16 other predominantly Muslim countries, including Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, announced a series of diplomatic, commercial and military sanctions on Qatar. The sanctions are ostensibly designed to curtail the country’s alleged support for international terrorism. Riyadh and its allies accuse Doha of secretly supporting militant groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Hamas and the Taliban, among others. Currently all sea, air and land connections between these 16 countries and Qatar have been suspended, while no diplomatic relations exist between them. The tense situation has prompted some analysts to describe the diplomatic crisis as the worst in the Gulf region since the 1991 Gulf War.

In response to the diplomatic boycott, the government of Qatar said last week that it would invite military personnel from three of its allies, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, to protect its territory. But the former director of Qatar’s intelligence service said in an interview on Monday that Qatar’s threat would not materialize. Read more of this post

Emiratis, Saudis, secretly assisting Libyan rebels with air power, says UN

Khalifa HaftarSecret military assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which violates United Nations sanctions, is helping Libya’s eastern-based rebels prevail in the civil war there, according to a new report. Libya has remained in a state of anarchy since 2011, when a popular uprising backed by the West and its allies led to the demise of the country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Currently the strongest faction in the post-2011 Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the US under Washington’s protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011.

The Tobruk-led Government is ostensibly supported by the United States, but has also received Russian assistance. The status of the group is further-complicated by the fact that, in recent years, its military wing, led by Haftar, operates semi-autonomously. Some believe that Haftar has now stopped taking orders from Tobruk and has aspirations to lead his own armed faction in Libya.

In February of 2011, shortly after the popular uprising erupted in Libya, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1970, which —among other things— forbids the export of war materiel to Libya. The resolution was further-strengthened in 2014 and today remains in place. But the UN embargo did not appear to stop the military domination of Haftar’s LNA. In the past few months, the armed group has managed to extend its control over dozens of urban centers, oil installations and military bases and outposts throughout eastern and central Libya. Today, the LNA is seen as the dominant military authority in the war-torn country.

Now a new report published by the UN suggests that the main reason for the LNA’s military prowess lies in the secret support it receives from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The report was published on Friday by the “Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1970”, a panel of experts appointed by the UN to oversee the implementation of the arms embargo. In its annual report, the panel asserts that Haftar’s forces received significant military assistance from the UAE in both ground and aerial support. Specifically, the LNA received nearly 650 armored and non-armored vehicles in April of 2016 alone, as well as helicopters and unmanned drones. The latter are now stationed the Al-Khadim air base, which was built by the LNA specifically in order to house the UAE-supplied aircraft. It is believed that the UAE operates the Al-Khadim air base, which is located approximately 60 miles east of Benghazi, Libya’s second most populous urban center.

The UN report goes on to state that much of the war materiel reaches Libya through ships that sail from Saudi Arabia, and that some Belarus-based companies are also involved in the illicit transfer of helicopters, non-armored vehicles and other items to Libya. It concludes that the materiel assistance provided by the UAE has “significantly increased the air support available to the LNA”, which in turn explains the group’s impressive military performance in the past year. The report’s authors noted that they contacted the government of the UAE in regards to the report’s findings, but received no response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 June 2017 | Permalink

German spy agency says Saudi Arabia is ‘source of regional instability’

Prince Mohammed bin SalmanA report by Germany’s primary intelligence agency warns that internal power struggles and broader geopolitical changes are turning the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia into a major source of regional instability. The report was produced by the German Federal Intelligence Service, known as BND, and is entitled: “Saudi Arabia: A Sunni Regional Power Torn Between a Paradigm Shift in Foreign Policy and Domestic Power Consolidation”. It explains the energy-rich Kingdom’s new forceful approach to regional problems as an outcome of both domestic and external factors.

On the domestic scene, the BND report connects the changes in Saudi Arabia’s regional stance with an unfolding power-struggle between two factions inside the country’s royal family. On the one side is the ‘traditionalist’ faction led by King Salman, who was enthroned in January of this year following the death of his predecessor, King Abdullah. This faction is being challenged by a group of royal family members led by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who currently serves as the country’s minister of defense. According to the BND report, Prince Mohammed, who is second-in-line to the throne, is trying to solidify his position in the royal succession by promoting a more radical and militarized foreign policy. This, says the BND, can be seen in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military intervention in Yemen, as well as in its highly interventionist policy in support of anti-government rebels in Syria.

The German intelligence report suggests that Prince Mohammed’s policies are also the result of a widespread view among some senior members of the Saudi royal family that the United States is gradually disengaging from the Middle East, and that the country is not any more a strong guarantor of Saudi Arabia’s security. As a result, the Kingdom is “prepared to take unprecedented risks” in the military, diplomatic and financial domains in order to project itself as a strong regional actor and “avoid falling behind in regional affairs” in its struggle for dominance against its neighboring rival, Iran.

But this new policy, says the BND, comes with considerable financial demands, which are challenging the limits of Saudi Arabia’s financial might. This year alone, notes the German report, the Kingdom is expected to announce a budget deficit that will be in the neighborhood of $120 billion. This is angering many senior members of the royal family who are opposed to Prince Mohammed’s aggressive regional stance. These ‘traditionalists’ have repeatedly criticized the prince’s “impulsive policy of intervention”, which they claim is jeopardizing the Kingdom’s relationship with important regional allies, as well as with Washington.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 4 October 2015 | Permalink