Saudi king hosts CIA director a day after US charges two Saudis with espionage

Gina HaspelA day after the United States Department of Justice charged two Saudi citizens with engaging in espionage on American soil, Saudi officials hosted the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in Riyadh, reportedly to discuss “the longstanding Saudi-US partnership”.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, two Saudi men, both employees of the US-based company Twitter, were instructed by a member of the Saudi royal family to surrender the personal information of at least 6,000 Twitter users who posted criticism of the Saudi government on social media. As intelNews reported on Thursday, one of the men is under arrest, while the other managed to evade US authorities and is thought to be sheltered by the Saudi government.

It is believed that the member of the Saudi royal family who instructed the two men to carry out espionage was no other than Mohammed bin Salman, the oil kingdom’s crown prince. Wednesday’s developments marked the first time that US authorities have publicly filed espionage charges against Saudi nationals in America.

A day after the charges were filed in the US state of California, Gina Haspel, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was reportedly hosted by Saudi Arabia’s king Salman in Riyadh. In addition to Salman and Haspel, the meeting was attended by several senior Saudi officials, including Khalid al-Humaidan, who directs the kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, was also present at the meeting.

A tweet by the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington said that the meeting between Haspel and the Saudi officials revolved around “the longstanding Saudi-US partnership”. It also said that participants discussed “a number of regional and international developments”, but gave no further information. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency said simply that the meeting focused on “a number of topics of mutual interest”, but did not elaborate.

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

FBI charges Twitter employees with working as spies for Saudi Arabia

TwitterUnited States authorities have charged two employees of the social media firm Twitter and a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family with spying for Riyadh. The Federal Bureau of Investigation filed a complaint on Wednesday in San Francisco, accusing the three men of “acting as unregistered agents” for Saudi Arabia. The phrase is used in legal settings to refer to espionage.

According to the FBI, the charges stem from an investigation that lasted several years and centered on efforts by the oil kingdom to identify and silence its critics on social media. In 2015, the Saudi government allegedly reached out to Ali Alzabarah, a 35-year-old network engineer working for Twitter, who lived in San Francisco. The complaint alleges that Ahmed Almutairi (also known as Ahmed Aljbreen), who worked as a “social media advisor” for Saudi Arabia’s royal family, arranged for Alzabarah to be flown from San Francisco to Washington to meet with an unidentified member of the Saudi dynasty.

Alzabarah, along with another Twitter employee, 41-year-old Ahmad Abouammo, were given money and gifts by the Saudi government in return for supplying it with private information about specific Twitter users, according to the complaint. The information provided by the two Twitter employees to the Saudi authorities allegedly included the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users, who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media.

Special Agents from the FBI’s Settle field office arrested Abouammo at his Seattle home on Tuesday. However, Alzabarah is believed to have fled the United States along with his family before the FBI was able to arrest him. He is currently believed to be in Saudi Arabia and is wanted by the FBI, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. The Saudi government has not commented on the case. Twitter issued a statement on Wednesday, saying it planned to continue to cooperate with the FBI on this investigation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 November 2019 | Permalink

US and Saudi Arabia ‘suffered intelligence blackout’ during Iran drone strikes: sources

Saudi AramcoSaudi Arabia and the United States suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the lead-up to the drone strikes that shut down half of the kingdom’s oil production last month, according to Israeli sources. In the early hours of September 14, missiles struck two refineries belonging to the world’s largest crude oil processing facility in eastern Saudi Arabia. The facilities, which belong to Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, were forced to cease operation so that repairs could be carried out. This drastically reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent drop in global oil production. By Monday morning, global oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

Soon after the attacks, Saudi and American officials accused Iran of having launched the missile strikes. But according to Breaking Defense, Riyadh and Washington suffered “a total and embarrassing [intelligence] failure” in the hours prior to and following the attacks. The US-based website cited a number of anonymous Israeli sources, who said that officials in Tel Aviv were surprised by the lack of intelligence in the US and Saudi Arabia about the missile strikes. The Israelis told Breaking Defense that Saudi intelligence agencies “had no idea Iran was planning to attack the kingdom’s oil facilities […]. It seems that the Americans were also in the dark [or that possibly] Washington […] did not share the data in time with the Saudis”, they added.

The above information was allegedly discussed at an emergency meeting of the Israeli defense cabinet on October 6, which included a briefing on the attacks by the Mossad, Israel’s main external intelligence agency. According to the Israeli sources, Mossad officials were quickly able state with high confidence that the missiles had been launched from military bases in southeast Iran or by Iranian militias in Iraq. It was only following an examination of missile fragments that Saudi and American intelligence officers were able to point the finger at Iran, according to Aahron Ze’evi Farkash, former director of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate.

Breaking Defense also said that Israeli intelligence analysts were impressed by the precision of the weapons systems used in the Iranian strikes. Additionally, the specific targets of the attacks were selected with the help of “very accurate intelligence”, said the Israeli sources.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 October 2019 | Permalink

Head of Saudi king’s security detail shot dead in mysterious circumstances

Abdulaziz al-FaghamThe head of the security detail of Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has been shot dead in mysterious circumstances. Abdulaziz al-Fagham was a Major General in Saudi Arabia’s Royal Guard Corps, whose mission is to protect the senior members of the oil kingdom’s royal family. Al-Fagham served two kings, king Salman and his predecessor, king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and was constantly seen alongside the in official functions. Since much current-affairs coverage in Saudi Arabia’s state-owned media revolves around the activities of the royal family, al-Fagham’s figure was familiar to most Saudis. They were reportedly shocked by the murder of such a familiar figure who was very close to the Saudi royal family.

But details of al-Fagham’s killing remain sparse. Saudi officials began posting social-media messages of condolence about al-Fagham and his family late on Saturday evening. It wasn’t until late on Sunday evening that the kingdom’s official media began to publish official reports of al-Fagham’s demise. State-run Saudi television said that al-Fagham, whom it described as a “bodyguard of the custodian of the two holy mosques”, had been killed following a “dispute of a personal nature”. A subsequent television report stated that al-Fagham had died on Saturday evening at a house belonging to a close friend of his in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, which is located on the shores of the Red Sea.

It has since emerged that while visiting his friend’s house, al-Fagham had a prolonged argument with another visitor named Mamdouh bin Meshaal al-Ali. The latter left the house in anger and later returned with a rifle, which he used to kill al-Fagham and injure two others, according to reports. Al-Fagham was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died of gunshot wounds. Meanwhile, police surrounded the house where the shootout took place and tried to arrest al-Ali. But the alleged culprit refused to surrender to police and was subsequently shot dead by security officers, following a firefight that injured several people.

The New York Times said on Sunday that around al-Fagham’s murder the Saudi intelligence services contacted their American counterparts seeking information on a number o Saudi citizens with alleged connections to terrorism. But it is not known whether the request for intelligence was in any way connected to al-Fagham’s killing.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 September 2019 | Permalink

Opinion: Saudi Arabia will not go to war with Iran, but it may pay others to do so

Saudi AramcoEver since a barrage of drone and missile attacks struck Saudi Arabia on September 14, many have wondered whether the oil kingdom will go to war with Iran. Riyadh has directly accused the Islamic Republic of being behind the attacks. But the speculation about a possible war is baffling, argues Nesrine Malik in a well-argued article published last Sunday in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Saudi Arabia does not “go to war”, she says —it pays others to do so on its behalf.

The war in Yemen is a perfect example, argues Malik. Even though the Saudi monarchy is leading the foreign military involvement in that war, Saudi Arabia is supplying almost no ground troops in that war. There are only Saudi commanders who are managing groups of mercenaries from Morocco, Jordan and Egypt. A large portion of the Saudi-led force consists of Sudanese child soldiers, whose families are paid handsomely for supplying the oil kingdom’s force in Yemen with what Malik describes as “cannon fodder”. The Saudi commanders communicate their battle orders to their hired troops via satellite phones and use unmanned drones and high-flying planes to attack the predominantly Shiite Houthi rebels. That largely explains the high civilian toll in that war.

Meanwhile, the United States government announced last week that it will be sending several hundred troops to the oil kingdom and will be beefing up its air defense systems. But Malik wonders why it is that Saudi Arabia, which has been the world’s largest weapons importer since 2014, and whose 2018 arms purchases accounted for 12 percent of global defense spending last year, requires the presence of American troops on its soil for its protection. The answer is simple, she says: the Saudi regime purchases weapons, not to use them, but to make Wester defense industries dependent on its purchasing power. In other words, the Saudi monarchy buys Western weapons for political reasons. These purchases enable it to get away with its abysmal human-rights record at home, as well as its kidnappings and assassinations abroad.

In the meantime, says Malik, if Saudi Arabia goes to war against Iran, it will do so the way it always does: it will hire proxies —including the United States— to fight on its behalf.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2019 | Permalink

US considering drastic increase in intel-sharing with Saudi Arabia after drone attacks

AramcoUnited States officials are considering increasing substantially America’s intelligence-sharing with Saudi Arabia following last weekend’s drone attacks that halved the Kingdom’s oil production and shook global markets. The attacks occurred in the early hours of Saturday, September 14, at two refineries located in eastern Saudi Arabia. The refineries are owned by Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s government-owned oil conglomerate, and are part of the world’s largest crude oil processing facility. The massive fires caused by the attacks were contained within hours and no casualties were reported. But the facilities had to cease operation so that repairs could be completed. This cut Saudi Arabia’s oil production by close to 50 percent, which amounted to a 5 percent reduction in global oil production. The impact on the world’s financial markets was immediate: by Monday morning, oil prices had seen their most significant one-day surge since the 1991 Gulf War.

The Houthi movement, a collection of Yemeni Shiite militias supported by Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack. A Houthi movement spokesman said on Sunday that the attacks had been carried out with the use of modified commercially available drones. He also warned that Saudi Arabia would experience more attacks of this kind in the future. Iran has rejected accusations by American and some Saudi officials that it was responsible for the attacks.

On Monday the Reuters news agency reported that the US is considering the possibility of drastically increasing the volume and quality of intelligence it shares with Saudi Arabia. The move is allegedly intended as one in a series of measures to be taken by Washington in response to Saturday’s drone attacks. In the past, the US has been selective in how much intelligence it shares with the Saudis, who have been involved in an increasingly bloody civil war in Yemen since 2015. Washington is weary of being seen to have a decisive role in support of the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, in light of the criticism that the latter has drawn from numerous international bodies and governments around the world.

The US Congress has also condemned the Saudi campaign in an unusually bipartisan fashion, and has tried to stop President Donald Trump from providing material support to it. In May of this year, the US president defied Congress and signed two dozen arms sales agreements worth over $8 billion with the oil kingdom. The move upset many critics of Saudi Arabia in the Republican Party, who sharply criticized the Saudi government for killing journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last year. A possible decision by Washington to increase its intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia is bound to prompt a critical response from Congress, especially if it relates to the ongoing war in Yemen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 September 2019 | Permalink

US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda-linked groups

Shabwani EliteWeapons supplied to the Saudi and Emirati governments by the United States and other Western nations are ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militias in Yemen, according to two separate investigations. The weapons are being supplied to the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen. The war has been going on since 2015, when a alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities formed the Houthi movement, which quickly seized control of much of the country. The Houthis effectively toppled the government, prompting a reaction by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, which see the Shiite movement as an Iranian front. In an effort to restore Yemen’s Sunni-dominated government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry.

However, a report published this week by Amnesty International alleges that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen. Among them are three militias that are known to be supported by the government of the Emirates, namely the Giants, the Security Belt and the Shabwani Elite. These groups, says Amnesty, have been seen using Western-supplied weaponry in the field of battle and in their compounds throughout Yemen. In its report, the human-rights group says that these groups are not accountable to any government and have been linked to serious war crimes against civilians. Meanwhile, a separate investigation aired this week by CNN claims that American-manufactured weaponry and materiel given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries is ending up in the hand of Salafist militias in Yemen. The report names the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The CNN report also claims that some of the American weaponry has fallen in the hands of Houthi fighters.

On Wednesday the BBC quoted a senior American general who said that the Pentagon plans to investigate whether American and other Western-supplied weapons are being illegally diverted into the hands of non-state Sunni militias in Yemen. The government of the United Arab Emirates has not commented on the reports. As intelNews reported last August, an investigative report published by the Associated Press claimed that senior AQAP commanders were on the payroll of US-backed Sunni militias in Yemen and that its fighters were being recruited to fight against the Houthis. The report also argued that Washington was privy to the secret agreements between Yemen’s Sunni militias and AQAP.

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