Satellite photos show nearly completed nuclear reactor in Saudi Arabia

Saudi nuclearSatellite photos show that Saudi Arabia is edging closer to completing the construction of a nuclear reactor in Riyadh. This development continues to prompt concerns that the country may be inching closer to building nuclear weapons. The oil kingdom is a signatory to the international Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But in 2011, in a document known as Vision 2030, the Saudi leadership announced that it would seek to “diversify” its energy resources by building a series of nuclear reactors.

Last week year (thanks, S.K. for the correction -ed.), Bloomberg published a series of photographs showing the progression of Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor facility, which is located at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Riyadh. The facility is being built by INVAP, a nuclear reactor construction firm which is owned by the government of Argentina. At least six American companies have been authorized by the US Department of Energy to participate in the project in various ways.

The photographs published by Bloomberg showed that the construction project, which was initiated in April 2017, was progressing with uncharacteristic speed, and was in all likelihood nearing completion. Notably the steer vessel, which will eventually contain the reactor’s nuclear fuel, was almost complete.

Currently the oil Kingdom observes the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “small quantities protocol”, which exempts countries in possession of non-existent or negligible quantities of nuclear material from undergoing inspections. But once the KACST facility becomes operational, Saudi Arabia would be obligated to open it up to international inspectors.

The Saudi monarchy insists that the purpose of its nuclear program is peaceful and claims that it complies with international agreements. It also claims that it will make all its nuclear facilities available to inspectors, and that it is honoring nuclear non-proliferation treaties, including the (NPT). However, in 2018 the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, told the American television channel CBS that the oil kingdom would “follow suit as soon as possible” if its regional rival, Iran, developed a nuclear arsenal.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 April 2020 | Permalink | Research credit: J.R.

Saudi Arabia may be abusing global phone tracking system to spy on dissidents

Saudi TelecomThe government of Saudi Arabia may be exploiting a decades-old tracking system embedded in the global mobile telecommu- nications network in order to spy on its citizens as they travel abroad, a report suggests. The report was published on Sunday in the British broadsheet The Guardian, based on documents provided by an anonymous whistle-blower.

The alleged documents may implicate Saudi Arabia’s three largest cellular telecommuni- cations service providers, said The Guardian, namely Mobily, Zain and Saudi Telecom. The anonymous whistle-blower told the paper that these companies were “weaponizing mobile technologies”, allegedly under the direction of Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy, which is notorious for suppressing political dissent within and outside the oil kingdom.

The alleged method of surveillance relies on SS7, a decades-old feature of the global cellular telecommunications system, which allows cellular providers to provide service to mobile phone users as they travel internationally. The SS7 system allows a mobile phone registered in a specific country to be used from a different country, and its user to be charged for the service. But to do so with accuracy, the SS7 system enables the service provider to track the owner of the device being charged for the phone call. This is done through what is known in cellular telecommunications parlance as a Provide Subscriber Location, or PSL, request.

According to The Guardian, Saudi cellular telecommunications providers have been making “excessive use” of PSLs in recent years. This indicates possible attempts to track the physical movements of Saudi cell mobile phone users who are traveling to the United States, and possibly other countries. The paper said that millions of PSLs were filed by Saudi Arabia in a one-month period in November of 2019. There is no telling how long this alleged surveillance operation has been going on, and in how many countries.

The paper also said that Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from the US state of Oregon, who is a member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Intelligence, has written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the privacy vulnerabilities of the SS7 system. However, the FCC has taken no action on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 March 2020 | Permalink

Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’ as COVID-19 stirs Gulf tensions

Tehran IranA senior Bahraini cabinet minister on Thursday accused the Iranian government of ‘biological aggression’ for spreading COVID-19 to several other countries in the Gulf, a claim that Iran promptly rejected. The allegation refers to Iran’s customary practice of not stamping the passport of visitors from some Sunni-majority nations.

The practice aims to shield visitors from perceived discrimination upon their return to their Sunni-majority home countries. Several Sunni Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, have either criminalized or openly discourage trips to Iran by their Shi’a citizens. The latter are often viewed as suspicious or disloyal by their own governments. However, many of them continue to travel regularly to Iran in order to visit some of Shi’a Islam’s most revered pilgrimage sites.

Thousands of Shi’a pilgrims from predominantly Sunni nations have been repatriated to their home countries following the outbreak of COVID-19, which is also known as coronavirus. Earlier this week, Bahrain announced that at least 77 of its citizens, who were recently repatriated from Iran on government-supplied airplanes, tested positive for the disease. However, many others returned home from Iran on their own and are hesitant to tell local authorities that they have traveled to Iran, fearing discrimination or —in some cases— imprisonment. Since the passports of these individuals are not stamped with Iranian entry visas, local authorities have no way of telling whether they have recently traveled to Iran.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s Minister of Interior, General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, condemned Iran on Twitter for its “behavior, [which] has allowed the disease to travel abroad and put in danger our safety and health and that of others”. General al-Khalifa added that Iran’s behavior constituted “a form of biological aggression that is criminalized under international law”. But Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by rejecting the claim that the practice of not stamping passports was related to an intention by Tehran to spread the coronavirus to the Gulf region.

Bahrain’s accusation came less than a week after Saudi Arabia publicly chastised its citizens who have traveled to Iran and issued a reminder that traveling to Iran is considered a criminal act.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 March 2020 | Permalink

Denmark arrests three Iranian separatists for spying for Saudi Arabia

Finn Borch AndersenAuthorities in Denmark have announced the arrests of three Iranian Arab separatists, who are charged with carrying out espionage on behalf of the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia. The arrests were announced on Monday by the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, known as PET.

According to the PET, the three Iranians are members of a group calling itself the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz (ASMLA). Known also as Al-Ahwaziya, the group was established in 1980. It calls for a separate state for ethnic Arabs who live the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, in Iran’s southwest.

PET director Finn Borch Andersen told reporters on Monday that the three Iranians were recruited in 2012 by the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), Saudi Arabia’s primary intelligence agency. They allegedly spied on pro-Iranian groups and individuals in Denmark and other countries northern Europe on behalf of the GID. They reported regularly to their handler, who was an undercover intelligence officer at the Saudi embassy in Copenhagen, according to the PET.

In October 2018, one of the three Iranian men was targeted for assassination by Iranian intelligence, but Danish authorities managed to prevent it with an elaborate security operation. A Norwegian man of Iranian background was arrested during the operation and remains in detention in Denmark. Throughout that time, the PET continued to monitor the three Iranian separatists, and proceeded to arrest them this week.

Late on Monday, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Saudi ambassador to Copenhagen in order to file an official complaint about Saudi espionage activities on Danish soil. According to the Danish media, the ambassador of Denmark to Saudi Arabia contacted the oil kingdom’s government to protest about the incident.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 05 February 2020 | Permalink

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