Spanish judge broadens probe into 20-year illegal wiretap network

José Manuel VillarejoA judge in Spain has widened an investigation into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years, in return for payments by wealthy clients. At the center of the case is José Manuel Villarejo, a 67-year-old former police chief, who was arrested in November of 2017 for carrying out illegal wiretaps and remains in pre-trial custody. State prosecutors accuse Villarejo of running an illicit information-collection enterprise that violated the privacy of hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. The latter were targeted by corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. Many of Villarejo’s targets were eventually blackmailed by the recipients of information collected by the former police chief and his network.

The court heard this week that the accused maintained an extensive network of informants with whom he had worked during his time in the police force. These informants worked for telecommunications service providers, the banking sector, and even at Agencia Tributaria, Spain’s tax revenue service. They are accused of providing Villarejo’s network with information that helped him zero in on his targets, such as confidential tax returns, subscriber records of personal telephone calls, bank account numbers, and asset ownership lists. It is believed that several Spanish politicians were among Villarejo’s clients, as was the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, one of Spain’s largest banks.

On Wednesday, the court heard from five active police officers and an employee of the Agencia Tributaria, who testified about having worked for Villarejo’s network. The six men testified about so-called Operation KITCHEN, which targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular —known as PP, or the People’s Party. The purpose of Operation KITCHEN was to wiretap Bárcenas’ communications without acquiring a court warrant, said the witnesses. In 2018 Bárcenas was jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case, the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, which brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of last year. The trial continues.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 January 2019 | Permalink

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Barcelona on high alert after US State Department terrorism warning

Las Ramblas BarcelonaPolice in Barcelona have intensified security checks in some of the Spanish city’s most recognizable landmarks, following a security warning from the United States Department of State. The surprise warning came in the form of a post on the popular social networking site Twitter on Sunday, December 23. In the tweet, the Department of State advised travelers to “exercise heightened caution around areas of vehicle movement, including buses”. It added that terrorists could “attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, and other public areas”. It is rare for the Department of State to issue warnings for specific locations, unless the US government is in possession of critical intelligence pointing to the possibility of a terrorist attack.

Hours after the Department of State’s warning, Miquel Buch, Minister of the Interior for Spain’s Catalonia region, told a radio station in Barcelona that local authorities were “engaged in assessing the warning” by the US authorities. Local media reported that increased police presence was visible around bus, minibus, train and metro stations throughout the Catalonian capital. Heavily armed police presence was also notable in Barcelona’s most popular tourist landmarks, including the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, the Gothic Quarter, and the mile-long Las Ramblas pedestrian Boulevard at the city’s center. There was no information about the precise nature of the US warning, but there were reports in Catalonian media on Tuesday that the alert notice involved the possibility of a vehicular attack by Islamists during the Christmas holiday season.

In August of 2017, Younes Abouyaaqoub, a 22-year-old Moroccan-born Islamist drove a van into large crowds of tourists at Las Ramblas, killing 14 and injuring nearly 150 people. Abouyaaqoub’s attack was followed by another assault by five men in Cambrils, a small seaside town south of Barcelona, who drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians, killing one and injuring six more. All six men were members of the Islamic State. They were shot and killed by police and security forces.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 December 2018 | Permalink

Poisoned Russian spy advised Spanish intelligence, say officials

Sergei SkripalSergei Skripal, the Russian double agent who was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent in England earlier this year, worked with Spanish intelligence after his defection to the United Kingdom, according to sources. Skripal, a former military intelligence officer who spied for Britain in the early 2000s, had kept a low profile while living in the English town of Salisbury. He was resettled there in 2010 by the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), after he was released from a Russian prison. But he and his daughter Yulia made international headlines in March, after they were poisoned by a powerful nerve agent that nearly killed them. The attack has been widely blamed on the Russian government, but the Kremlin denies that it had a role in it.

The attempt to kill Skripal surprised some intelligence observers due to the fact that the Russian government had officially pardoned the double agent prior to exchanging him with Russian spies who had been caught in the West. As intelNews wrote in May, “typically a spy who has been pardoned as part of an authorized spy-swap will not need to worry about being targeted by the agency that he betrayed. If it indeed tried to kill Skripal, the Russian government may therefore have broken the unwritten rules of the espionage game”. Eventually, however, it was revealed that, instead of retiring after his defection to the UK, Skripal traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, where he advised local intelligence agencies on how to defend against Russian espionage. The double agent participated in MI6-sponsored events in which he briefed intelligence practitioners in at least two countries, Estonia and the Czech Republic. These activities may have convinced the Kremlin that Skripal had broken the unwritten conditions of his release, namely that he would not participate in any intelligence-related activities against Russia.

Now The New York Times has claimed that, in addition to consulting for Czech and Estonian spies, Skripal also visited Spain, where he met with officers from the country’s National Intelligence Center (CNI). Citing an unnamed Spanish former police chief and Fernando Rueda, a Spanish intelligence expert, The Times said that Skripal advised the CNI about the activities of Russian organized crime in Spain and the alleged connections between Russian mobsters and the Kremlin. When he traveled to Spain under MI6 protection, said the paper, Skripal was effectively returning to the place where he had been initially recruited to spy for the British. Skripal spent several years in Spain, said The Times, serving as a military attaché at the Russian embassy in Madrid. It was there that he began to work secretly for MI6. However, the precise timing of Skripal’s return trips to Spain after 2010, as well as the content of his discussions with Spanish intelligence officials, remain unknown, according to The Times.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 September 2018 | Permalink

Belgium to probe alleged Spanish espionage against separatist Catalan leader

Carles PuigdemontBelgium will investigate whether Spanish intelligence spied on Carles Puigdemont, the separatist Catalan leader who escaped to Brussels after launching an unsuccessful independence bid last year. Puigdemont, 56, served as president of the Spanish region of Catalonia from January 2016 until October 2017. He was forcibly removed from office by the Spanish government, after he led the government of Catalonia in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. As soon as the Catalan Parliament declared that the region was independent, Madrid dissolved it, imposed direct rule on the country’s easternmost province, and declared fresh elections.

Amidst the chaos that ensued, Puigdemont, along with several other leading Catalan separatists, fled to Belgium where he requested political asylum. When it emerged that Puigdemont had fled abroad, Spanish authorities issued a European Arrest Warrant against him, on charges of sedition, rebellion against the state and misusing public funds. Fearing that the Belgian authorities might extradite him to Madrid, Puigdemont soon left for Germany, where he was detained by local police on March 25, 2018. He currently remains in Germany, while German authorities are deciding whether to grant Madrid’s request for his extradition.

Now authorities in Belgium are preparing to launch an investigation into whether Spain’s intelligence services carried out espionage against Puigdemont while he remained on Belgian soil. The investigation will most likely be carried out by the country’s Standing Intelligence Agencies Review Committee. Known broadly as Comité permanent R, the committee is an independent body that oversees the activities of Belgium’s security and intelligence apparatus. The investigation is to be launched as a result of an official parliamentary request submitted by the New Flemish Alliance, Belgium’s largest separatist party, which represents the country’s Dutch-speaking minority. The party has come out in support of Catalan independence and of Puigdemont in particular, and has urged Brussels to grant political asylum to the Catalan separatist leader.

Peter Buysrogge, a leading member of the New Flemish Alliance, said that his party wanted to know whether Spanish intelligence operated in Belgium with or without the knowledge of the Belgian government and intelligence services. He added that his party was especially interested in investigating allegations made in Catalan media that Spanish intelligence operatives followed Puigdemont and even installed a Global Positioning System (GPS) device under his car.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 June 2018 | Permalink

CIA warned Barcelona police two months ago about possible Islamist attack

BarcelonaThe United States Central Intelligence Agency recently warned Spanish authorities that the Islamic State planned to attack Barcelona, according to Spanish media. The disclosure follows Thursday’s dramatic events in the Catalan capital, where a white van deliberately drove into a crowd in the pedestrian mall of La Rambla, killing at least 16 people and injuring more than 100. The attack was followed by reports early on Friday that Catalan police had shot dead four suspects who were planning a second strike.

In the hours following the attack, several observers noted that Barcelona was always an obvious target for the Islamic State, given that the group had already perpetrated terrorist attacks in Berlin, London, Paris and Brussels. They also raised questions about the low level of police presence and the absence of anti-vehicle barrier systems in Barcelona —one of Europe’s busiest tourist destinations. Late on Thursday, the Catalan newspaper El Periódico reported that, two months ago, the CIA alerted the Mossos d’Esquadra, the autonomous police and security service of Catalonia, of a possible terrorist attack by the Islamic State. According to the Barcelona-based daily, the CIA even mentioned La Rambla as the main target of Islamist militants.

Even before the CIA issued its warning, the Islamic State had directed several threats against Spain since 2014, when the group first appeared in Syria. As El Periódico said, the group’s followers “consider themselves obligated to re-establish Islam” in areas that were ruled by Muslim leaders in the past. For much of the medieval period, Spain and Portugal were known as Al-Andalus, and were ruled by a succession of Muslim caliphs. The Spanish daily also reported that a Twitter account associated with the Islamic State issued several warnings against Spain two weeks ago. Specifically, on July 30, the account twitted a series of messages that read: “We will implement the caliphate in Spain and will recover our land. Impending attack on Al-Andalus, God willing”. Similar threats had been issued a year ago on social media, but were later disregarded after they failed to materialize, said El Periódico.

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

Rwandan ex-spy chief freed after UK court refuses to extradite him to Spain

Karenzi KarakeA Rwandan former intelligence chief, whose legal team is led by the wife of British former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has been freed after a court in the United Kingdom refused to extradite him to Spain to face war crimes charges. General Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, 54, was the most senior intelligence official in the administration of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. He rose to fame as a commander in the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), an armed rebel group from Rwanda’s minority Tutsi tribe that fought to end the genocide inflicted upon the Tutsis by their rival Hutus. In 1994, following the death of nearly a million people, the RPF took power in Rwanda and ended the slaughter. That accomplishment caused a rapid upsurge in the popularity of Karake and other senior RPF leaders. Karake’s popularity remains strong among the Tutsis despite his dramatic falling-out with Kagame in 2010, which led to the general’s dismissal from the government.

Critics, including groups like Human Rights Watch, have accused the Kagame government of instigating mass reprisals after assuming power in Rwanda, including mass murders of Hutus and other tribal members. In 2008, the Spanish government issued an arrest warrant for Karake, accusing him of having participated in “crimes of terrorism” and “war crimes” directed against civilians. Of particular interest to the Spanish authorities was Karake’s alleged participation in the 1997 killing of three Spanish citizens, who were in Rwanda as part of an outreach effort by Spanish medical charity Médicos del Mundo. The former RPF intelligence chief is also accused of having authorized the killing of six more Spanish citizens in Rwanda in the mid-1990s.

Karake was arrested in late June at London’s Heathrow International Airport on a European Arrest Warrant stemming from the Spanish indictment. Shortly afterwards he was granted bail pending extradition proceedings. But the case was dismissed on Monday, following an early morning hearing at the Westminster Magistrates Court in the British capital. According to the British Crown Prosecution Service, the Spanish extradition request was thrown out because the law did not permit UK authorities to hear offences committed abroad by non-British nationals. Karake was then able to leave the court, cheered by many of his supporters who were demonstrating outside.

It is worth pointing out that the Rwandan general was represented in Britain by an international law firm called Omnia Strategy, which was founded by Cherie Blair, wife of British former Prime Minister Tony Blair. It has been reported that Mrs Blair also led General Karake’s legal team in London.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 August 2015 | Permalink

Are militant groups interested in weaponizing Ebola?

Ebola suffererBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org
Does the Ebola epidemic present militant groups, such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, with the opportunity to weaponize viruses and direct them against Western targets? Earlier this month, United States Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson dismissed in strong terms the possibility that Ebola would be used by Islamic State militants to attack American targets. Speaking to the Association of the United States Army, Johnson acknowledged that the Islamic State is a “very, very dangerous terrorist organization”, but added that his Department had seen “no specific credible evidence that [the Islamic State] is attempting to use any sort of disease or virus to attack” the US. A few days earlier, however, Forbes magazine had quoted Al Shimkus, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, as saying that the Ebola outbreak presented Islamist groups with the opportunity to use a low-tech bioterrorist weapon “to attempt to wreak strategic global infection”. Shimkus added that a group like the Islamic State wouldn’t even have to weaponize the virus’ it could “simply use human carriers to intentionally infect themselves in West Africa, then disseminate the deadly virus via the world’s air transportation system”, he said. On Wednesday, a senior Spanish official told a parliamentary committee in Madrid that the government of Spain was “taking seriously” discussions in Internet forums linked to the Islamic State about using biological weapons against the West. Francisco Martínez, who is Spain’s State Secretary for Security, told the Committee of the Interior in the Spanish Congress that online commentators connected to the Islamic State have been discussing the possibility of using Ebola as a weapon against America and its Western allies. He told Committee members that the discussions had been taking place on Internet forums as recently as mid-September. He also cited “a series of tweets” from last July, in which another Islamist group, Ansar al-Islam, with roots in Iraqi Kurdistan, proposed using “deadly chemical products from laboratories” as means of launching attacks against the West. Martínez did not provide further details on the allegations.