Swiss trying to change image as Europe’s spy hub, say officials

Federal Intelligence Service SwitzerlandOfficials in Switzerland say new laws enacted in recent months will help them change their country’s image as one of Europe’s most active spy venues. For decades, the small alpine country has been a destination of choice for intelligence officers from all over the world, who use it as a place to meet assets from third countries. For example, a case officer from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) will travel to Switzerland to meet her Algerian agent. She will exchange money and documents with him before she returns to Britain and he to Algeria, presumably after depositing his earnings into a Swiss bank account.

There are multiple reasons that explain Switzerland’s preferred status as a meeting place for spies and their handlers. The country is suitably located in the center of Europe and is a member of the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, which means that a passport is not required to enter it when arriving there from European Union member-states. Additionally, the country features an efficient transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and its stable political system offers predictability and security, despite the limited size and strength of its law enforcement and security agencies. Perhaps most important of all, the Swiss have learned not to ask questions of visitors, many of whom flock to the country to entrust their cash to its privacy-conscious banking sector.

But, according to the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), foreign spies and their handlers should find another venue to meet in secret. Speaking to the Sunday edition of Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper, FIS spokeswoman Isabelle Graber said she and her colleagues were aware that their country is a venue for meetings between intelligence operatives from third countries. Such meetings have “continued to rise in the last few years” and include “everyone from security agency employees to freelancers”, as “the market in trading secrets has exploded”, she said. That trend, added Graber, has led to a corresponding rise in meetings aimed at exchanging information for money. Many such meetings take place throughout Switzerland, she noted, and are “in violation of Swiss sovereignty and can lead to operations against the interests of the nation”.

In the past, said Graber, FIS was unable to prevent such activities on Swiss soil, due to pro-privacy legislation, which meant that the agency’s ability to combat foreign espionage in Switzerland was “far more limited than in other countries”. However, said the intelligence agency spokeswoman, the law recently changed to permit FIS to break into homes and hotels, hack into computers, wiretap phones, and implement surveillance on individuals believed to be spies or intelligence officers of foreign countries. Armed with the new legislation, the FIS is now “working hard to clear up third-country meetings [and] to prevent these from happening or at least disrupt them”, said Graber. Several times this year alone, FIS had forward information about “third-country meetings” to judicial authorities in Switzerland, she said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 February 2018 | Permalink

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French-Swiss firm allegedly bribed Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria

LafargeHolcimThe world’s largest building materials manufacturer, LafargeHolcim, which is headquartered in France and Switzerland, allegedly bribed the Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria, according to court witnesses. The company specializes in the manufacture of building materials such as cement, concrete and various byproducts. It was formed in 2015 by a merger of France-based Lafarge and Swiss-based Holcim, and currently employs an estimated 120,000 employees in nearly 100 countries around the world.

In 2011, soon after the Syrian Civil War broke out, various militant groups began operating in the area around one of LafargeHolcim’s plants, located in in north-central Syria, 10 miles south of the Syrian-Turkish border. In June of 2016, French newspaper Le Monde published allegations that LafargeHolcim’s subsidiary, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS), which owns the plant, bribed various militias to stay away from its factory. According to the paper, at least €20,000 (approximately $24,000) went to the Islamic State, which eventually conquered the area around the LafargeHolcim plant. The article further claimed that LCS managers in Syria sent detailed emails to LafargeHolcim executives in Europe about their dealings with various militias, including the Islamic State. LafargeHolcim approved the use of funds to bribe the militias, said Le Monde, in order to allow the factory to remain operational and to avoid having their employees taken hostage.

The newspaper’s allegations prompted the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Paris to launch a preliminary investigation in October of the same year. Eventually, an official complaint was filed by the French Ministry of Finance, which argued that the activities of LCS may have constituted illicit financial relations between a French-owned company and a terrorist group. An official investigation was opened in June of 2017 into whether LafargeHolcim illegally financed terrorist groups through its subsidiaries, Lafarge and LCS. Investigators are also examining claims that the company presented the French government with forged accounting documents in order to hide the bribes it gave to various Syrian armed groups.

Last week, investigators heard from the first time from witnesses, three of whom were LCS employees in 2014, when the company first made contact with Islamic State militants. They allegedly told prosecutors that the French-Swiss company paid approximately $20,000 a month to various armed groups, including al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Prosecutors did not discuss details about the witnesses’ testimonies, but Le Monde said it spoke to individuals with direct knowledge of the investigation, who said that the witnesses’ testimonies were particularly damning for LafargeHolcim. The probe continues.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2017 | Permalink

Germany’s celebrity spy Werner Mauss on trial for multi-million dollar tax evasion

Werner MaussGermany’s most famous living spy is on trial this week for hiding assets totaling $50 million in offshore bank accounts. He claims the money was given to him by unspecified “Western intelligence agencies” for his services. Werner Mauss became widely known in 1997, when he was arrested in Colombia for using a forged passport. He had traveled to the Latin American country to secure the release of a German woman who had been kidnapped by leftist guerrillas. The Colombian authorities eventually released him, following heavy diplomatic pressure from the German government. But the German media began investigating his background, and it soon became apparent that he was working for the German Federal Intelligence Service.

Following his unmasking in 1997, Mauss enjoyed celebrity status in Germany. Published accounts of his exploits claim that he was directly involved in neutralizing over 100 criminal gangs and that his work led to the capture of 2,000 criminals and spies. Mauss also claims to have helped prevent dangerous chemical substances from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, and that he stopped the Italian Mafia from killing Pope Benedict. Last year, however, Mauss saw his celebrity status diminish after the German government charged him with tax evasion. German prosecutors uncovered several overseas bank accounts belonging to him, which they said contained tens of millions of dollars in hidden income. They alleged that Mauss used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle centered on expensive overseas holidays, luxury cars, expensive gifts to women, as well as a private jet.

On Monday, the 77-year-old Mauss made his final plea in a lengthy court case concerning two of his off-shore accounts, located in UBS bank branches in the Bahamas and Luxembourg. The prosecution alleges that he failed to pay tax on assets totaling in excess of $50 million in the decade between 2002 and 2012 alone. Additionally, it is claimed that Mauss traveled from Germany to Luxembourg several times a year, to withdraw approximately $330,000 in cash per month from his secret accounts. But the accused former spy claims that the money was given to him by “Western intelligence agencies” in return for his services against international crime and terrorism, and that he should not have to pay taxes on it. In previous court appearances, he claimed that the money was not his, but belonged to various Western intelligence agencies and he simply used it to carry out intelligence operations.

The trial continues. If Mauss is convicted, he could spend nearly seven years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 September 2017 | Permalink

Germany investigates Swiss intelligence officers over espionage claims

Germany SwitzerlandGermany has launched an unprecedented investigation into three officers of Switzerland’s intelligence agency on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. News of the investigation comes three months after authorities in Germany arrested another Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil. German media report that the three unnamed men are officers of Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). They are suspected of engaging in the same type of activity as “Daniel M.”, namely monitoring German tax-fraud investigators.

The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

According to German media, the investigation against the three NDB officers was launched earlier this month. The news is likely to further complicate relations between Berlin and Bern. The two governments have been at loggerheads since the arrest of “Daniel M.”. Switzerland responded to the arrest by issuing arrest warrants for a number of German tax investigators. But Germany dismissed the move, saying it would refuse to comply with the warrants. On Monday, several European news media quoted German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who described the alleged activities of the NDB as “incredible” and warned that the ongoing dispute between Germany and Switzerland could “wreck” their bilateral relationship.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2017 | Permalink

Swiss officials defend alleged spying on German tax-fraud investigators

SwitzerlandSenior Swiss government officials, including the defense minister and the director of the country’s intelligence agency, have defended Switzerland’s right to spy on European tax-fraud investigators who meddle in Swiss affairs. Earlier this week, German authorities announced the arrest of a Swiss national who was allegedly spying on the activities of German tax-fraud investigators in Frankfurt. According to German officials and media reports, the man, identified only as Daniel M., is an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. The agency, known by its German-language initials, NDB, is Switzerland’s main intelligence organization.

As intelNews reported on Monday, Daniel M. was said to be monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to stop German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. In the past decade, German authorities have paid nearly $100 million to employees of Swiss banks in return for information about the identities of German bank account holders in the small alpine country. The Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information, a practice that goes against Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. On Tuesday, Germany’s Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, summoned Switzerland’s ambassador to Germany, Christine Schraner Burgener, to the Foreign Ministry, in order discuss Daniel M.’s arrest. A press statement that the Foreign Ministry sent on Tuesday to the German media said that the meeting had been called “in the interest of German-Swiss friendship”.

But the Swiss do not appear to be interested in discussing. On Tuesday, Markus Seiler, Director of the NDB, defended his agency’s right to spy on anyone who “uses illegal methods in Switzerland to steal state or business secrets”. Seiler, who was speaking in Bern, classified all such practices as espionage targeting the the Swiss economy. Asked by reporters whether Daniel M. was an NDB employee, Seiler said he could not comment. But he defended the NDB’s right to “fight the theft of business secrets” and “uphold Swiss laws”. He also refused to specify whether the NDB is active in Germany, stating instead that the agency is “active at home and abroad”. Switzerland’s Minister of Defense, Guy Parmelin, who supervises the NDB’s activities, was equally general when asked to discuss the arrest of Daniel M. He said simply that he and other Swiss government officials had to “protect [the NDB’s] methods and sources”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 April 2017 | Permalink

Germany arrests Swiss spy who was monitoring tax-fraud investigators

Frankfurt AirportAuthorities in Germany have announced the arrest of a Swiss national who was allegedly spying on the activities of German tax-fraud investigators in Frankfurt. According to prosecutors in the German state of Hesse, of which Frankfurt is the largest city, the Swiss man was arrested on Friday and is currently in custody. He has been identified only as Daniel M., and is believed to be in his mid-50s. According to news reports, German counterintelligence officers had been monitoring the suspect for over a year. They were issued a warrant for his arrest in December of last year, but waited until he was on German soil to arrest him. He was arrested at Frankfurt Airport.

German federal prosecutors said simply that Daniel M. was employed in the financial and banking sectors of Germany until early 2012. However after that time, he is believed to have been employed by “the intelligence service of a foreign power”. German officials refused to identify the “foreign power”. However, the Berlin-based German newspaper Die Welt said on Sunday that the Swiss man arrested on Friday is an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. The agency, known by its German-language initials, NDB, is Switzerland’s main intelligence agency, tasked with safeguarding the security of the small alpine nation by collecting and analyzing information.

The question is, what was a Swiss spy doing in Germany, and why was he arrested? According to Die Welt, Daniel M. was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to stop German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws.

It is believed that Daniel M. was arrested while monitoring efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. Soon after the Swiss man’s arrest, officers from Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) searched a hotel room, several apartments and a number of business premises in Frankfurt and nearby cities. It is worth noting that Frankfurt is a major global financial center, which also hosts the headquarters of the European Central Bank. If found guilty, Daniel M. could face up to 10 years in prison for espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 May 2017 | Permalink

Swiss court reopens probe of alleged espionage by Kazakh agents

Viktor KhrapunovA Swiss court has reopened an investigation of alleged espionage activities by agents of the government of Kazakhstan against a high-profile political exile living in Switzerland. The case, which dates to 2014, centers on Viktor Khrapunov, a former senior Kazakh government official, who has been living in Geneva since 2008. In the years immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Khrapunov served as Kazakhstan’s Minister for Energy and Coal, a post that was later renamed to Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. After 1997, he was appointed mayor of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, which is inhabited by 10 percent of the country’s population. But by 2006, Khrapunov had fallen out with the government of Kazakhstan’s authoritarian President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The government claimed that Khrapunov was embroiled in a series of fraudulent real-estate schemes and that he laundered large sums of money for his own personal use.

In 2008, a chartered airplane carrying Khrapunov and his wife landed in Switzerland, reportedly with a millions of dollars in cash, fine jewelry and antiques onboard. The Khrapunovs were granted asylum in the small alpine country and have since lived in the Lake Geneva area. In 2012, the government of Kazakhstan requested that Khrapunov be placed on Interpol’s list of wanted persons. Khrapunov himself dismissed the charges against him as politically motivated and blasted Nazarbayev as “a third-world dictator”.

In early 2014, the Swiss Attorney General’s office opened an investigation into allegations by Khrapunov that he had been followed around by Kazakh intelligence officers, had an electronic tracker covertly installed in his car, and had his computers hacked by Kazakh spies. The case was closed in March of this year, after Swiss authorities said they did not have enough evidence to confirm the precise identity of the perpetrators, two of whom were reportedly holders of British passports. On Monday, however, the Federal Criminal Court in the Swiss city of Bellinzona ordered that the case be reopened, after allegations by Khrapunov that the espionage against him continues.

Kazakh authorities have been regularly accused by European governments of conducting aggressive espionage and intimidation operations targeting exiled adversaries of President Nazarbayev. Last year, Kazakhstan’s former spy chief and a former presidential bodyguard were acquitted after a lengthy trial in Austria after a co-defendant in their double-murder trial, who was also the Kazakh president’s former son-in-law, was found dead in his Vienna cell.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2016 | Permalink