Joint British-American operation has decimated Islamic State’s cyber force

Computer hackingCoordinated efforts by Anglo-American military and intelligence agencies have resulted in the killing or capturing of nearly every senior commander of the Islamic State’s online force. The close-knit group of Islamic State hackers and online propagandists, which are informally known as “the Legion”, is responsible for hacking and online recruitment incidents that led to several lone-wolf attacks in the West. In one incident in March of 2015, the Legion claimed responsibility for the unauthorized release of personal details of over 1,300 American government employees, with orders to Islamic State volunteers to kill them. In other instances, Legion operatives reached out to impressionable young men and women in Western Europe and the United States and convinced them to move to Syria or conduct attacks at home.

According to The New York Times, which published an article last week about the current state of the Legion, in the early days of its emergence the group was viewed as a law enforcement problem. However, there were several successful and unsuccessful attacks by lone-wolf actors in the United States during the summer of 2015. According to The Times, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became overwhelmed and “was struggling to keep pace with the threat” posed by the Islamic State on the domestic front. It therefore pressed the US Department of Defense to help tackle the problem at its source. The DoD then teamed up with the British government, which was monitoring the Legion due to many of its members being British-born subjects. The two governments embarked on a “secretive campaign”, which has led to the capture of nearly 100 individuals associated with the Legion in less than two years. Another 12 members of the group, who had senior positions, have been killed in targeted drone strikes since the summer of 2015, says The Times.

The joint Anglo-American operation is allegedly responsible for the recent drop in terrorist activity instigated by the Islamic State in the West. It appears, says the paper, that the Islamic State is failing to replace the captured or killed members of the Legion with equally skilled operatives, which may point to the desperate state of the organization. But the Islamic State continues to operate a relatively sophisticated media arm, according to US government officials, and its media reach should not be underestimated, even as it is losing ground in Syria and Iraq.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 November 2016 | Permalink

Russia accuses UK of deliberately delaying visas for its diplomats in London

Russian embassy LondonRussia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom has accused the British Foreign Office of deliberately delaying the issuance of visas for its diplomatic officials who have been assigned to join the Russian embassy in London. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, who has been heading the Russian embassy in London since 2011, said last week that the size of his staff was “shrinking” to unprecedented numbers. The reason, said Yakovenko, was that the government in London appeared to be following a systematic policy of delaying visa requests for Russian diplomats assigned to serve in London.

“As our people return home or go on to other postings, visas for their replacements are not being issued”, said Yakovenko. Consequently, the Russian embassy’s personnel numbers were shrinking, and would shrink even further unless the issue was resolved by Whitehall, he said. The Russian ambassador added that his embassy did not understand “the strategy of this country on visa issues”, implying that London was following a deliberate plan to prevent Russian diplomats from staffing the embassy. But the British Foreign Office responded on Saturday that it was not following a deliberate policy of delaying the issuance of visas for Russian diplomats. The BBC quoted a Foreign Office spokesman who said that the British government had “made it clear to the Russians that the queues [for visa issuances] need to be cleared on both sides”. The comment implies that London’s stance may be a response to efforts by Moscow to reduce the size of the British diplomatic core stationed in the Russian capital.

Bilateral relations between Britain and Russia have suffered since 2006, when the murder of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London prompted Whitehall to expel four Russian diplomats stationed there. The Russian involvement in Ukraine and Syria has further strained relations between Moscow and London in recent years. In August of 2015, the Russian Embassy accused the British government of “effectively expelling” four of its diplomats from London by refusing to grant them visas for more than three months.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 24 October 2016 | Permalink

Britain’s MI6 to increase its size by 40% in four years

MI6Britain’s primary external intelligence agency, MI6, will see a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers in the next four years, according to a new report. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But the BBC said on Wednesday that the number of MI6 employees will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. The broadcaster said that no public announcement had been made about the planned increase, but that it had verified the information “via Whitehall sources”, referring to the official seat of the British government.

If the BBC’s report is accurate, the planned increase will be the biggest personnel boost for MI6 since the Cold War. It reflects a renewed emphasis in foreign intelligence collection using human sources, which is the primary task of the spy agency. The broadcaster said that the increase in personnel has been “made necessary by the development of the Internet and technology” in recent years. Earlier this week, the director of MI6, Alex Younger, said during a panel presentation in Washington, DC, that the operating environment of MI6 had fundamentally changed due to “the information revolution”. The latter, he said, presented the agency with “an existential threat” and a “golden opportunity” at the same time.

The reported increase is consistent with an announcement made by the then British Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2015, that London would boost significantly the size of its intelligence services. Cameron made the announcement shortly after the terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed over 130 people and injured 700. In a subsequent report, called the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the British government said it would incorporate 1,900 additional staff to its intelligence and security services. It now appears that over half of these new recruits will join MI6, while the Security Service (MI5), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorist Command will hire the remaining 900 people.

A similar rise in personnel numbers occurred after the July 7 London bus bombings in 2005. Following those attacks, the MI5, which focuses on domestic security and counterterrorism, saw its personnel size increase by approximately 35 percent.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 23 September 2016 | Permalink

Informer accuses Sinn Féin leader of ordering British spy’s murder

Denis DonaldsonA former member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, who was an agent for the British security services, has alleged that Gerry Adams, leader of the second-largest political party in Northern Ireland, ordered the killing of a British spy in 2006. The former agent was referring to the killing of Denis Donaldson, a senior member of the Provisional IRA, who was found dead months after it was revealed that he had been secretly spying on the republican organization on behalf of British intelligence.

In December 2005, Adams announced at a press conference in Dublin, Ireland, that Donaldson had been a spy for the British government inside the Provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin. Soon after Adams’ revelation, Donaldson read a prepared statement on Ireland’s RTÉ television station, admitting that he had been recruited as a spy by the British Security Service (MI5) and the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (known today as the Police Service of Northern Ireland). Following his public admission, Donaldson was nowhere to be found. However, in March 2006, a reporter for a British tabloid newspaper found Donaldson living in a remote farmhouse in Northern Ireland’s County Donegal. Weeks later, Donaldson was shot dead in his cottage by persons unknown. In 2009, the Real IRA, a Provisional IRA splinter group that disagreed with the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent cessation of hostilities, took responsibility for Donaldson’s killing.

On Tuesday, a man who claims he was an informant for British intelligence inside Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA alleged that Donaldson’s killing was ordered by Adams himself. The man, who spoke on the BBC’s Spotlight program, could not be identified due to concerns about his personal safety. He said during a televised interview that he knew from his “experience in the IRA that murders have to be approved by […] the leadership of the IRA and the military leadership of the IRA”. When asked by the report who he was “specifically referring to”, the former informant answered: “Gerry Adams. He gives the final say”. On Wednesday, Adams denied any involvement in the killing, saying he wished to “specifically and categorically refute these unsubstantiated allegations”. The leader of Sinn Féin went on to claim that the accusations against him were “part of the British security agencies’ ongoing attempts to smear republicans and cover-up their own actions”. Adams’ lawyer said late on Wednesday that his client was considering launching a lawsuit against the BBC for defamation.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 September 2016 | Permalink

British judge denies request to name alleged new member of Cambridge spy ring

Corpus Christi College CambridgeA document that allegedly contains the name of a man who could be connected to one of the most sensational spy rings of the Cold War is to remain secret after a judge rejected a request to have it released. The man is believed by some to have been associated with the so-called ‘Cambridge spy ring’, a group of upper-class British graduates of Cambridge University, who spied for the USSR from the 1930s until the 1960s. Among them was Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and H.A.R. “Kim” Philby, all of whom eventually defected to the Soviet Union. In 1979, it was revealed that Anthony Blunt, an art history professor who in 1945 became Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and was knighted in 1954, was also a member of the group. A fifth member, career civil servant and former intelligence officer John Cairncross, was publicly outed as a Soviet in 1990, shortly before his death.

Over the years, more individuals have been suggested by historians as potential members of the group, including intelligence officers Leo Long and Guy Liddell, academics Ludwig Wittgenstein and Andrew Gow, and physicist Wilfrid Mann. But according to British newspaper The Daily Mail, another individual may be identified in a classified document as a possible member of the Cambridge spy ring. The document was allegedly traced by Andrew Lownie, who authored the recently published Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. Lownie filed a Freedom of Information request to have the document, which is held at the National Archives in London, released. But the request was denied, and a judge has now upheld the decision.

In denying the request, the judge argued that the man named in the document is still alive and that a possible release of the document could “jeopardize […] personal relationships”. He also contended that the case is too old to warrant immediate public interest, and thus there was “no pressing need” to declassify the file. The Mail speculates that the individual named in the document could have cooperated with the British government in the past in return for protection, or that the file in question may contain details that could embarrass the British government.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 September 2016 | Permalink

Conflicting details on Iranian nuclear negotiator arrested for espionage

Iran nuclear negotiationsIranian officials have confirmed reports from earlier this month that a member of the country’s team of nuclear negotiators has been arrested for engaging in espionage for a foreign country. But there are conflicting details about the case in Iranian media reports. Rumors about the identity of the individual began to circulate on August 16, after the office of the Iranian prosecutor announced that a dual national with Iranian citizenship had been arrested for spying on Tehran for a foreign intelligence service. The individual was not named, but some reports connected him with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6.

On Sunday, Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeie, identified the man as Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahani. Ejeie was specifically asked about the espionage case during his weekly press conference, and responded saying that an “espionage infiltration” had indeed been detected and that “legal action” was being taken against Esfahani. He did add, however, that the arrest and concurrent investigation had not yet resulted in a case that could stand in court, thus Esfahani had been released on bail. When asked whether Esfahani would be charged, Ejeie said that official charges had not been filed, because “the charge against [Esfahani] has not been proven yet”. He implied, however, that charges would eventually be filed.

There are also conflicting reports about Esfahani’s background and involvement with the Iranian government. Early reports suggested that he is a dual citizen of Canada and Iran. But subsequent reports stated that he holds both Iranian and British passports, and that he had been recruited by MI6. Some unconfirmed reports claimed that Esfahani received payments from both British and American intelligence agencies. What appears more certain is that Esfahani is an accountant with some involvement in the financial aspects of the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran and foreign powers. It is also believed that he was not a core member of Iran’s negotiating team, but provided a supporting role on financial aspects of the negotiations.

The recently concluded negotiations, were aimed at bridging the differences between the Islamic Republic and a group of nations that have come to be known as P5+1, representing the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. In March 2015, Hossein Motaghi, a media advisor to the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who was in Switzerland to cover the negotiations, defected and filed an application for political asylum in Switzerland.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 August 2016 | Permalink

More on senior North Korean diplomat who defected in London

Thae Yong-HoA high-ranking North Korean diplomat, who defected with his wife and children in London, and is now in South Korea, is from a privileged family with a long revolutionary pedigree in North Korean politics. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification confirmed on Wednesday that Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, had defected with his wife and children and had been given political asylum in South Korea. As intelNews reported earlier this week, Thae, a senior career diplomat believed to be one of North Korea’s foremost experts on Western Europe, had disappeared with his family and was presumed to have defected “to a third country”.

New information has since emerged on Thae and his family, confirming that both he and his wife are members of North Korea’s privileged elite, with decades-old connections to the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. According to the Seoul-based JoongAng Daily, Thae’s wife, O Hye-Son, is a niece of the late O Peak-Ryong, a decorated communist guerrilla who fought Korea’s Japanese colonialists in the 1930s. O, who died in the 1980s, joined the Korean anti-Japanese struggle alongside Kim Il-Sung, founder of the Workers’ Party of Korea and first leader of North Korea. This means that O Hye-Son is also the cousin of O Peak-Ryong’s son, General O Kum-Chol, who is currently vice chairman of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army. Thae himself is the son of Thae Pyong-Ryol, a four-star general who also fought against the Japanese in the 1930s, alongside Kim Il-Sung. In the postwar period, General Thae became a senior member of the Workers’ Party of Korea and was appointed to the Party’s powerful Central Committee. He died in 1997.

JoongAng Daily quoted an unnamed “source familiar with the matter” of Thae’s defection, who said that the diplomat’s loyalty to the North Korean leadership had been unquestioned prior to his surprise defection. Most North Korean diplomats are posted at an embassy abroad for a maximum of three years before being moved elsewhere in the world. The fact that Thae had been allowed to remain in the United Kingdom for 10 years shows his privileged status within the Workers’ Party of Korea, said the source. Additionally, the children or most North Korean diplomats are required to return to their native country after completing high school. But this did not seem to apply to Thae, whose three children were living with him in Britain even after graduating from university. This and many other clues reflect Thae’s “impeccable credentials”, said the source, which made him one of the most trusted government officials in the regime’s bureaucratic arsenal.

It is believed that Thae defected because he had been told that his tenure in London was coming to an end after a decade, and he would have to relocate to a less desirable location, or possibly recalled back to Pyongyang. Defections among North Korea’s privileged elite are rare, but have been happening increasingly frequently in the past few years. This makes some observers believe that disillusionment among Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un’ inner circle is growing and that the North Korean regime is becoming weaker.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 August 2016 | Permalink