Leader of American far-right paramilitary group is based in Russia

The BaseThe mysterious leader of an American far-right paramilitary group, which authorities say is seeking to overthrow the United States government, runs the organization from Russia, according to a probe conducted by the BBC. The group, which calls itself The Base, is thought to have been formed in the summer of 2018. Since then, it is believed to have recruited dozens of members using encrypted messaging applications.

The Base urges its members to undergo paramilitary training and learn how to evade surveillance by government agencies. It also instructs them to create and use ciphers for communication and trains them to use encrypted applications to exchange messages so that government agencies cannot access their content. The Federal Bureau of Investigation describes The Base as a “racially motivated violent extremist group” that “seeks to accelerate the downfall of the United States government, incite a race war, and establish a white ethno-state”. Earlier this month, authorities arrested three alleged members of the organization, which are accused of engaging in a conspiracy to commit murder.

Despite the attention that The Base has received from American authorities, almost no information is available about the group’s leader and founder. This individual goes by the aliases “Norman Spear” and “Roman Wolf”. But a recent investigation alleged that his name is Rinaldo Nazzaro and that he is a 46-year-old American man from New York. Prior to founding The Base, Nazzaro is believed to have purchased land in a remote area of America’s Pacific Northwest region with the goal of creating a white-only enclave.

Now the BBC has said that Nazzaro is living in Russia, from where he is allegedly running The Base. He is thought to have married a Russian woman in 2012 in the New York borough of Manhattan. The couple probably relocated to the Russian city of St. Petersburg “less than two years ago”, according to the BBC. In an article published on Friday, the BBC said that its researchers had been able to identify Nazzaro from his online activity and from photographs and videos he had posted online in the past year.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 January 2020 | Permalink

MI5 director plays down US threat to end intelligence sharing over Huawei

Sir Andrew ParkerThe director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency has dismissed warnings by the United States that intelligence sharing between the two allies will be impeded if London decides to use Chinese-made telecommunications hardware. The British government has come under relentless pressure by Washington to bar Huawei Technologies, one of the world’s leading telecommunications hardware manufacturers, from competing for contracts to build the United Kingdom’s 5th generation cellular communications infrastructure.

In recent years, Huawei has come under scrutiny by some Western intelligence agencies, who view it as being too close to the Communist Party of China. More recently, Washington has intensified an worldwide campaign to limit Huawei’s ability to build the infrastructure for 5G, the world’s next-generation wireless network. Along with some if its allies, notably Australia and Canada, the US is concerned that the Chinese telecommunications giant may facilitate global wiretapping on behalf of Beijing’s spy agencies. Last year, Washington warned two of its main European allies, Britain and Germany, that it would stop sharing intelligence with them if they allowed Huawei to compete for 5G contracts.

But in an interview with The Financial Times, Sir Andrew Parker, head of the Security Service (MI5), said on Sunday that he didn’t believe Britain’s intelligence-sharing relationship with America would be impacted by the decision. When asked whether Washington would stop sharing intelligence with London if the British government allowed a bid by Huawei, Sir Andrew said he had “no reason today to think that”. He added that Britain’s intelligence relations with the US, and with other close allies, such as Canada and Australia, were “the strongest they’ve ever been”. Britain’s intelligence partnership with America “is, of course, of great importance to us”, said Sir Andrew, and went on: “I dare say, to the US too, though that’s for them to say. It is a two-way street”.

Meanwhile was reported over the weekend that a high-level delegation from the National Security Agency —America’s largest intelligence agency— and the US National Economic Council would be in London today, in what appears to be a final effort to persuade London not to cooperate with Huawei. Prior to her resignation last year, British Prime Minister Theresa May had reportedly decided to allow the Chinese firm to compete for 5G contracts. Her successor, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is reputed to be in agreement with that decision. Last April, German intelligence official also dismissed American warnings that intelligence sharing with Berlin would end if Huawei built any part of the German 5G network.

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

Assessing the implications of Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi military bases

Iran IraqThe missiles that targeted American troops in Iraq a few hours ago offer significant clues about the evolving confrontation between Iran and the United States. The attack appears to have been largely symbolic —a somewhat rushed attempt to restore some of Iran’s wounded prestige following the assassination of its military commander, Qasem Suleimani. At the same time, however, it is also the prelude to a broader regional conflict that appears increasingly unavoidable.

There are two notable aspects in the attack. First, the fact that Tehran did not —as many expected— take aim at American targets using its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. Instead, not only did the attack come directly from Iran, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Soleimani was a leading commander, openly claimed responsibility for it. This is a major paradigm shift for the Iranians, who in the past have taken great care to avoid giving any indication of their direct involvement in military or paramilitary attacks on their opponents. It is clear that Q QuoteSoleimani’s killing is viewed by Tehran as too insulting to be responded to indirectly. This does not mean that Tehran will not revert to its standard method of employing proxies in the future. But the fact that it consciously chose to deviate from that time-tested method is in itself extremely important.

The second notable aspect of the attack is that it was markedly muted, especially considering the many options that are available to the Iranians. According to reports, 22 ballistic missiles were fired, most of which struck two military bases housing US troops in western and northern Iraq. The number of missiles fired is surprisingly low, given that Iran possesses the largest ballistic-missile force in the entire Middle East. Additionally, it is interesting that Tehran directed its attacks against the most obvious and predictable American target in the region —uniformed US personnel stationed in what is essentially Iranian-controlled territory. These troops have been on high alert since the moment Soleimani was assassinated. It is therefore highly unsurprising that no American casualties have been reported (although Iranian state media are apparently telling their domestic audiences that “80 terrorists” died in the attack).

The fact remains that, if Iran’s leaders truly wanted to cross the point of no return, they could have attacked American diplomatic facilities in over a dozen countries in the region, including Iraq, Israel, Jordan, and many others. Alternatively, they could have directed their ire against American political and commercial targets in Saudi Arabia, of which there are countless. They could have also sent an unmistakably ominous message to the global financial markets by attacking energy facilities in the region, or by blocking maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Or they could have carried out all of the above simultaneously, thus virtually ensuring a US response, which would in turn ignite an all-out war. But they didn’t —which should be interpreted that the IRGC is not, for now, interested in going to war. Read more of this post

Analysis: Middle East on verge of new regional war as US kills top Iran general

Qasem SoleimaniIn an act whose implications are impossible to overstate, the United States has assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, arguably Iran’s second most powerful official. In the early hours of this morning, the entire Middle East stood on the verge of a regional war as the US Department of Defense announced it killed Soleimani in a “defensive action […] aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”. But Soleimani’s killing will be seen by the Iranian government as nothing short of an official declaration of war. Tehran’s next move will determine the precise form this new war will take.

The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia have targeted Soleimani for assassination for over a decade. In 2019 alone, Iran reported over half a dozen alleged plots to kill the general, the most recent of which was in early October. Soleimani’s killing is therefore not surprising. Moreover, Washington’s move rests on a number of crucial calculations by the White House, which help explain why US President Donald Trump made the decision to kill Soleimani, and why he did so now.

In the not-too-distant past, some of America’s tactical security goals aligned with Soleimani and his Quds Force —an elite unit inside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is tasked with exporting the Iranian Revolution abroad. The Iranian paramilitary unit helped Washington deal with the Afghan Taliban in the days after the 9/11 attacks, and its proxies in Iraq and Syria helped the US and its allies deliver fatal blows to the Islamic State. But in doing so, Tehran solidified its power within Iraq, turning its government into a satellite of Iran. The rise of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the Iranian-supported militias in Iraq, is largely a replay of the rise of Hezbollah, Iran’s paramilitary proxy in Lebanon, in the 1980s. Having painted themselves into a corner, America’s political leadership had to act. It chose to do so by essentially ‘decapitating’ the Quds Force, which is the main conduit between Iran and the PMF. It is worth noting that Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the PMF, was also killed in the same strike. Washington’s hope is that these killings can somehow prevent —or at least curtail— the Lebanization of Iraq. Read more of this post

US expels Chinese diplomats for the first time since 1987

Chinese embassy in the United StatesThe United States quietly expelled two Chinese diplomats in October of this year, a move that neither Washington nor Beijing chose to make public, according to a report published on Sunday. If true, the incident would signify the first known expulsions of Chinese diplomatic personnel from the US since 1987.

The incident was reported by The New York Times, which cited “six people with knowledge of the expulsions”. It said that the expulsions were triggered by an incident that took place in September in the US state of Virginia. It involved at least two Chinese diplomats stationed in Washington, who allegedly attempted to enter “a sensitive installation” near the city of Norfolk. The paper did not name the installation, but said that it belongs to the US Armed Forces and is also used by members of Special Operations forces.

According to the American side, a car carrying the Chinese diplomats and their spouses drove up to one of the checkpoints of the military installation. Upon realizing that the car’s passengers did not have permission to enter the base, the guard at the checkpoint asked the driver to proceed through the gated entry and immediately turn around, thus exiting the base. But the car allegedly drove straight into the base and did not slow down after military personnel pursued it. It came to a stop only after several fire trucks blocked its way.

Once apprehended, the car’s passengers claimed that their knowledge of English was limited and had thus misunderstood the instructions given to them by the guard at the entrance to the base. The New York Times reported that this explanation was echoed by associates of the Chinese diplomats, who said that they were on “a sightseeing tour when they accidentally drove onto the base”.

But US officials told The Times they are skeptical of that explanation, and suspect the Chinese diplomats were trying to assess the physical security of the installation. Moreover, at least one of the Chinese diplomats was allegedly an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover —a clue that heightened the skepticism of American officials.

Interestingly, although it complained about the expulsions of its diplomats following the incident in Virginia, Beijing did not retaliate, as is customary in such cases. Therefore, no American diplomats or intelligence officers have been expelled from China in response to Washington’s move. The last time the US expelled Chinese diplomats from its soil was in 1987, when two employees of the Chinese embassy in Washington —almost certainly intelligence officers operating under diplomatic cover— were declared personae non gratae.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 December 2019 | Permalink

FBI examining FaceApp over potential counterintelligence concerns

FBIThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is examining possible counterintelligence threats in connection with the popular online application FaceApp, which is headquartered in Russia. The application first made its appearance in January of 2017 and quickly became popular among smartphone users around the world. It allows users to upload a photograph of their face and then edit it with the help of artificial-intelligence software. The software can change the user’s photograph to make it look younger or older, or make it look as if it is from the opposite gender. The result can be impressively realistic and life-like.

The St. Petersburgh-based company behind FaceApp, Wireless Lab, claims that the photos of users are uploaded to cloud servers situated in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. They are then deleted within two days from the moment they are uploaded by users, without ever being transferred to servers located in the territory of Russia. But the FBI does not seem to believe these assurances. In a letter sent late last month to the Minority Leader of the US Senate, Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Bureau said it was examining FaceApp as part of its counterintelligence mission.

In the letter, which was published on Monday, Jill Tyson, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, said the fact that Wireless Lab is based in Russia raised a number of counterintelligence concerns. These relate to the types of data Wireless Lab collects on its customers and the privacy policies that apply to Russian Internet companies. According to Tyson, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has the right to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request” to network providers. He added that, if the FBI found that FaceApp was involved in activities meant to interfere with upcoming elections in the United States, the Bureau would investigate the matter further, and possibly involve the Foreign Influence Task Force, an FBI-led body that was established after the 2016 US presidential elections.

The FBI’s letter was written in response to an earlier letter sent to the Bureau by Senator Schumer in July, which expressed concerns about potential threats posed by FaceApp to the privacy of American Internet users and to the nations’ security as a whole.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2019 | Permalink

Extradition fight over Russian man held in Greece may point to spies’ use of bitcoin

Aleksandr VinnikAn intense fight between the United States and Russia over the extradition of a Russian cryptocurrency tycoon being held in Greece, is raising questions about the possible use of cryptocurrencies by spies. The tycoon in question is Aleksandr Vinnik, 39, who in 2011 co-founded BTC-e, an international cryptocurrency-trading platform. BTC-e allowed users to buy or sell several popular cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and litecoin, using Russian rubles, United States dollars, or European Union euro currencies. Although headquartered in Russia, BTC-e’s servers were located in Bulgaria, while its operations were conducted through its offshore components in Cyprus and the Seychelles.

By 2015, BTC-e was reportedly facilitating just over 3 percent of the worldwide daily volume of cryptocurrency trading. But, according to some sources, the company was also facilitating up to 70 percent of worldwide criminal activity involving cryptocurrencies. Washington alleges that the company was built on a model that relied heavily on the activities of criminal entities, as the latter sought the ability to conduct online monetary transactions without being tracked by governments.

In 2017, American authorities seized BTC-e’s website —a move that terminated the company’s operations. Washington also prompted authorities in Greece to arrest Vinnik, while he was vacationing at a Greek resort with his family. The Russian co-founder of BTC-e is today in a Greek prison, awaiting a decision by the Greek authorities to extradite him to the United States. If this happens, he will be tried on 21 counts of international money laundering and a host of other criminal charges.

Interestingly, however, shortly after Vinnik’s arrest, the Russian government filed a court order to have Greece extradite him to Russia, where he is reportedly wanted for relatively minor fraud-related charges. What is more, the Greek government was directly lobbied by no other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin —an unusually high-level approach, when one considers Vinnik’s trivial charges in Russia. France has also sought to have Vinnik extradited there, instead of the United States.

What lies behind these moves? There are many who believe that American authorities moved against BTC-e after realizing that Russian spies used the company to hide their traces while trying to meddle with the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. A recent report by the State Department’s RFE/RL news website claims that a number of London-based observers from groups such as Global Witness and Elliptic Enterprises believe there are strong links between Russian spy agencies and BTC-e. American authorities have managed to access information about the inner workings of BTC-e’s website. They are probably viewing Vinnik as an intelligence asset, who can potentially shed light on the company’s alleged role as a money laundering mechanism for Russian spies —and probably others as well.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2019 | Permalink