US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda-linked groups

Shabwani EliteWeapons supplied to the Saudi and Emirati governments by the United States and other Western nations are ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militias in Yemen, according to two separate investigations. The weapons are being supplied to the militaries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen. The war has been going on since 2015, when a alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities formed the Houthi movement, which quickly seized control of much of the country. The Houthis effectively toppled the government, prompting a reaction by a coalition of Sunni Arab states, which see the Shiite movement as an Iranian front. In an effort to restore Yemen’s Sunni-dominated government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry.

However, a report published this week by Amnesty International alleges that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen. Among them are three militias that are known to be supported by the government of the Emirates, namely the Giants, the Security Belt and the Shabwani Elite. These groups, says Amnesty, have been seen using Western-supplied weaponry in the field of battle and in their compounds throughout Yemen. In its report, the human-rights group says that these groups are not accountable to any government and have been linked to serious war crimes against civilians. Meanwhile, a separate investigation aired this week by CNN claims that American-manufactured weaponry and materiel given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries is ending up in the hand of Salafist militias in Yemen. The report names the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The CNN report also claims that some of the American weaponry has fallen in the hands of Houthi fighters.

On Wednesday the BBC quoted a senior American general who said that the Pentagon plans to investigate whether American and other Western-supplied weapons are being illegally diverted into the hands of non-state Sunni militias in Yemen. The government of the United Arab Emirates has not commented on the reports. As intelNews reported last August, an investigative report published by the Associated Press claimed that senior AQAP commanders were on the payroll of US-backed Sunni militias in Yemen and that its fighters were being recruited to fight against the Houthis. The report also argued that Washington was privy to the secret agreements between Yemen’s Sunni militias and AQAP.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 February 2019 | Permalink

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Morton Sobell, convicted of conspiracy in the Rosenberg espionage case, dies at 101

Morton SobellMorton Sobell, an American radar engineer who in 1951 was convicted of conspiracy alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in one of the Cold War’s most prominent espionage cases, has died at 101 years old. His death was announced yesterday by his son, Mark, who also said that his father died on December 26 last year at a nursing home, but that the family had not alerted the media.

Sobell was born in New York’s Manhattan Island in 1917 and worked on radar tracking systems for defense contractors. During college, he and several of his friends, including fellow-engineer Julius Rosenberg, joined the United States Communist Party, partly in reaction to the Great Depression. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to arrest members of what the United States government claimed was a Soviet atomic spy ring led by Rosenberg, Sobell escaped with his family to Mexico, where he used a fake identity to evade the authorities. But he was dramatically abducted by a paramilitary force and surrendered to the FBI.

He was then tried alongside Rosenberg and his wife Ethel for conspiracy to commit acts of espionage. The Rosenbergs refused to cooperate with the FBI and were sentenced to death. Both were executed in 1953 and remain to this day the only American citizens to have been executed for espionage after the Civil War. Sobel was found guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy and no evidence was presented in court that connected him to atomic espionage. He was therefore sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 18 of those, following a successful public-relations campaign organized by his wife, Hellen. He was released from prison in 1969 and continued to insist that he had never been a spy and had been wrongly convicted of conspiracy.

But in 2008, at the age of 91, Sobell spoke to The New York Times and publicly admitted for the first time that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union. He said that he had worked systematically to provide Moscow with information on weapons systems and other classified technologies. However, he had “never thought of it” as spying, he said. He also told The Times that he had developed a favorable impression of Soviet communism during the Great Depression, when he and many others saw the Soviet economic system as an antidote to crisis-ridden capitalism. “Now I know it was an illusion”, he told the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2019 | Permalink

CIA has maintained secret communication with North Korea for 10 years

Mike Pompeo North KoreaWith presidential approval, the United States Central Intelligence Agency has maintained a secret channel of communication with North Korea since at least 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal. Many were surprised in 2018, when the then CIA director Mike Pompeo made a sudden visit to Pyongyang to speak with senior North Korean officials. But according to The Wall Street Journal, the CIA channel with the North Koreans had been there since at least 2009 and Pompeo simply “re-energized it” after being instructed to do so by the White House.

The United States and North Korea have never had official diplomatic relations, nor have they ever maintained embassies at each other’s capitals. In rare instances, the North Korean Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York has been utilized to pass messages from the White House to the communist country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. No other systematic diplomatic activity between the two sides has ever been reported.

But an article published in The Wall Street Journal on Monday claims that an intelligence channel between the CIA and unspecified North Korean intelligence officials has been active —with some periods of dormancy— for at least a decade. The previously unreported channel has led to a number of public meetings, such as the 2014 visit to Pyongyang by James Clapper, the then US Director of National Intelligence, as well as an earlier visit to the North Korean capital by former US President Bill Clinton in 2009. But, says the paper citing “current and former US officials”, most of the contacts have been secret. They include several visits to North Korea by CIA official Joseph DeTrani before and after Clinton’s visit, as well as two trips to Pyongyang by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, in 2012 and 2013. His successor, Avril Haines, also visited North Korea, says The Journal, but notes that the channel went “dormant late in the Obama administration”.

Upon becoming CIA director following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, Mike Pompeo was briefed about the secret channel’s existence and decided to resume it, with Trump’s agreement. That led to his eventual visit to North Korea along with Andrew Kim, who at the time headed the CIA’s Korea Mission Center. Eventually, this channel of communication facilitated the high-level summit between President Trump and Supreme leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore. The Wall Street Journal said it reached out to the CIA, the Department of State and the White House about this story, but received no responses. The North Korean mission in the United Nations in New York also declined to comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2019 | Permalink

‘Illusion of safety’ blamed for deaths of four US service members in Syria

Manbij SyriaThe “illusion of safety” has been blamed for the death of four American service members in northern Syria last week, after a suicide bomber attacked a restaurant, killing at least 19 people and wounding countless others. The deadly attack happened in Manbij, a small Kurdish-majority town near the Syrian-Turkish border, which American forces previously viewed as an oasis of security in the war-torn country. American troops fought alongside a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters who in 2016 took control of Manbij from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Since then, American forces have remained in the area —mostly to prevent a military invasion by Washington’s ally Turkey, which views the Kurds as terrorists and has threatened to destroy their armed forces.

The relative stability of Manbij was violently disrupted last Wednesday, when a man detonated a suicide vest inside the Palace of the Princes restaurant in downtown Manbij. Until that moment, United States forces had lost just two members during the Syrian Civil War. Four more Americans died in Wednesday’s blast, including two service members, a military contractor and a civilian intelligence officer working for the Pentagon. Three other Americans were wounded and were airlifted out of the country. In an insightful article published last week, The New York Times quoted a US Special Forces member who wondered whether the US troops in northern Syria have “developed a false sense of security” in what remains a dangerous conflict zone. “The illusion of safety”, said the anonymous commentator, had caused the behavior of American service members in Manbij to fall into predictable routines. That became a vulnerability that the Islamic State was able to exploit, he said.

The Sunni militant group targeted the Palace of the Princes, one of the most popular eateries for Americans in Manbij. The Times quoted locals who said that American troops appeared to eat there nearly every time they patrolled the city, “often many times a week”. They would even park their military vehicles outside the restaurant while dining there, they said. The paper commented that many US troops had “grown complacent and should have varied their […] routes or increased their operational security” while on patrol. Unfortunately, however, their presence —and lack of adequate security— was noticed by the Islamic State, which targeted them on Wednesday.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 January 2019 | Permalink

Trial witness claims ‘El Chapo’ gave Mexico’s ex-president $100 million bribe

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ GuzmánA high-profile witness has told the trial of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in New York that the accused bribed the then President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, with $100 million in order to stay out of prison. Guzmán, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, was arrested in February 2014 in Mexico. In January 2017, he was extradited to the United States, where he faces a litany charges ranging from conspiracy to import and distribute drugs to money-laundering and homicide. His trial began at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York, last November.

All of last Tuesday was taken up by the testimony of Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian former drug lord from Medellin who, until his arrest in 2012, was one of Guzmán’s closest collaborators. Villa told the court that Peña Nieto employed mediators to reach out to the Sinaloa cartel soon after he was elected president in 2012. He alleged that the mediators offered to strike a bargain with Guzmán, according to which he would stay out of prison in return for a $250 million bribe. The bribe would be shared between Peña Nieto and his closest government aides and advisors, said Villa. In return, the Mexican president would call off a national manhunt to capture the Sinaloa cartel leader. Following prolonged negotiations, Guzmán agreed to pay Peña Nieto $100 million, said Villa, in order to secure his freedom.

This is not the first time that a witness in the trial of Guzmán has alleged that the Sinaloa cartel leader bribed senior Mexican government officials, including police and military leaders. However, it is the most sensational allegation to have emerged the trial so far, and —if true— points out that even the highest echelons of the Mexican state have succumbed to the moneyed power of the drug cartels. Last November, when Guzmán’s trial began, his lawyers hinted that claims of corruption would be aired against the highest levels of the Mexican government, including two of its recent presidents, which they called “completely corrupt”. At the time, Peña Nieto’s office issued a statement condemning the allegations and saying that the former president had never received bribes from anyone.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2019 | Permalink

FBI releases new information on alleged Iranian deep-cover spies

MEK supporters CaliforniaThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has charged two men of Iranian descent, who were arrested in California, of operating as deep-cover spies for Iran. Documents filed in a federal court in Washington, DC, name the men as Majid Ghorbani, 59, and Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38. Both have American citizenship and were arrested by the FBI in August, following a year-long counterintelligence investigation. The Los Angeles Times reports that Ghorbani is believed to have immigrated to the US from Iran in 1995. For the past two decades he has worked as a waiter at an upscale Persian restaurant in Santa Ana. Doostdar was born in the southern Californian city of Long Beach, but eventually moved with his family to Canada, and later to Iran, where he grew up. But he kept his US citizenship and made regular trips to America. It is believed that he planned to eventually move with his family to California.

According to the FBI, the two men were tasked by Iranian intelligence with carrying out surveillance on Jewish religious, cultural and political facilities in the US. They were also tasked with conducting surveillance and compiling reports of diplomatic and other facilities connected to the state of Israel. Another part of their mission, said the FBI, was collecting information on the activities and individual members of Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. The MEK initially supported the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but later withdrew its support, accusing the government of Ayatollah Khomeini of “fascism”. It continued its operations in exile, mainly from Iraq, where its armed members were trained by the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab leftist groups. Until 2009, the European Union and the US officially considered the MEK a terrorist organization. But the group’s sworn hatred against the government in Iran brought it close to Washington after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. By 2006, the US military was openly collaborating with MEK forces in Iraq, and in 2012 the group was dropped from the US Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Today the group enjoys open protection from the EU and the US.

Documents filed in court by the FBI state that the two men were secretly recorded during a year-long counterintelligence operation, as they traveled throughout the US to observe MEK rallies and gather intelligence or Israeli diplomatic facilities. Locations visited by the two men allegedly include Chicago, New York and Washington, as well as several cities in the American West Coast. During those visits, they would compile reports that, according to the FBI, were meant to “enable an intelligence or military unit find [and] neutralize a threat”. The men also traveled back to Iran through third countries, bringing back written operational instructions from their Iranian intelligence handlers, according to the FBI documents. IntelNews wrote about the arrest of the two men in August. However, this is the first concrete information released by the FBI about their identities and activities. They are both accused of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government —a technical term for deep-cover espionage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 January 2019 | Permalink

US sent troops to OPEC member Gabon just days before military coup

Libreville, GabonThe United States deployed troops to the Central African nation of Gabon just days before a group of military officers staged tried to take over power in the oil-rich nation on Monday. Situated on the Atlantic coastline of Central Africa, Gabon is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). However, despite producing of 176,000 barrels of oil per day, making it one of Africa’s most significant oil producers, over a third of its 2 million inhabitants live below the official poverty line. The country has been ruled by the Bongo family for over a century with its current President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, having led the country since his father’s death a decade ago. In October of last year, however, Bongo went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after suffering a stroke, and has yet to return. In a televised message aired on New Year’s Day, Bongo told the citizens of Gabon that he was recovering and would soon be returning to his duties.

But in the early hours of Monday gun shots were reported in the vicinity of the studios of Radio Télévision Gabonaise (RTG), the country’s state-owned national broadcaster in the capital city, Libreville. A few hours later, regular broadcasting was suspended. A message was transmitted on the national radio station frequency by troops claiming to be members of a group calling itself the Patriotic Movement of the Defense and Security Forces of Gabon. Its leader, a man identifying himself as Lieutenant Kelly Ondo Obiang, said that the armed forces had “doubts” about President Bongo’s “ability to perform the responsibilities of his office”. He also announced the formation of a “Council of National Restoration” that would “ensure the smooth operation of the state and guarantee a transition to democracy”. However, a few hours later a government spokesman told international media that the coup had been defeated and that Lieutenant Obiang was under arrest. Two of his co-conspirators had been killed, said the spokesman.

Interestingly, the US deployed 80 American soldiers to Gabon on January 2, less than a week before the coup unfolded. In a letter sent to Congress on January 4, US President Donald Trump said that the troops would be stationed in Libreville and would carry with them “appropriate combat equipment”. Their purpose, said President Trump, would be to provide security protection for US “citizens, personnel and diplomatic facilities” in Kinshasa, capital of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Security analysts fear that the pending announcement of the delayed election results in the DRC may spark widespread riots in the country of 81 million people. On Monday, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) told reporters that there was “no change in the status of our forces in Gabon” and that they would not be involved in the domestic political situation. The US troops were “not currently tasked with securing [US] diplomatic assets [in Gabon]”, added the AFRICOM spokesman. However, AFRICOM said that additional US troops may deploy to Gabon, the DRC or the Republic of the Congo, should the need arise.

It is not known whether the coup plotters were aware of the presence of the 80 US troops in Libreville when they tried to take over power on Monday.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 January 2019 | Permalink