US announces arrest of two men charged with spying for Iran

Mujahedin-e KhalqAuthorities in the United States have announced the arrests of two men who have been charged with spying on American soil on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The men were reportedly arrested on August 9, but information about them was only released on Monday by the US Department of Justice. In a press statement published online, John Demers, US Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said the men were arrested because of concerns that they “acted on behalf of Iran”. They were identified as Ahmadreza Mohammadi Doostdar, 38, and Majid Ghorbani, 59. Doostdar is reportedly a dual citizen of the US and Iran, while Ghorbani is an Iranian citizen who lives in the US state of California. The two men are not believed to be diplomats.

According to the US government, the men were observed “conducting surveillance of political opponents and engaging in other activities that could put Americans at risk”. The press statement alleges that Doostdar carried out surveillance of a Jewish center in Chicago, while Ghorbani attended meetings and rallies organized by Iranian opposition groups operating in the US. The press release identifies one such group as the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), a militant faction that has roots in radical Islam and Marxism. Between 1970 and 1976, the group assassinated six American officials in Iran and in 1970 tried to kill the United States ambassador to the country. It 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.

On June 30 of this year, authorities in Belgium arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent, who were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, July 1, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria, while a fourth person was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests. All four individuals were charged with having planned a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the MEK-affiliated National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris, France. It is not known whether the arrests in Europe are in any way connected with the cases of the two men held in the US.

Advertisements

Crowdfunding campaign seeks release of CIA’s mind control program files

CIA headquartersAn online fundraising campaign is seeking to secure the release of over 4,000 pages of documents relating to a controversial mind control program developed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The project, referred to as MKNAOMI/MKULTRA in US government files, was a joint effort by the CIA and the US Department of Defense to study the effects of substances such as heroin and LSD on the human brain. It began in 1953 and over the years involved the work of hundreds of scientists, many of whom were not aware they were working on a CIA project. But it was hurriedly shut down in 1976, once post-Watergate investigations by the US Congress revealed that it led to the death of at least one person and involved the application of drugs on hundreds of nonconsenting subjects. Several lawsuits relating to MKULTRA have been filed in US courts in recent years.

In 2004, the Black Vault, a volunteer website specializing in publishing declassified government documents, released tens of thousands of pages that were released by the CIA following a lengthy Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) application. The agency released the file along with an 85-page index that listed the file’s contents. But in 2016, a Black Vault reader noticed that some of the listings contained in the file were missing from the documents. Working through the news aggregation and discussion website Reddit, a group of readers identified all the irregularities in the released documents and notified Black Vault’s owner, John Greenwald. Greenwald then contacted the CIA and, following a two-year exchange with the agency’s FOIA desk, he was told that the missing pages would require a separate FOIA request. The reason, according to the CIA, is that the original FOIA request had requested documents pertaining to “mind control”, whereas the missing pages related to “behavioral modification”, which is a separate topic.

The CIA told Greenwald that releasing the pages pertaining to “behavioral modification” would require a payment of $425.80, at 10 cents per page. After failing to convince the CIA that it should release the pages for free, because they should have been included in the original 2004 FOIA petition, Greenwald decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign. He used the popular crowdfunding website GoFundMe to request $500 toward a new FOIA and related expenses. By Wednesday night, the campaign had exceeded the amount requested by Greenwald. The owner of the Black Vault website now says that he is preparing to file a FOIA for 4,358 pages about MKULTRA that are missing from the original 2004 document release.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 16 August 2018 | Permalink

ISIS remains strong with 30,000 members in Iraq and Syria, experts warn

ISIS forces in RamadiThe Islamic State has recovered from some of its recent defeats in the battlefield and has as many as 30,000 committed members in Iraq and Syria, according to two reports by American and United Nations experts. Last month, the Iraqi government announced that the war against the group, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been won. The statement was echoed by the United States President Donald Trump, who said that the war against the militant Sunni group was “98 percent” over. But now two new reports, one produced by the United States Department of Defense and the other by an expert UN panel, warn that both ISIS and al-Qaeda remain powerful, popular and dangerous in Iraq, Syria, and many other regions of the world.

The UN report was published on Monday by the organization’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, which is tasked with monitoring the impact of UN-imposed international sanctions. The report recognizes that ISIS has suffered unprecedented military defeats in Iraq and Syria in the past year, and that many of its most hardened fighters are dead or have abandoned the conflict zones in the region. But it warns that the militant organization is now morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. What is more, ISIS’ center is backed by as many as 30,000 unreconstructed members, who are split roughly equally between the two countries. The US Pentagon report, which was delivered this week to Congress states that ISIS has as many as 17,100 fighters in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria. Many of those surviving fighters are citizens of dozens of different countries around the world, according to the report. Some of them are still engaged in armed fighting, while others are “hiding out in sympathetic communities and urban areas”, mostly in Iraq, the UN report states.

There are also tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and supporters in Libya, Afghanistan, Egypt, and in several West African and Southeast Asian countries, according to the reports’ authors. These fighters are led by commanders who remain in contact with senior ISIS leaders and continue to revere Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the group’s central figure. In addition to ISIS, al-Qaeda also remains strong and dangerous, according to the UN report. Its regional structure “continues to show resilience” and in some regions of the world it is far stronger than ISIS. These include several regions of Africa, including areas of Somalia and the Sahel, as well as in Yemen, where al-Qaeda is believed to command as many as 7,000 armed fighters at the moment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 August 2018 | Permalink

US-backed alliance in Yemen war bribes, recruits al-Qaeda warlords, report finds

Al-Qaeda in YemenYemeni militias backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates are actively paying off al-Qaeda-allied factions to abstain from the fighting, and are recruiting al-Qaeda members to fight against Shiite rebels, according to a new investigative report. Ever since 2015, when the civil war in Yemen broke out, the US, along with its Arab allies UAE and Saudi Arabia, has supported Sunni troops in their war against Shiite Houthi rebels. The latter are believed to be supported by Iran, and the US-backed coalition is engaged in an effort to curtail what it sees as Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

But Iranian-supported fighters are just one of the many well-armed factions involved in the Yemeni Civil War, which Washington is ostensibly against. Another such faction is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Peninsula (AQAP), believed to be the strongest surviving branch of the group that carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001. For several years now, the US-led coalition in Yemen has argued that its forces have severely limited AQAP’s strength and ability to fight, and that the group’s territorial control has been shattered. But a new investigative Text published on Monday by the Associated Press argues that the reason why AQAP’s activities appear to have decreased in Yemen, is that its commanders are being bribed by US-backed Sunni militias and that its fighters are being recruited to fight against the Houthis. As strict Sunni Salafists, AQAP members view the Shiite Houthis as apostates and enemies of Islam. They are therefore “effectively on the same side as the Saudi-led coalition” in Yemen, note the editors of the Associated Press report. Citing “interviews with two dozen officials, including Yemeni security officers, militia commanders, tribal mediators and […] members of al-Qaeda”, the report’s authors say that US-backed Sunni militias “actively recruit al-Qaeda militants […] because they’re considered exceptional fighters”.

The Associated Press report also claims that the Sunni coalition has struck a series of secret agreements with AQAP, under which it paid off its fighters to abandon several Yemeni towns that were under their control. Upon leaving, these AQAP fighters were allowed to take with them tons of military equipment and valuables, including cash. In one case, AQAP was bribed to abandon the port city of Mukalla, Yemen’s fifth-largest urban center, and its fighters were allowed to keep their weapons and up to $100 million in looted cash deposits, said the Associated Press. In another case, AQAP militants were paid off to leave several towns in Yemen’s Abyan province, and 250 of them were incorporated into the so-called Security Belt, a Sunni militia backed by the government of the UAE. The AQAP fighters reportedly told their Security Belt commanders that they would “unite with the devil [himself] in the face of Houthis”.

The Associated Press notes that there is no evidence that funds supplied to Yemeni Sunni militias by the US have ended up into the hands of AQAP. Additionally, the US government has repeatedly denied accusations by Russia, Syria, and others that it supports various al-Qaeda factions. However, the Associated Press argues that the US Pentagon has been privy to the secret agreements between the Sunni militias and AQAP, which some say may end up strengthening al-Qaeda’s most formidable local branch anywhere in the world.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2018 | Research credit: M.A. | Permalink

US fired Moscow embassy employee who may have spied for Russia

US embassy in RussiaA female Russian national who worked for the United States Secret Service in Moscow was quietly dismissed in 2017, amidst concerns that she was spying for Russia. British newspaper The Guardian, which broke the story last week, did not name the Russian woman. But it said that she had worked at the US Embassy in Moscow “for more than a decade”, most recently for the Secret Service –a federal law enforcement agency that operates within the Department of Homeland Security. The Secret Service has several missions, the most important of which is to ensure the physical safety of America’s senior political leadership.

Throughout her Secret Service career, the Russian woman is thought to have had access to the agency’s email system and intranet network, said The Guardian, citing “an intelligence source”. She could also potentially have had access to “highly confidential material”, said the paper, including the daily schedules of America’s past and current presidents and vice presidents, as well as their family members’ schedules.

The unnamed Russian national first came under suspicion in 2016, said The Guardian, during a routine security review conducted by two counterintelligence staff members at one of the Department of State’s Regional Security Offices (RSO). These reviews usually take place every five years and scan the background and activities of employees at American embassies abroad. The review showed that the unnamed Russian national was holding regular meetings with officers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence service. In January of 2017, the Department of State reportedly shared its findings with the Secret Service. But the latter waited until several months later to fire the Russian woman, having decided to do so quietly, said The Guardian.

According to the paper, instead of launching a major investigation into the State Department’s findings, the Secret Service simply dismissed the woman by revoking her security clearance. The paper said that the Russian national’s dismissal took place shortly before the US embassy in Moscow was forced to remove or fire over 750 employees as part of Russia’s retaliation against economic sanctions imposed on it by Washington. That coincidence helped the Secret Service “contain any potential embarrassment” arising from claims of espionage, said The Guardian. The paper contacted the Secret Service and was told that “all Foreign Service nationals” working for the agency “are managed accordingly to ensure that […US] government interests are protected at all times”. Their duties, therefore, are “limited to translation, interpretation, cultural guidance, liaison and administrative support. This is of particular emphasis in Russia”, said a Secret Service spokesman, who refused to discuss specific cases.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2018 | Research credit: S.F. | Permalink

Facebook says efforts to subvert upcoming US elections resemble ‘new arms race’

FacebookFacebook has said it is involved in an “arms race” against “bad actors” as it announced on Tuesday the removal of accounts that allegedly tried to subvert the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States. The social-media giant said its security division had identified 32 profiles and pages that were set up for the sole purpose of disrupting, subverting or otherwise influencing the American political process. At least seven more accounts were shut down on the Instagram platform –which is also owned by Facebook– for the same reasons. In the past 14 months, the suspect accounts generated nearly 10,000 posts and were liked or followed by over 290,000 users, said Facebook.

In addition to producing memes that aimed to stir existing racial, political and religious tensions in American society, the suspect accounts are also believed to have generated approximately 150 paid advertisements, spending around $11,000 for that purpose. Moreover, close to 30 public events were organized, advertised and hosted by the suspect pages throughout the US in the past 14 months. One such event was subscribed to by 4,700 users, with another 1,400 users stating that they would attend.

In a preliminary report posted on its online newsroom, Facebook said it was too early in the investigation to identify the party or parties behind the alleged effort to influence the US mid-term elections. Its security team had detected “one instance” of a connection between this latest operation and the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), which Facebook identified as being one of the main sources behind efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential elections. But the report cautioned that the instigators of this latest attempt to influence the US political process had gone to great pains to hide their identities, affiliations and geographical coordinates. For instance, they routinely employed virtual private networks in order to disguise their internet protocol addresses. They also used third parties to purchase advertisements on Facebook and Instagram. These and many other tactics severely limited the ability of security technicians to attribute these efforts to specific countries, governments or companies, said Facebook.

Using unusually strong language to describe its ongoing probe, Facebook said that the exploitation of its platform for sinister political purposes resembled “an arms race” and that constantly changing tactics were needed to combat it. In addition to removing the suspect accounts, Facebook said it was working closer with law enforcement and leading online security firms in order to analyze and eliminate threats from what it described as “bad actors”. It added that it was “investing heavily” in more people and better technology in order to eliminate those who were trying to weaponize its communication platform for sinister goals.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 August 2018 | Permalink

US diplomats secretly met with Taliban without Afghan government

TalibanIn a dramatic change to longstanding policy, senior United States diplomats have reportedly held secret meetings with Taliban leaders without the presence –and presumably knowledge– of the Afghan government. For over a decade, the Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, which they view as a puppet regime controlled by Washington. They have instead sought to speak directly with the United States, without Kabul’s mediation. In 2015, the United States sought to initiate peace talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha, but the effort collapsed after the Afghan government denounced it and demanded a seat at the table. The negotiation process has remained dormant since then.

Last week, however, The Wall Street Journal reported that a series of unannounced meetings have been taking place between a delegation of senior Taliban officials and an American team led by Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary of the US Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. On Saturday, The New York Times confirmed the story, saying that meetings between the two sides were being held in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an informal diplomatic mission. Citing “two senior Taliban officials”, The Times said that the American diplomats have been meeting with members of the Taliban’s political commissariat. But the paper said it had no information about the substance or progress of the talks. If The Times’ claims are accurate, they would mark a dramatic reversal of longstanding US policy on the Taliban. Since 2001, Washington has consistently argued that any negotiation process involving the Taliban would be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led”. Therefore, direct talks between Washington and the Taliban without Kabul’s mediation would mark a major shift in America’s security strategy in Afghanistan and beyond.

The New York Times said it contacted the US Department of State in Washington, seeking clarification about the alleged talks. But a spokesman refused to discuss the claims and insisted that “any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and Afghan government”. However, The Times noted that the spokesman did not expressly deny the existence of the talks with the Taliban.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 July 2018 | Permalink