Analysis: Iran’s energy sector is now a high-stakes espionage target

Iran Petroleum Oil MinistryThe state-owned energy sector of Iran, one of the world’s most lucrative, has become a major target of international espionage since the imposition of new sanctions by the United States this year. The purpose of Washington’s sanctions is to limit the Islamic Republic’s ability to export energy, and by doing so end the country’s reliance on its primary source of income. It is estimated that Tehran’s energy exports have fallen by about 80 percent during the past year, and may continue to fall if the US has its way. This means that American and Iranian intelligence agencies are currently engaged in an intense war of espionage that concentrates on what remains of Iran’s oil exports. Iran continues to entice international buyers by selling energy at below-market prices, while sales are facilitated through the use of throwaway bank accounts that are difficult to trace. Exports are then carefully smuggled into overseas destinations through a variety of means.

In an article published last week, The New York Times’ Farnaz Fassihi explains that every snippet of information about Iran’s oil industry has now become “a prized geopolitical weapon” in a “a high-stakes global game of espionage and counterespionage”. Fassihi quotes a recent statement by Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zanganeh that “information about Iran’s oil exports is war information”. That includes information on how Iran manages to deliver its exports abroad and how it gets paid for doing so. Once the US tightened its sanctions on Tehran, Iranian energy officials began to suspect that most inquiries to purchase oil were from foreign spies in search of information on the methods of transaction, writes Fassihi. So the Ministry of Petroleum stopped allowing thousands of freelance energy brokers to mediate between it and buyers. It proceeded to concentrate all transactions into the hands of fewer than five vetted individuals with prior tenure in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and other vetted government agencies. It also began to train Ministry officials on security and counterespionage protocols.

When the Iranians made it difficult to access information through the Ministry of Petroleum, foreign spy agencies changed their tactics, writes Fassihi. They used foreign academic researchers, including PhD students, who offered payments in hard cash for information on Iranian oil export methods that would help them in their research. Others descended on Tehran offering visas to the US, alcohol, prostitutes, and cash payments ranging from $100,000 to over $1 million in exchange for intelligence on the Iranian energy export sector. There is an atmosphere of paranoia in the Iranian capital, writes Fassihi, and the process of purchasing oil from Iran resembles a Hollywood spy thriller. Representatives of foreign buyers are asked to come to Tehran in person and are regularly required to switch hotels in the middle of the night. Additionally, once a transaction is agreed upon, the buyer’s representative is required to stay at a Petroleum Ministry safe house until the funds are transferred into Iranian government coffers. After that, the representative is allowed to leave, writes Fassihi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 August 2019 | Permalink

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Despite imminent US-Taliban deal, CIA plans to keep proxy units in Afghanistan

Armed guerillas Khost AfghanistanThe United States Central Intelligence Agency plans to retain a strong presence on the ground in Afghanistan, despite reports that American troops may soon be leaving the country following a deal with the Taliban. Several news outlets reported this week that Washington has resolved its differences with the Taliban about withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, after receiving assurances by the Taliban that they will not cooperate with other militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. An announcement of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban may thus be imminent. But in an article for Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinski points out that the CIA is not planning to leave the Central Asian country any time soon.

The American intelligence agency is known to support, arm and train several proxy forces throughout Afghanistan. Langley plans to keep those proxy forces operating in the country for the foreseeable future, regardless of whether US troops pull out, says Glinski. She gives the example of the Khost Protection Force (KPF), a 6,500-strong unit of Afghan soldiers who are “trained, equipped and funded by the CIA”. The KPF is the most active and visible of an extensive network of CIA-sponsored paramilitary groups in Afghanistan. It operates almost exclusively along the Afghan-Pakistani border and has a strong presence in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, Paktia and Khost. The roots of the KPF go back to the days immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which prompted the US military invasion of Afghanistan. It therefore precedes the Afghan National Army, Afghanistan’s state-run military apparatus, and does not operate under its command. Instead, it is solely directed by the CIA, which uses it to secure the Afghan-Pakistani border and disrupt the activities of Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters in the Afghan borderlands.

Members of the KPF claim that they are “better trained than the Afghan National Army”. They are also paid much better, over $1000.00 per month, which is an enormous sum for Afghanistan. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Glinski reports that most KPF fighters joined the group for the money and the ability to eventually seek permanent resettlement in the United States. But alongside the group’s elite image, KPF members have acquired notoriety and are often seen as trigger-happy and unaccountable. Several reports in Western media have said that the KPF’s tactical accomplishments have come at a high price, with countless reports of civilian deaths and, some claim, even war crimes. These risk “alienating the Afghan population”, said a New York Times report last year. Glinski says it is possible the KPF’s aggressive tactics may be “radicalizing portions of the very population it intends to pacify or frighten into submission”. In April of this year, a United Nations report alleged that more Afghan civilians died as a result of attacks by Afghan government and American military attacks than at the hands of the Taliban and other guerilla groups. The CIA did not respond to several requests for comment from Foreign Policy, says Glinski.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 09 August 2019 | Permalink

Many countries, not just Russia, are trying to influence US elections, experts warn

TwitterSeveral countries are behind organized efforts to influence electoral politics in the United States, with Russia being one among a growing list of culprits, according to experts. Speaking to The Washington Post last week, cybersecurity experts issued what they described as “a wake-up call” to voters and warned that America’s information space is becoming “a free-for-all for foreign intelligence”. Foreign spy services that are utilizing information operations in order to influence US elections reportedly include —aside from Russia— Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and China.

The majority of foreign information operations take place on social-media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But there are also campaigns to influence more traditional American media, for instance by tricking newspapers into publishing letters to the editor that are in fact authored by foreign intelligence operatives. Analysts from FireEye, Graphika and other cybersecurity and network-analysis firms told The Post that some information operations are difficult to detect, because the presence of a state security service is not always apparent. However, the messages that are communicated in tweets, Facebook postings, online videos, etc., tend to echo —often word for word— the rhetoric of foreign governments, and promote their geopolitical objectives. As can be expected, these objectives vary. Thus, Russian, Israeli and Saudi information operations tend to express strong political support for US President Donald Trump, arguably because these governments see his potential re-election as a development that would further their national interest. In contrast, Iranian information operations tend to lambast Trump for his negative stance on the Iranian nuclear deal and for his support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the Yemeni Civil War.

The Washington Post article notes that all major social-media companies employ teams of screeners whose mission is to detect and eliminate disinformation campaigns by both state and non-state actors. However, experts remain skeptical about their ability to combat the phenomenon, given that the quantity and sophistication of disinformation campaigns is constantly increasing. Many countries —including Israel and the United States— now maintain advanced information operations targeting national elections on several continents. There are also many governments —such as Qatar, the Philippines and Turkey— that use these techniques on their own voters and could potentially use them in the near future to target foreign populations, including Americans. The 2020 presidential election in the US is expected to be the most hotly contested in many decades, so it is certain that numerous foreign spy agencies will try to influence it in numerous ways, says The Post.

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

‘Sonic attacks’ may have shrunk brains of US diplomats in Cuba, study finds

US embassy in CubaA series of alleged “sonic attacks” by a mysterious weapon may have caused the brains of American diplomats who served at the United States embassy in Cuba to shrink, according to a new scientific study. In 2017 Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from the US embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from the US consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing, and possibly from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. Subsequently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

The theory that a sonic weapon caused the diplomats’ ailments is not universally held, with some scientists doubting the validity of such claims. But now a new study may have provided a tangible and measurable link that connects the physiological symptoms suffered by the diplomats. The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association,The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a detailed examination of data from magnetic resonance imaging studies that assessed both structural and functional endpoints of the brains of the victims of the alleged sonic attacks. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania took these images of the brains of 40 individuals who complained of acute auditory and other sensory disturbances while in Cuba, and compared them with those of healthy participants. The latter were matched with the patients for age, lifestyle and general background. According to the study, the comparison revealed statistically significant differences in various structures of the subjects’ brains. The differences were most pronounced in the white matter of their brains. The white matter is important because it is comprised of the myelin-protected nerve fibers that are responsible for transmitting the electrical signals from one brain cell (neuron) to another. Damage to these regions would result in a reduction of the brain’s ability to process information as rapidly as the brains of non-affected individuals. According to the study, the volume of white matter in the brains of the alleged sonic attack victims was approximately five percent smaller than that in the brains of healthy adults.

One of the scientists behind the study told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph that his team of researchers have not seen “anything like it before”. But he added that he and his colleagues are “not sure […] what it is”, though “there does appear to be something there”. Another expert told the paper that the findings of the University of Pennsylvania study supported the validity of the symptoms reported by the American diplomats. However, they do not help answer the question of whether they suffered actual brain injuries. A spokesman from the United States Department of State told The Telegraph that the Department is “aware of the study and welcomes the medical community’s discussion of this incredibly complex issue”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 July 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Did the US Central Intelligence Agency lose 17 spies in Iran?

US embassy IranIf the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown.

Officials in Tehran said on Sunday that all of the purported spies are Iranian nationals and were lured by the CIA with promises of receiving visas to enter America. Others were already in possession of visas and were “blackmailed” to spy for the US in order to have them renewed by the US Department of State, according to Iranian media reports. Visa applicants were allegedly carefully selected based on their work in critical areas such as Iran’s nuclear program or defense procurement.

A government-sanctioned documentary, which aired on Iran’s state owned television on Monday, claimed that the 17 spies did not know each other, but all had been trained independently in clandestine tradecraft. This allegedly included setting up and using secret communications systems, as well as carrying out dead drops without being detected. Dead drops utilized containersQ Quote made to look like rocks, which were located “in parks and other mountainous areas” in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Iranian officials. Some of the assets communicated with their handlers while attending science conferences through- out Europe, Africa and Asia.

The Iranian television documentary claimed that the 17 arrests had “dealt a lethal blow to US foreign intelligence”. But US President Donald Trump said in a tweet that Tehran’s allegations were “totally false” and contained “zero truth”, just “more lies and propaganda” from Tehran.

Who is right? To begin with, there is no question that the CIA recruits heavily in Iran, given that the Islamic Republic is one of America’s —indeed the world’s— primary intelligence targets. What is more, since 1979, when Washington lost its embassy in Iran, the CIA have found it more difficult to collect accurate information from inside the energy-rich country. Therefore, the need for dependable assets inside Iran has increased exponentially, and has become even more pressing now, given the importance placed on Iran by Donald Trump. Additionally, Read more of this post

Analysis: Are US border security officials ignoring terrorism threat from Canada?

Canada borderSince the election of President Donald Trump, the issue of border security between the United States and Mexico has been a major topic of national debate. But is the incessant focus on America’s southern border by the news media and politicians ignoring security concerns emanating from the country’s northern neighbor, Canada? In a thought-provoking editorial in the English-language Emirati newspaper The National, Stephen Starr employs statistics to argue that the flow of extremism from Canada into the US may represent a greater security concern for Washington than immigration flows from Mexico.

According to US government sources, six foreigners whose names featured on the Terrorist Screening Database (TSDB) —the central terrorist watchlist maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Terrorist Screening Center— attempted to enter the US from Mexico in the first half of 2018. Starr points out that during that same period no fewer than 41 foreigners who were on the TSDB tried to enter the US from Canada. In the past three and a half years, four Canadian residents have been charged with carrying out or conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks on US soil. They include a Palestinian living in Toronto and a Tunisian living in Montreal, who planned to derail a passenger train making the journey from Ontario to New York. Both were jailed for life. Another resident of Canada, Abdulrahman el-Bahnasawy, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for trying to plant bombs in New York’s Times Square and on a New York subway train. El-Bahnasawy, who was 20 when he was sentenced, was directly guided by Islamic State handlers in the Philippines and Pakistan. Starr notes that nearly 200 Canadian citizens and residents are thought to have traveled abroad to fight for the Islamic State, and that around 60 of those are now back in Canada.

While all this is happening, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, America’s main border control organization, which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, appears to be ignoring the country’s northern border. It is worth noting that the 5,525 mile-long border is the longest in the world, but is monitored by no more than about 2,000 CBP agents. In contrast, over 16,000 CBP agents keep tabs on America’s border with Mexico. Responding to political pressure from the White House, the CBP keeps stationing more agents to the southern border. In the meantime, requests by CBP supervisors along the Canadian border to increase their force by 200 agents remain unfulfilled. This is despite the fact that the number of people detained while trying to enter the US illegally from the Canadian province of Quebec has nearly trebled since 2015, notes Starr.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 22 July 2019 | Permalink

Swiss to extradite brother of ‘leading biochemist’ who spied for Chinese firm

GlaxoSmithKlineA Swiss court has ordered the extradition to the United States of the brother of one of the world’s leading biochemists, who spied on a British pharmaceutical firm to help a Chinese startup. The extradition is part of a large corporate espionage case centered on Yu Xue, a Chinese scientist described by US federal prosecutors as “one of the world’s top protein biochemists”. Yu specializes in drug research for cancer and other serious terminal illnesses. From 2006 until 2016 he worked in the US for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a leading British pharmaceutical group.

In 2018, Yu was arrested by US authorities for stealing trade secrets from a GSK research facility in the US state of Pennsylvania, and giving them to a Chinese startup pharmaceutical company called Renopharma. He eventually pleaded guilty to stealing proprietary data from GSK, in a case that the US Department of Justice described as a textbook example of Chinese “economic warfare” against America. US government prosecutors also claim that Renopharma is almost wholly funded the Chinese government. The three co-founders of the Chinese firm have also been charged with corporate espionage targeting a US firm.

On May 28 Yu’s brother, Gongda Xue, was arrested in Basel, Switzerland. According to the US government, Gongda used GSK data stolen by his brother to carry out drug experimentation at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, where he worked as a post-doctoral trainee between 2008 and 2014. On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), ruled in favor of a request by the US government to extradite Gongda so he can be tried in Pennsylvaia. According to the FOJ, the Chinese scientist will be extradited as soon as his 30-day appeal period expires.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 17 July 2019 | Permalink