Notorious Russian arms dealer ‘refused US offer for lighter sentence’

Viktor BoutThe wife of Viktor Bout, the imprisoned Russian arms dealer dubbed ‘the merchant of death’, said he rejected an offer by his American captors who asked him to testify against a senior Russian government official. Born in Soviet Tajikistan, Bout was a former translator for the Soviet military. After the end of the Cold War, he set up several low-profile international air transport companies and used them to transfer large shipments of weapons that fueled wars in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. He made millions in the process and acquired international notoriety, which inspired the Hollywood blockbuster Lord of War. But his business ventures ceased in 2008, when he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, with the cooperation of the Royal Thai Police. He was eventually extradited to the US and given a 25-year prison term for supplying weapons to the Afghan Taliban, and for trying to sell arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Bout is currently serving his sentence at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.

In a newspaper interview on Tuesday, Bout’s wife, Alla Bout, said her husband could have gotten away with a considerably lighter sentence had he agreed to testify against a senior Russian government official. Speaking to Moscow-based daily Izvestia, Alla Bout said her husband had been approached by American authorities after being extradited to the United States from Thailand. He was told that US authorities wanted him to testify against Igor Sechin, a powerful Russian government official, whom American prosecutors believed was Bout’s boss. In return for his testimony, US prosecutors allegedly promised a jail sentence that would not exceed two years, as well as political asylum for him and his family following his release from prison. Alla Bout added that her husband’s American lawyers were told by the prosecution that the ‘merchant of death’ “would be able to live in the US comfortably, along with his wife and daughter”, and that his family could stay in America during his trial “under conditions”. Alla Bout claimed she was told this by Bout himself and by members of his American legal team.

From 2008 to 2012, Sechin, who has military background, served as Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister. Today he heads the Board of Directors of Rosneft, a government-owned oil extraction and refinement company, which is considered one of the world’s most powerful business ventures. Many observers see Sechin as the most formidable man in Russia after Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is also believed to be a senior member of the Siloviki, a secretive group of government officials in the Putin government who have prior careers in national security or intelligence. Although Bout and Sechin have never acknowledged having met each other, some investigators of Bout’s weapons-trading activities believe that the two were close allies. It is believed that the two men first met in Angola and Mozambique in the 1980s, where they were stationed while serving in the Soviet military. But the two men deny they knowing each other. According to Alla Bout, Viktor told his American captors that he “never worked for Sechin and did not know him in person”. He therefore turned down the prosecution’s offer and was handed a 25-year sentence. When asked by the Izvestia reporters whether Bout was simply protecting the powerful Russian government official, Alla Bout insisted that the two “have never even met, not once”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 August 2016 | Permalink

Iran executes nuclear scientist who claimed he was kidnapped by CIA

Shahram AmiriAuthorities in Iran have admitted that they executed a former scientist for the country’s nuclear program, who claimed that he was abducted by the United States after disappearing from Iran for a year. Shahram Amiri worked for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, the government body that is responsible for operating and regulating the country’s nuclear installations. But in the summer of 2009, while on a religious pilgrimage to the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, Amiri disappeared. Iranian authorities alleged at the time that Amiri had been kidnapped and possibly killed by Saudi, Israeli or American intelligence operatives.

Remarkably, the Iranian scientist reappeared almost a year later in Washington, DC. He entered the embassy of Pakistan in the American capital and asked to speak to the official in charge of the embassy’s Iranian interests section (since America and the Islamic Public have no official diplomatic relations, Pakistan’s embassy serves as an intermediary). He told officials at the embassy that he had been abducted by the Central Intelligence Agency after being drugged in Saudi Arabia. He also claimed that he was secretly transported to the US, where he was “subjected to intense psychological pressure” involving psychotropic drugs, interrogated and forced to reveal secrets about Iran’s nuclear program. But US officials denied Amiri’s claims and said the Iranian scientist had defected on his own accord and was free to return to Iran, if he wanted. Unconfirmed reports suggested that Amiri had changed his mind after defecting to the US, because he feared that Iranian authorities would harm his family. Some anonymous sources in Washington also claimed that Amiri had been offered $5 million for the information he gave the CIA, but that he had chosen to return to Iran instead of accepting the money.

On July 15, 2010, just three days after contacting the Pakistani embassy in DC, Amiri returned to a hero’s welcome in Iran, which was televised live. Meanwhile, Iranian officials accused the US and Israel of employing dirty tactics against the Islamic Republic. However, in May 2011 Amiri was suddenly arrested at his family home in Tehran and charged with treason. He underwent a secret trial, was convicted and was never again seen in public. On Saturday, Amiri’s family said they had received his body from the government, and that it appeared that he had died from hanging, judging by rope marks around his neck. On Sunday, Iran’s first deputy chief justice and former intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i, told reporters that Amir had indeed been executed by hanging. During his brief announcement, Mohseni-Eje’i said Amiri had endangered the Islamic Republic by giving “vital intelligence about the country to the enemy”, by which he said he meant the United States.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 August 2016 | Permalink

Countries using Eastern Europe to flood Syria with weapons, study finds

AK-47Unprecedented quantities of weapons and ammunition worth in nearly $1.5 billion have been procured from Eastern Europe and sent to Syria to arm nearly every side in the ongoing civil war, a study has found. The weapons are transported through the Balkans and sold legally to countries bordering Syria, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Once there, they are secretly transported to Syria for use in the bloody five-year civil war, which has so far killed or displaced millions. The revelation resulted from a year-long investigative project by the Serbia-based Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in Bosnia.

The probe found that the weapons transferred to the Middle East include heavy machine guns, rocket and mortar launchers and shells, anti-tank weapons, as well as thousands of assault rifles and rounds of ammunition. Many originate from Ukraine, Belarus and the former Yugoslavia and are procured by companies in eight Eastern European countries including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, the Czech Republic, Montenegro, and Bosnia. The governments of these countries give the companies permission to sell weapons to Middle Eastern countries, even though it is informally understood that they will eventually end up in Syria, in contravention of international agreements.

Investigators say the smuggled weapons have been traced to various factions fighting in Syria, primarily the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But many have ended up in the hands of Islamist militias, including the Islamic State, Ansar al-Islam, and the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of the weapons have also surfaced in Yemen, in the hands of Sunni fighters there. According to the probe’s findings, Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, whose militaries use Western-made weaponry, were never large purchasers of Eastern European weapons. But that quickly changed in 2012, as the Syrian Civil War picked up pace.

According to British newspaper The Guardian, which published some of the findings of the BIRN-OCCRP report, the United States has used this weapons-smuggling channel as a way to arm Syrian opposition forces. The study found that, since December of last year, the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command has commissioned at least three cargo ships that left ports in the Black Sea for the Middle East carrying weapons for Syria. Regular intelNews readers will remember a report from November 2013, according to which the Greek authorities seized a ship that had left Ukraine heading for Syria or Libya, carrying 20,000 AK-47s, as well as explosives and ammunition. Two years later, in November 2015, we reported on allegations that Ukraine may be secretly arming the Islamic State in an effort to impair its regional foe, Russia.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 July 2016 | Permalink

Turkish media accuse US general, CIA, of plotting coup

Yeni Şafak’sAmerican officials have strongly denied accusations in the Turkish press that Washington was behind the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. On July 25, Yeni Şafak, a popular Turkish daily, alleged that the failed coup had been funded and organized by the United States government. The newspaper, which is headquartered in Istanbul, is known for its conservative political stance and close links to the AKP, the party of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Its editorials typically reflect the AKP’s position on the political affairs of the day.

In its leading article on Monday, Yeni Şafak cited “senior government officials” in claiming that the CIA had organized the plotters behind the July 25 military putsch. It also fingered retired US Army General John F. Campbell as the principal intermediary between the CIA and the coup plotters in the Turkish military. Born in 1957, General Campbell served as the US Army’s Vice Chief of Staff until 2014, when he assumed the command of all US armed forces in Afghanistan. Upon his retirement, in 2016, he stepped down from that post as the last commander of the International Security Assistance Force in the Central Asian country. Yeni Şafak’s July 25 front-page headline read: “This man led the coup”, next to a photograph of General Campbell. In the corresponding article, the retired American General was accused of having “organized and managed the soldiers” behind the coup, and having handled “at least $2 billion” in CIA funds, which he allegedly distributed to the coup plotters via the Nigeria-based United Bank for Africa (UBA).

But in a statement issued on Tuesday, UBA called Yeni Şafak’s allegations spurious and insisted it had “no involvement with, or connection to” the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, General Campbell also dismissed the allegations against him as “absolutely ridiculous”, adding that they “don’t even warrant a response”. On the same day, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, described the Turkish newspaper’s article as “absurd”. Speaking at a press conference held jointly with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Washington, General Dunford said: “I really don’t know where that report could have come from”. Last week, US President Barack Obama telephoned his Turkish counterpart to assure him that the US had no prior knowledge of, or involvement in, the coup.

Pro-AKP media in Turkey have repeatedly accused Washington of being behind the July 15 coup attempt. But the Yeni Şafak article marked the first time that a foreign individual was named as a leading coup plotter. Ankara claims that the main culprit of the coup is Fethullah Gülen, a charismatic religious figure who leads a large anti-AKP religious movement from his place of exile in the US state of Pennsylvania. Turkey has said that it will issue a formal request for Gülen’s extradition. But the White House says it will consider extraditing Gülen only in light of sufficient evidence from Ankara. Gülen himself denies all charges of involvement in the plot.

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

Senior Russian intelligence defector to the US is allegedly dead

Aleksandr PoteyevA Russian former senior intelligence officer, who reportedly defected to the United States after helping the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrest 10 Russian spies in 2010, is believed to have died. The arrests, which revealed the so-called “Russian illegals program” in the US, were part of a counterintelligence operation codenamed GHOST STORIES by the FBI. The operation culminated in June 2010 with the dramatic arrests of 10 Russian ‘illegals’ in several US states. The Russian illegals, deep-cover intelligence operatives with no official connection to the country that employs them, had been operating in the US for over a decade prior to their arrest, using passports from third countries, including Britain, Canada and Uruguay. They were eventually exchanged with spies for the West that had been imprisoned in Russia.

Moscow blamed the arrests of the illegals on Colonel Aleksandr Poteyev, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, who rose through the ranks of the KGB and its successor agency, the SVR, to become second-in-command in the so-called Department S. The senior leaders of Department S are believed to be appointed directly by the president of Russia, and are tasked with directing the activities of all Russian illegals operating abroad. According to the Russian government, which tried Poteyev in absentia in 2011, he began working for the US Central Intelligence Agency in 1999, shortly before entering the senior echelons of Department S.

A panel of judges was told during Poteyev’s Moscow trial that he left Russia without permission on June 24, 2010, just days before the FBI arrested the 10 Russian illegals in the US. He initially went to Belarus, from where he notified his unsuspecting wife via a text sent from a mobile phone that he was leaving Russia for good. He then traveled to Ukraine and from there to Germany, where he was allegedly picked up by his American CIA handler. It is believed that was provided with a new identity and passport, which he used to enter the US. By the time the Russians sentenced him to 25 years in prison for treason, Poteyev was adjusting to his new life in America.

But on July 7, the Moscow-based Interfax news agency reported that Poteyev, had died in the US, aged 64. The brief report did not specify the cause of Poteyev’s alleged death, nor did it state how Interfax acquired the information. Since the report was issued, no confirmation of Poteyev’s purported death has appeared from any other news source, or from government agencies. Russia’s Sputnik News contacted the SVR last week, but the agency declined to comment. It is believed that Poteyev’s two children were working in the US at the time of his defection, and that they are still living in the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 July 2016 | Permalink

Video footage shows alleged CIA spy tackled outside US Moscow embassy

US embassy scuffleA Russian television station has aired footage allegedly showing a Russian guard stationed outside the United States embassy in Moscow trying to stop an American diplomat from entering the embassy. The Kremlin claims that the alleged US diplomat was in fact a Central Intelligence Agency officer who was returning to the embassy in disguise following a spy operation. As intelNews reported on July 1, the incident took place in the early hours of Monday, June 6. The American diplomat was making his way to the front entrance of the US embassy complex, which is located in the Presnensky District in downtown Moscow.

According to American sources, the diplomat was approached by an employee of the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, which regularly stations security personnel around the sizeable US embassy complex. The FSB claims that the guards are there to protect US diplomats, though it is common knowledge that the Russian agency, which is responsible for counterespionage, is primarily there to monitor activities in and around the US embassy. American sources claim that the diplomat presented the Russian guard with proof of identification when asked to do so. But he was then physically attacked and struck repeatedly by the FSB officer, which left him with several injuries, including a broken shoulder. The diplomat managed to enter the embassy grounds and had to be flown out of the country for urgent medical treatment. He has not returned to Russia.

On Thursday, Russian television channel NTV aired video footage purporting to show the altercation between the US diplomat and the FSB guard. The video aired on NTV shows a man exiting a taxi in a hurry and heading to what appears to be the US embassy’s front-perimeter entrance. However, as the man makes heads for the entrance, a uniformed individual jumps out of a guard station located nearby and tackles the man, throwing him on the ground. A scuffle ensues, during which the alleged diplomat is seen desperately trying to reach the entrance of the US embassy, which is American soil. He eventually manages to enter the embassy grounds, despite the effort of the uniformed guard to prevent him from entering. The same NTV report identified the American diplomat as Daniel Van Dyken and showed the photograph of a man said to be him. The report states that Van Dyken serves as third secretary of the US embassy’s Political Department.

Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged that the diplomat in question was an intelligence officer. “It is well known”, said Zakharova, “that this very diplomat was in fact an agent of the CIA and was returning [to the US embassy], in disguise, after conducting an intelligence operation the previous night”. She also said that the Russian government employee involved in the altercation was a “police officer” who was attacked by the alleged spy when he asked to be shown proof of identification. Instead of supplying identification documents, the American diplomat “struck the guard in the face with his elbow before disappearing into the embassy”, said Zakharova. The US State Department and the CIA have refused to comment on Zakharova’s allegations.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 08 July 2016 | Permalink

Muslim man held in New York prison claims he was CIA spy

Blerim SkoroAn ethnic Albanian man facing deportation from the United States says he was trained by the Central Intelligence Agency to spy on “the most ruthless, dangerous terrorists in the Balkans and the Middle East”. Blerim Skoro, 45, from the former Yugoslav Republic of Kosovo, was arrested last February in Brooklyn, New York, for illegally using a discounted student MetroCard. He was then found to have entered the US illegally and is currently in prison in New Jersey, facing possible deportation back to Kosovo. But Skoro told The New York Times in an interview published on Wednesday that he cannot be sent back to Kosovo because he operated there as a spy for the CIA.

According to The Times, Skoro came to the US in 1994. Six years later, he was convicted in a New York court of transporting drugs and laundering nearly $700,000 in criminal proceeds. But while in prison, Skoro was recruited as an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was tasked with monitoring inmates with militant Islamist leanings. In 2007, when Skoro was released from prison and deported back to Kosovo, he allegedly continued working for US intelligence. He told The Times that he was trained by US operatives in a CIA safe house in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia before taking on assignments in the Balkans, the Middle East and even Pakistan. Throughout that time, Skoro says he posed as a militant Islamist who had become radicalized while serving his prison sentence in America. He claims to have supplied the CIA with intelligence relating to al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist groups.

However, in 2010, while traveling to a CIA safe house in Macedonia for a meeting, he was shot by assailants who probably knew he was working for a foreign spy agency. That incident prompted the CIA to sever its relationship with him, dismissing him from his agent status and offering him approximately $40,000 in compensation. Soon afterwards, Skoro made his way to Canada, from where he entered the US illegally, in November 2014. Before getting arrested in Brooklyn in February, he says he made contact with US intelligence officials, offering to spy for the US against the Islamic State. But his offer was not accepted. The Times article speculates that US intelligence may have no use for Skoro because his identity has been compromised, or because his reliability has come into question.

Currently Skoro is being held without bond at the Bergin County Jail in northern New Jersey, because federal prosecutors believe he might flee if released. The Times contacted the CIA, the FBI and police sources, but all declined to comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 July 2016 | Permalink