Italian police find ‘combat-ready’ air-to-air missile in raids on far-right groups

Air to air missile ItalyPolice in Italy have found an air-to-air missile in “perfect working order” alongside dozens of guns during raids on homes belonging to members of far-right groups. The raids took place in several northern Italian cities and were coordinated by the Digos, a special unit of the Turin Municipal Police that deals with organized crime and terrorism. Aside from Turin, synchronized raids took place in Varese, Novara, Forli and Milan. According to reports in the Italian media, the raids were part of a large-scale investigation into an extensive network of Italian far-right groups whose members provided logistical and material support to Russian-backed separatists in southeastern Ukraine.

At least three men were arrested in connection with the raids, two of them in Forli and one in Galarate, a small town near Varese on the Italian-Swiss border. They were named as Alessandro Monti, 42, a Swiss national, and Fabio Bernardi, 51, an Italian national. A third man, Fabio Del Bergiolo, 50, also an Italian national, is reportedly a retired customs officer who in 2001 run for office with Forza Nuova, a neo-fascist Italian grouping. Until 2014, Forza Nuova activists were known to have close links with Svoboda, the far-right Ukrainian paramilitary group. But in the past five years, the Italian neo-fascist group’s leaders have openly sided with Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels. Italian police reported that they found several guns in Bergiolo’s home, including nine unspecified “assault weapons” and 29 hunting rifles, as well as pistols and ammunition. But the most worrying find was an air-to-air guided missile at an airport hangar, which was placed inside a box that belonged to one of the three men. The missile is designed to be fired from an aircraft to target another aircraft. It is reportedly a Matra Super 530F, which was manufactured by France in 1980. According to the police report, it is “in perfect working order”. The most recent legal owner of the missile was the Qatar Air Force. It is not known how it ended up in the hands of the three suspects, but it is believed that they have been seeking to sell it in the black market.

The police raids took place less than two weeks after a court in Genoa sentenced three men for traveling to Russia and taking up arms alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The three men were identified in court reports as Antonio Cataldo, an Italian citizen, Olsi Krutani, from Albania, and Vladimir Vrbitchii, who is from Moldova. The three men received jail sentences ranging from 16 months to 34 months. As a reminder, last September security agencies in Eastern Europe voiced concern about the rise of far-right paramilitary groups whose members allegedly have access to increasingly heavy weaponry, including in some cases armored vehicles and tanks.

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

France admits ownership of missiles found in Libyan rebels’ hands

FGM-148 JavelinThe French government has admitted that four anti-tank missiles found in a Libyan rebel camp belonged to its Special Forces units, but denied accusations that it deliberately breached the United Nations-imposed weapons embargo on Libya. Libya’s UN-recognized government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, announced in June that it discovered a cache of FGM-148 Javelin portable anti-tank missiles during a raid on a rebel camp. The camp belonged to forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a rogue Libyan warlord who is supported by a group of Western-led nations that includes the United States, France, Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The GNA released photographs of the laser-guided missiles and their shipping containers, which showed that the weapons were property of the “Armed Forces of the United Arab Emirates”. This appeared to constitute a clear breach of the UN-imposed weapons embargo on Libya, which has been in place since 2011. Last week, officials in Abu Dhabi said that the weapons did not belong to the Emirates, and claimed that the government of the oil kingdom was upholding the UN embargo on the North African country. On Tuesday, The New York Times cited anonymous French government sources, who said that Paris had purchased the four Javelin missiles from the US in 2010 for nearly $700,000. Finally, yesterday the French Armed Forces Ministry issued a statement admitting that it had indeed purchased the missiles from the US in 2010, and that they had been transferred to Libya for “the self-protection of a French military unit deployed to carry out counter-terrorism operations” there (incidentally, France does not officially have troops in Libya, so this statement is Paris’ second admission of the presence of French Special Forces in the country). The Ministry’s statement went on to claim that the missiles were “defective” and had been marked for destruction. The statement insisted that the missiles were not meant to be “transferred to local forces”. Instead, like all “damaged and unusable armaments, they were being temporarily stocked at a depot ahead of their destruction”, it said.

In 2017, two leading American experts, including a former special counsel for the US Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accused Haftar of having committed large-scale war crimes. Unfazed by such criticisms, Haftar launched a large-scale offensive in April of this year, with the aim of conquering Tripoli and ousting the GNA. Several UN reports have since indicated that Haftar’s forces are secretly supported by several Western countries, Israel, Egypt and the Emirates, but this is denied by officials from those countries. In April of this year, a number European Union member states led by Italy criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiating table.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 July 2019 | Permalink

Bosnia accuses Croatian spy services of arming Islamists

Dragan MekticAuthorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have accused the government of Croatia of deliberately arming militant Islamists in order to damage Bosnia’s reputation and sabotage its campaign to join the European Union. The claims were aired by a Bosnian government minister on Thursday, a day after allegations of a weapons-smuggling plot by Croatia were made in the Bosnian media. On Wednesday, Zurnal, a Bosnian investigative website, alleged that the Croatian intelligence services had recruited a Bosnian national and used him to smuggle weapons and explosives into the majority Muslim country.

According to Zurnal, the Bosnian man was “intercepted” by Croatian intelligence while driving through Croatia on his way to Bosnia. He was traveling to Bosnia from an unnamed “European Union country”, where he allegedly lives. The Zurnal report alleges that officers of Croatia’s Security and Intelligence Agency (SOA) had evidence that the Bosnian man was a supporter of the Islamic State and threatened to notify the authorities in his country of residence. They then allegedly used this threat in order to pressure the Bosnian man to smuggle weapons and explosives into Bosnia and hide them in a mosque in Zenica, a city of about 100,000 residents in central Bosnia.

On Thursday, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Minister of Security, Dragan Mektic (pictured), accused the SOA of plotting the weapons-smuggling operation in an attempt to damage Bosnia’s reputation. The goal of the operation, said Mektic, was to paint Bosnia as a center of Islamic State activity in Europe and sabotage the country’s efforts to join the European Union —of which Croatia is already a member. Also on Thursday, the office of Bosnia’s state prosecutor announced that an investigation had been launched into whether Croatian intelligence agencies had attempted to recruit other Bosnian citizens with known extremist views.

Since 2014, Croatian and Serbian security agencies have repeatedly warned that hundreds of Bosnian Muslims traveled to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State, and that many of them have since returned to the Balkans. But the Bosnian government argues that extremist Islam has no place in the country, whose predominantly Muslim population follows moderate versions of the religion. Late on Thursday, the Croatian government dismissed Mektic’s claims as “groundless” and said that they were aimed at harming relations between Bosnia and Croatia. No information has been released about the identity of the Bosnian arms smuggler, his current whereabouts or the fate of the alleged operation.

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

Iran has clandestine missile factories in Lebanon, claims Israel’s ex-spy chief

Amos YadlinThe government of Iran is smuggling parts for ballistic missiles to Lebanon, where they are secretly assembled in clandestine factories operated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to Israel’s former spy chief. For several months now, the international news agency Reuters has been claiming that Tehran has transported short-range ballistic missiles to secret bases controlled by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Iran’s move was aimed at “deterring attacks on [Iran’s] interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to it reginal foes”, said Reuters, citing “Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources”. Both Iran and Iraq denied the Reuters report.

In September, another report, citing “Western intelligence sources”, said that Iran had begun smuggling parts of short-range ballistic missiles to Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon, using commercial flights. The report pointed to at least two flights that are suspected by Western intelligence agencies of having illegally transported precision weapon parts to Lebanon. Both flights were operated by Qeshm Fars Air, a company believed to be used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Members of the IRGC, arguably the most loyal branch of the Iranian military, are selected on the basis of their ideological commitment to the defense of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The two flights identified in the report departed from commercial and military airports in Tehran and landed in Lebanon after taking “uncharacteristic flight paths” through Syria, said Western intelligence sources.

On Sunday, Israel’s highest-circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, carried an interview with the former director of the Jewish state’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin. Yadlin, who also served as Israel’s military attaché in Washington, said that Iran used to hide ballistic missile parts in Syria, hoping to establish de facto missile bases there. However, Tehran’s plan suffered a major setback last May, said Yadlin, when Israel’s air force destroyed approximately 50 targets inside Syria, including —according to Yadlin— Iranian missile factories. Since then, he said, Tehran has been relocating its missile factories to Lebanon, believing that Israel will not attack its neighbor to the north. But Yadlin, who is a known supporter of left-of-center parties in Israel, and a proponent of the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem, argued that Israel should consider attacking Iran’s military factories in Lebanon. The Jewish state faces two choices, said Yadlin: “to strike [Lebanon], not necessarily by air”, or to allow Hezbollah to acquire precision missiles. “Israel will not accept this change”, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 October 2018 | Permalink

French consular employee caught smuggling guns to Gaza using diplomatic car

French consulate in JerusalemAn employee of France’s consulate in Jerusalem is under arrest for allegedly smuggling weapons from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, according to French media reports, which have been confirmed by Israel. The consular employee has been identified by the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, as Romain Franck, 23. He reportedly worked as a driver at the consulate, a job he managed to secure through a prestigious “international volunteer” program sponsored by the French government. The elite program allows recent French college graduates to gain work experience in various countries around the world. Although he had a relatively junior post at the French consulate, Franck carried a diplomatic passport, which allowed him to move through international borders without being searched, due to his diplomatic immunity privileges.

But, according to French newspaper Liberation, Franck was detained by Shin Bet officers on February 19 of this year, as he was trying to enter Israel from the Gaza Strip at the Erez border crossing. He was driving a car that bears French diplomatic license plates and belongs to the French consulate in Jerusalem. Inside the car, the Shin Bet officers reportedly found pistols and assault rifles. According to Liberation, Franck’s arrest has been kept secret. The Shin Bet admitted that the newspaper’s story was true on Tuesday afternoon. Franck reportedly told his Israeli captors that he had received the weapons from a Palestinian who worked at the French Cultural Center in Gaza. He then transported them over several trips to the West Bank, where other Palestinians picked them up, paid him, and sold them on to others.

Israel has reportedly arrested eight more people in connection with the gun running, all of whom are Palestinians. They include a Palestinian security guard at the French consulate. According to the Shin Bet, Franck was not ideologically or politically allied with Hamas, Fatah, or any other Palestinian group. Instead, he participated in the gun smuggling for financial gain. A spokesman at France’s embassy in Tel Aviv said that Paris was closely monitoring the incident and was “in close contact with the Israeli authorities on the matter”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 21 March 2018 | Permalink | Research credit: MF

Seizure of Egypt-bound ship reveals North Korea’s illicit trade in arms

Suez CanalThe seizure earlier this year of a North Korean ship secretly carrying thousands of weapons for use by the Egyptian military has revealed the scale of one of Pyongyang’s most profitable money-making ventures: global arms sales. Experts say that the North Korean state continues to supply thousands of tons of Cold-War-era conventional weapons to countries such as Eritrea, Cuba, Burma and Iran, as well as to some American allies, including as Egypt. There is also evidence that at least two non-state militant organizations, including the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah, are among Pyongyang’s customers. The latter take advantage of North Korea’s vast arsenal of weapons produced in the 1960s and 1970s, which are being sold on the international arms market at very low prices.

The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick reports that, in August of this year, American intelligence officials notified authorities in Egypt of a potentially suspicious transport ship named Jie Shun. The ship had been registered in Cambodia and was flying the Cambodian flag. However, its entire crew was North Korean and it had last sailed from North Korea, bound for Egypt. Its manifest said it carried hundreds of tons of iron ore. Acting on the tip from the United States, armed Egyptian customs officers boarded the ship as soon as it entered the Suez Canal. Upon inspecting the Jie Shun, the Egyptians found hidden 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades. The discovery was later described by the United Nations as “the largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.

Remarkably, says Warrick, the ammunition had been purchased in secret by a consortium of Egyptian businessmen, who had hoped to resell it to the Egyptian military. It is believed that the businessmen had paid in excess of $23 million for the illicit cargo, with the money ending up in the coffers of the North Korean government. The ship’s North Korean origin had been completely hidden through its “flag of convenience” registration in Cambodia, which allowed the ship’s owners to claim that the its home port was in the Southeast Asian country. According to Warrick, who cites unnamed US officials, the discovery of the Jie Shun’s illicit cargo contributed to the recent decision of US President Donald Trump to hold back on approximately $300 million in military aid to Egypt that Washington had planned to give to Cairo in July.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 October 2017 | Permalink

Emiratis, Saudis, secretly assisting Libyan rebels with air power, says UN

Khalifa HaftarSecret military assistance from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which violates United Nations sanctions, is helping Libya’s eastern-based rebels prevail in the civil war there, according to a new report. Libya has remained in a state of anarchy since 2011, when a popular uprising backed by the West and its allies led to the demise of the country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Currently the strongest faction in the post-2011 Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the US under Washington’s protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011.

The Tobruk-led Government is ostensibly supported by the United States, but has also received Russian assistance. The status of the group is further-complicated by the fact that, in recent years, its military wing, led by Haftar, operates semi-autonomously. Some believe that Haftar has now stopped taking orders from Tobruk and has aspirations to lead his own armed faction in Libya.

In February of 2011, shortly after the popular uprising erupted in Libya, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1970, which —among other things— forbids the export of war materiel to Libya. The resolution was further-strengthened in 2014 and today remains in place. But the UN embargo did not appear to stop the military domination of Haftar’s LNA. In the past few months, the armed group has managed to extend its control over dozens of urban centers, oil installations and military bases and outposts throughout eastern and central Libya. Today, the LNA is seen as the dominant military authority in the war-torn country.

Now a new report published by the UN suggests that the main reason for the LNA’s military prowess lies in the secret support it receives from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The report was published on Friday by the “Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1970”, a panel of experts appointed by the UN to oversee the implementation of the arms embargo. In its annual report, the panel asserts that Haftar’s forces received significant military assistance from the UAE in both ground and aerial support. Specifically, the LNA received nearly 650 armored and non-armored vehicles in April of 2016 alone, as well as helicopters and unmanned drones. The latter are now stationed the Al-Khadim air base, which was built by the LNA specifically in order to house the UAE-supplied aircraft. It is believed that the UAE operates the Al-Khadim air base, which is located approximately 60 miles east of Benghazi, Libya’s second most populous urban center.

The UN report goes on to state that much of the war materiel reaches Libya through ships that sail from Saudi Arabia, and that some Belarus-based companies are also involved in the illicit transfer of helicopters, non-armored vehicles and other items to Libya. It concludes that the materiel assistance provided by the UAE has “significantly increased the air support available to the LNA”, which in turn explains the group’s impressive military performance in the past year. The report’s authors noted that they contacted the government of the UAE in regards to the report’s findings, but received no response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 June 2017 | Permalink