Russia flew unmarked military aircraft to Libya to evacuate mercenaries, US claims

Libyan National Army LibyaThe United States has alleged that the Russian military flew over a dozen unmarked aircraft to Libya, in an attempt to provide air support for Russian mercenaries who are fighting in Tripoli. If true, this development marks a major escalation of Russia’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war.

The war has been raging in Libya since 2011, when a popular uprising backed by the West and its allies led to the demise of the country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Much of the east of the country is controlled by the United States-backed Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Russia also backs the LNA and is vying with the United States for influence among Haftar’s commanders and troops. The LNA is fighting against the United Nations-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported by Qatar and Turkey.

On Tuesday, the Africa Command of the United States Department of Defense alleged that Russian pilots had flown military planes to Jufra, an LNA stronghold. The Americans claimed that the jets had been repainted in Syria to hide their Russian Federation insignia, before being flown first to Tobruk, in Libya’s east, and from there to Jufra. According to the Pentagon, the Russian planes were flown to Libya in order to provide air support to over 1,000 Russian mercenaries who are fighting alongside the LNA.

The mercenaries reportedly belong to the PMC Wagner (also known as the Wagner Group), a Russian security contractor with presence on the ground in Syria, eastern Ukraine, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere. Western officials allege that Russian private contractor firms like Wagner could not operate without permission from the Kremlin. According to recent reports, Wagner personnel have been participating in the LNA’s year-long effort to take Tripoli from the hands of the GNA and by doing so put an end to the Libyan civil war. But the offensive has not been going well in recent days, and Wagner forces were reportedly pushed back by Turkish- and Qatari-supported GNA troops.

The US Pentagon alleged that Moscow sent the Russian military aircraft to Libya in order to “provide close air support and offensive fires for the Wagner Group PMC that is supporting the LNA’s fight”. Other commentators have argued that the main purpose of the mission was to reach the outskirts of Tripoli and airlift the Russian mercenaries to safety. But Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for the LNA, rejected reports of the arrival of Russian military aircraft to Libya as “media rumors and lies”. He said that all aircraft used by the LNA were “repaired […] old Libyan jets”. The Russian military has not commented on the allegations by the US Pentagon.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 May 2020 | Permalink

UAE arming Libyan warlord using covert flights, United Nations panel concludes

Libyan National Army LNAThe United Arab Emirates is behind a “covert air bridge” to supply weapons to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, according to a leaked report by a United Nations investigative panel. A war has been raging in Libya since 2011, when a popular uprising backed by the West and its allies led to the demise of the country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Much of the east of the country is controlled by the United States-backed Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its commander, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (pictured). The LNA is fighting against the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord.

In February of 2011, 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 remains in place today. But weapons keep flowing into Libya. In 2017, it was disclosed that the LNA was receiving secret military assistance from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in violation of the embargo. Now another report alleges that much of the military assistance to the LNA arrives in Libya via a “covert air bridge” operated by the UAE. According to the Bloomberg news agency, the information comes from a leaked report by a UN panel, excerpts of which were presented to the US Security Council earlier in May.

The report is said to allege that there has been a substantial increase in “secret flights” from airports in the UAE and from the Gulf country’s military airbase in Eritrea. In early January alone, at least 37 of these secret flights landed at Libyan airfields in areas under the control of the LNA, said the report. These secret deliveries were operated by “a complex network for companies”, which were registered in the UAE, the British Virgin Islands and Kazakhstan, according to the UN panel.

Bloomberg contacted the ambassador of the UAE to the UN, Lana Nusseibeh, who blasted the claims as “false” and said that the government of the UAE denied them “in their entirety”. She added that UAE officials would continue to work with UN panels investigating alleged violations of UN Resolution 1970. Bloomberg said it also contacted LNA officials with questions about the alleged secret UAE flights, but received no response.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 May 2020 | Permalink

Czech intelligence foiled North Korean plan to smuggle arms through Africa

Czech Security Information ServiceThe Czech intelligence services foiled a secret plan by North Korea to smuggle weapons parts and surveillance drones, leading to the expulsion of a North Korean diplomat from the country, according to a report. The report, published this week by the Czech daily Deník N, claims that the alleged plot was foiled by the Czech Security Information Service, known as BIS.

According to Deník N, the alleged plot took place in 2012 and 2013. It was initiated by a North Korean diplomat who was serving at the DPRK’s embassy in Berlin as an economic attaché. However, claims Deník N, the diplomat was in fact operating on behalf of the North Korean intelligence services. The unnamed diplomat allegedly traveled to Prague and contacted a local businessman, seeking to purchase spare parts for use in Soviet-built T-54 and T-55 tanks, as well as spare parts for armored vehicles and jet airplanes. The diplomat also sought to purchase surveillance drones, according to the newspaper.

The buyers reportedly planned to smuggle the acquired weapons parts and drones to North Korea through ports in Africa and China, said Deník N. Such an act would have violated the international embargo that has been in place against the DPRK since 2006. However, the plot was foiled by the BIS, which informed the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Czech government eventually detained the diplomat and expelled him from the country, said Deník N.

Following the newspaper article, BIS spokesperson Ladislav Šticha said that he “could not comment on the details” of the case, but could confirm that “in the past BIS has indeed managed to prevent trade in weapons from the Czech Republic to the DPRK”. Hours later, the BIS posted on its Twitter account that it could not comment “on the details of this case”, but added that “its outcome was very successful”.

IntelNews regulars will remember a similar report in the German media in 2018, according to which North Korea used its embassy in Berlin to acquire technologies that were almost certainly used to advance its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2020 | Permalink

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

Malaysia assassination highlights North Korea’s network of front companies

North KoreaThe sensational assassination of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, on February 13, revealed much about the current operational mindset of Pyongyang. But it also brought to light the shady network of front companies set up by the North Korean regime to facilitate the country’s illicit financial activities around the world. This extensive network permits Pyongyang to evade international sanctions against it, and to coordinate the activities of hundreds of clandestine operatives around the world. Through these activities, the reclusive country has been able to develop its weapons of mass destruction program unabated, despite concerted efforts by the United Nations to prevent it from doing so.

Writing for Forbes, Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, notes that the UN has for many years employed sanctions to “block international financial and material support for North Korean nuclear and missile development efforts”. But now the UN’s own experts have concluded that Pyongyang has been able to evade these sanctions so skillfully that it has “largely eviscerated the intent and impact of UN sanctions resolutions”. How has it done so? Mostly through a network of countries that routinely turn a blind eye to North Korea’s illicit activities. These include several countries in the Middle East, as well as Singapore, China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Pyongyang maintains an extensive network of front companies in these countries, says Snyder, with the main purpose of enabling it to evade international sanctions against it.

Malaysia has been a primary hub of North Korean illicit activity. In that, Pyongyang has been crucially assisted by the fact that —until last week— North Korean citizens could travel to Malaysia without entry visas. Malaysia thus provides a useful base for dozens of North Korean front companies, such as Glocom, which ostensibly markets radio communications equipment, or Pan Systems Pyongyang, which just happens to trade in exactly the kind of commercial items that could be described as “dual-use goods” in UN sanctions resolutions. Pan Systems is connected to several Malaysian-based subsidiaries, including International Global Systems and International Golden Services, which, according to investigators, are operated by North Korean intelligence.

Many of these companies also serve as exporting and importing hubs for Pyongyang. In the last five years, several ships have been intercepted while carrying illicit cargo dispatched from North Korea or destined for the reclusive state. In one such instance in 2013, the Jie Shun, a Cambodian-registered ship with a North Korean crew, was found to be carrying over 30,000 rocket propelled grenades hidden under thousands of tons of iron ore. The shipment was intended for an “undisclosed Middle Eastern destination”, says Snyder and was traced to a firm called “Dalian Haoda Petroleum Chemical Company Ltd.”. Many of these mysterious firms are headquartered in China, registered in Hong Kong, but actually work on behalf of North Korea, often using banking facilities in Europe and the United States to conduct financial transactions.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 March 2017 | Permalink

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

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

Italian mafia may be supplying weapons to ISIS, say investigators

AK-47Organized criminal groups in southern Italy may be supplying assault weapons to groups and individuals that are associated with the Islamic State, according to European investigators. British newspaper The Guardian said last week that security officials in Italy, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe have traced weapons used by Islamists to at least one arms cache that entered the European black market through a Sicilian crime family with links to the mafia.

According to The Guardian, the initial link to the supply of weapons seems to originate with an organized criminal family in Catania, on Sicily’s eastern coast. The family, known locally as the “Ceusi”, is part of the “Santopaula” clan, which is the dominant criminal network in that part of Italy. Investigators have confirmed that two years ago the Ceusi family purchased a cache of 160 deactivated AK-47s from AFG Security Corporation, a Slovakia-based European weapons dealer. The purchase of the weapons, for $40,000, was legal. But the Sicilian mafia then illegally reactivated the weapons by removing the deactivating metal pins that had been inserted into the weapons’ barrels. The reactivated weapons were then supplied to the ’Ndrangheta, the Italian organized crime network that operates in the region of Calabria, in the Italian mainland. In turn, the ’Ndrangheta, which specializes in the trafficking of contraband to and from Europe, sold many of these reactivated weapons to a smuggling ring headquartered in the Egyptian port of Alexandria.

It was the Egyptian network, say investigators, that sold the AK-47s to Islamist militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, who have close connections with the Islamic State in Syria and other Islamist groups. A few of the weapons even ended up in the hands of European Islamists in France and elsewhere. Much of the intelligence regarding the AK-47s comes from telephone intercepts, said The Guaridan. But the newspaper cautioned that concrete links between the Mafia and the Islamic State have not yet been established. Nevertheless, the paper said that, according to European investigators, “organized criminals are increasingly open to trading with extremists”, and there are mounting “signs of an even closer relationship between organized criminals and Islamists” operating in North Africa and the Middle East.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 July 2016 | Permalink

France seizes ship with ‘hundreds of weapons’ heading for Yemen

Combined Maritime ForcesThe United States says a ship carrying hundreds of weapons, which was captured by the French Navy in the Indian Ocean, originated from Iran, and that the cargo was destined for Yemeni rebels through Somalia. The ship was seized on March 20 by a French warship patrolling the Indian Ocean as part of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). The CMF is a multinational naval fleet that aims to implement United Nations sanctions on Somalia. The sanctions are designed to frustrate the activities of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked Somali militant group, and to put an end to maritime piracy in the Horn of Africa.

The ship carrying the weapons is believed to have been initially spotted by a French helicopter that was conducting surveillance flights in support of CMF’s mission. Soon after boarding the ship, French forces discovered large amounts of weaponry. A statement posted on the CMF website said that the ship was found to be carrying “several hundred AK47 assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons”. The French Ministry of Defense said that the vessel was not registered to any country and that the crew of 10 was multinational. All crew members were released after being questioned by their French captors.

An assessment of the ship’s capture by the US Department of Defense states that the arms shipment probably originated in Iran and that it was heading to Somalia. However, the most likely final destination of the cargo was not al-Shabaab, but Houthi rebels in Yemen. Iran is known to be supporting and funding Houthi rebels, who are Shiite and are fighting a bitter civil war against the country’s Saudi-supported Sunni government.

It is worth noting that the recent capture of the unregistered vessel is the third such seizure of a large cache of weapons heading for Yemen through Somalia since September. In the previous most recent case, an Australian Navy ship sailing off the coast of Oman intercepted a large cache of weapons being transported to Yemen. US sources speculated that the intercepted ship originated from Iran and was heading to Yemen.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 March 2016 | Permalink