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

Advertisements

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

Former CIA, NSA directors, retired generals, launch gun control group

HaydenFormer directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, as well as several 3- and 4-star generals and admirals have launched a new effort to control the sales of guns in the United States. The effort is certain to attract attention after last weekend’s deadly mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. The group, which calls itself Veterans Coalition for Common Sense, is led by former CIA Director David Petraeus, former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden, and US Army General (ret.) Stanely McChrystal. The group’s advisory committee includes recognizable figures such as that of Admiral Eric Olson, who led US Special Operations Command from 2007 to 2011 and was the first US Navy SEAL to be appointed to four-star rank. Other advisory committee members include high-ranking veterans from every branch of the US Armed Forces, such as R. Adm. Jamie Barnett, Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney and Air Force commander Lt. Gen. Norman Seip.

The group was formally launched at a press conference in Washington, DC, on Friday, just hours before Sunday morning’s mass shooting in Orlando. The organizers of the new effort said it came out of the 120,000-member strong Veterans for Responsible Solutions, a project spearheaded by USN R. Adm. Barnett in 2013, after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, which killed 15 people. Another group that has offered support for the new effort, and will act as its parent organization, is Americans for Responsible Solutions, a non-profit organization that promotes gun control in compliance with the US Constitution. It was founded shortly after the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtwon, CT, which killed 28. The organization’s founders are former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and his wife, Gabrielle Giffords, whose Congressional career was cut short in January 2011, after she and 18 other people were shot in Tucson, AZ.

During their press conference on Friday, Veterans Coalition for Common Sense leaders said each had “swore an oath to protect our Constitution and the homeland”. But they were now “asking our leaders to do more to protect our rights and save lives”, they added. The group said they aimed to encourage their elected representatives to “do more to prevent gun tragedies”, including closing legal loops on gun background checks, strengthening gun control laws more broadly, and focusing on the mental health component that appears to be part of many mass shootings. In a separate development, another former Director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, said on Monday that “an assault weapons ban makes sense, at least to me”. In an interview with news site OZY, McLaughlin said that, in his personal view, “it is way past time for an assault weapons ban”.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 14 June 2016 | Permalink

Opinion: Islamic State’s strategy will affect America’s gun control debate

Orlando shootingOut of the myriad of questions emerging from Sunday morning’s massacre in Orlando, two are perhaps most pressing. One concerns internal security in the United States; the other relates to the broad strategy of the Islamic State, the militant Sunni Muslim group that claimed responsibility for the bloody attack. The two topics are closely related.

Like most issues in modern-day America, the topic of internal security is heavily politicized, with public debate dominated by Democratic and Republican partisans. Predictably, each side is using Sunday’s massacre to advance its political agenda. It cannot be denied that, rightly or wrongly, gun ownership is a deeply entrenched feature in the American understanding of citizenship for a variety of social and historical reasons. It is equally undeniable that America’s liberal gun laws make it extremely easy for aspiring terrorists to acquire weapons. Recent mass shootings show that even those with documented mental illnesses or individuals who have been questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for possible links to terrorism, like Omar Mateen, are legally able to purchase high-powered weapons. This reduces the number of people that are needed to inflict mass casualties and directly assists the work of terrorist groups. Furthermore, the ability of aspiring terrorists to legally acquire high-powered weaponry exceeds America’s law enforcement and intelligence capabilities, and thus directly threatens the security of daily life in the country.

Judging by other recent mass shootings, and the speed with which the relentless news cycle moves on to other stories, this latest massacre is unlikely to have a major impact on US gun laws. However, if the attack in Orlando proves to be part of a broader strategy by the Islamic State, then the center of the debate on gun control in America may shift in unprecedented directions.

Most commentators agree that the Islamic State is currently retreating not only in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds, but also in Libya, where it appears to be losing its control of the strategic port of Sirte. The possibility of losing its territorial base may radically alter the group’s modus operandi and strategic goals. Historically, the Islamic State has focused on what can be described as its core terrain, which includes Iraq, Syria, the Sinai Peninsula, and to a lesser extent Jordan and Lebanon. Back in 2014, Islamic State leaders could have urged the group’s tens of thousands of followers in the West to carry out the jihad there. But they didn’t, because the grand strategy of the Islamic State is to secure a territorial base in the Middle East before taking on bigger tasks. Islamic State supporters were therefore urged to join the fight to establish a territorially secure caliphate in the Middle East instead of attacking Western targets. The latter have of course been attacked, but this has been done primarily for two reasons: first, to discourage Western countries from getting directly involved in the war against the Islamic State; second, to encourage Islamophobia in the West and further-marginalize already disaffected Western Muslim youth, driving them to join the Islamic State.

But should the militant Sunni group be territorially defeated, it might decide to change its tactic and begin unleashing its followers in the West. Or if it is sensing that it is losing control of its self-proclaimed caliphate, it may already be already changing its strategy. There is currently no evidence that Omar Mateen was in touch with the Islamic State prior to committing Sunday’s massacre. But if he did, the Orlando massacre may have been an early indication of the Islamic State’s change of direction. Perhaps, then, the US is in for a lot more of these carefully targeted and lethally executed strikes.

It may be that the blood of over 50 people spilled in Orlando will not seriously affect the gun control debate. But if these killings increase in frequency and lethality, American society will face a number of unprecedented dilemmas that combine the issues of gun rights, domestic security and citizenship.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 13 June 2016 | Permalink

Turkey arrests senior official for selling weapons plans to US-based firm

MKE TurkeyA senior official of Turkey’s state-run weapons manufacturer has been arrested on espionage charges, after he was caught selling weapons blueprints to the employee of an arms firm based in the United States. The official was named by Turkish authorities as Mustafa Tanriverdi, the general manager of one of Turkey’s largest weapons production facilities, located in the town of Kirikkale, 50 miles east of Turkish capital Ankara. Tanriverdi is reportedly employed by the Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation (MKE), a government-run manufacturing firm that provides much of the Turkish Armed Forces’ weaponry. The company also has a growing list of international buyers, which includes nearly 30 foreign governments.

Tanriverdi was arrested on Thursday by undercover members of Turkey’s security services, as he was leaving a restaurant in Ankara. Moments earlier, he had sold design blueprints and production plans for two MKE-manufactured weapons. According to Turkish authorities, the plans related to two Turkish-designed weapons, namely the MPT-76 infantry rifle and the MP-5 submachine gun. Tanriverdi is accused of having sold the information on the weapons for nearly $500,000 to an unnamed man working for a Turkish-owned weapons manufacturer that is based in the US.

Reports in the Turkish media said the man who purchased Tanriverdi’s documents is a US-based Turkish business executive. But his name remains unknown, as he is identified only as K.K. in news reports. Allegedly, K.K. had notified Turkish authorities about Tanriverdi and was himself part of a sting operation aimed at apprehending the Turkish official. The latter has now been charged with espionage, disloyalty to the Turkish state and exploiting state secrets for financial gain. He is said to have told the authorities that he did not sell classified information but was instead striking a “legitimate business agreement” with a man he thought was a weapons trader working for Turkey.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 April 2016 | Permalink

Somali officials divert arms to al-Qaeda-linked groups, UN says

Al-Shabaab militants in SomaliaBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
A confidential report by United Nations monitoring experts warns that senior members of Somalia’s federal government are systematically diverting weapons to al-Qaeda-linked groups operating in the country. In 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed a weapons embargo on Somalia, in an effort to prevent weapons from reaching a multitude of warring tribes that had plunged the country into a bloody civil war. Last March, however, the Council agreed to ease the embargo following persistent appeals by the Federal Government of Somalia. The latter argued that the two decades-long arms embargo prevented it from adequately defending itself and its population from al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group that controls large swathes of the Somali countryside. The easing of the embargo, which was supported by the United States, has allowed the government in Mogadishu to import much-needed military hardware such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers and automatic assault rifles. But a recent report from the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group has found that a significant portion of the advanced weaponry imported by Somalia following the relaxation of the embargo rules is ending up in the hands of paramilitary groups, including al-Shabaab. The confidential 14-page report, which has been seen by Reuters, was authored by a team of independent experts who are tasked with evaluating the extent to which the government of Somalia complies with weapons sanctions. The report concludes that the UN should restore the full weapons embargo in order to prevent advanced weaponry from falling into the arms of al-Shabaab. Read more of this post