US arrests Mexican man for spying for Russia in mystery case involving informant

FBI MiamiThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested a Mexican man, who is accused of spying in the city of Miami on behalf of the Russian government. Local media reports suggest that the target of the man’s spying was a Russian defector who gave American authorities information about Russian espionage activities on US soil.

In a news release issued on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice identified the man as Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, a Mexican citizen residing in Singapore. The statement said that Fuentes was arrested on Monday and was charged with “conspiracy” and “acting within the United States on behalf of a foreign government”.

According to the statement, Fuentes was recruited in April of 2019 by an unnamed Russian government official. His first assignment was to rent an apartment in Miami-Dade County using fake identification. One he carried out the assignment, Fuentes allegedly traveled to Russia, where he briefed his handler. He was then asked to return to Miami and drive to an apartment complex, where he was to observe a vehicle belonging to an individual that the Department of Justice statement describes as a “US government source”. Fuentes was tasked with providing his Russian handler with the vehicle’s license plate number.

Having been given a detailed physical description of the vehicle by his Russian handler, Fuentes drove to the apartment complex in Miami, but was stopped at the entrance to the complex by a security guard. While Fuentes was speaking with the security guard, Fuentes’ wife allegedly exited the car and took a photograph of the vehicle in question. According to the FBI, she later shared the photograph with Fuentes’ Russian handler on the mobile phone application WhatsApp. The photograph was discovered by US Customs and Border Protection agents on the smartphone of Fuentes’ wife on Sunday, as the pair tried to board a flight to Mexico City.

The US Department of Justice news release does not identify Fuentes’ alleged espionage target. But an article in The Miami Herald claims that the target is an FBI informant who has provided the Bureau’s counterintelligence division with critical information about Russian espionage operations in the Miami area. Fuentes is scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial detention hearing this coming Friday. His arraignment has been scheduled for March 3. The press release does not explain why Fuentes’ wife was not arrested.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2020 | Permalink

WhatsApp sues Israeli firm for enabling spy attacks on 1,400 users worldwide

NSO GroupThe Facebook-owned company WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against a leading Israeli technology firm, accusing it of enabling governments around the world to spy on 1,400 high-profile users, including politicians and diplomats. The Reuters news agency said it spoke to “people familiar” with the investigation into the spy scandal, which it says was launched “earlier this year”.

What is interesting about the case, says Reuters, is that a “significant” proportion of the hundreds of WhatsApp users who were targeted by governments worldwide are “high profile” officials. The victims reportedly serve in various government agencies, including the armed forces, of at least 20 countries on five continents. They allegedly include politicians, diplomats, military officers, academics, journalists, lawyers and human-rights activists in countries such as the United States, India, Mexico, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.

WhatsApp alleges that the spy activities against these individuals were enabled by NSO Group, an Israeli software development company that specializes in surveillance technologies. The Facebook-owned company alleges that NSO Group specifically developed a hacking platform that allows its users to exploit flaws in WhatsApp’s servers in order to gain access to the telephone devices of targeted individuals. At least 1,400 of WhatsApp’s users had their telephones compromised between April 29 and May 10, 2019, says WhatsApp.

NSO Group, whose clientele consists exclusively of government agencies worldwide, denies any wrongdoing. The company claims that its products are designed to “help governments catch terrorists and criminals”, says Reuters. But WhatsApp and Citizen Lab, a research initiative based at the University of Toronto, which worked with WhatsApp on the NGO Group case, claim that at least 100 of the 1,400 victims were news journalists, political activists and the lawyers who defend them. There was no overlap between ongoing criminal or terrorism investigations and those targeted by NSO Group’s software, they claim.

The names on the list of espionage victims are not known. But Reuters said that, depending on how high-profile the victims are, the WhatsApp-NSO Group spy scandal could have worldwide political and diplomatic consequences.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 November 2019 | Permalink

Joint US-Iraqi intelligence operation used cell phone app to trap senior ISIS figures

Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiAn joint operation conducted by American and Iraqi intelligence officers employed a popular messaging app on the phone of a captured Islamic State commander to apprehend four very senior figures in the organization, according to reports. The Reuters news agency said on Thursday that the ambitious intelligence operation began in February, when Turkish authorities captured a close aide to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi-born leader of the group known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Hisham al-Hashimi, security advisor to the government of Iraq, the ISIS aide was Ismail al-Eithawi, also known by his alias, Abu Zaid al-Iraqi. Iraqi officials claim that al-Eithawi was appointed by al-Baghdadi to handle the secret transfer of ISIS funds to bank accounts around the world.

It appears that al-Eithawi had managed to escape to Turkey when the United States-led coalition shattered ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate. But he was captured by Turkish counterterrorism forces and handed over to Iraqi authorities. Baghdad then shared the contents of al-Eithawi’s cell phone with US intelligence officers. The latter were able to help their Iraqi counterparts utilize the popular messaging app WhatsApp, a version of which was installed on al-Eithawi’s cell phone. According to al-Hashimi, the Iraqis and Americans made it seem like al-Eithawi was calling an emergency face-to-face meeting between senior ISIS commanders in the area. But when these Syria-based commanders crossed into Iraq to meet in secret, they were captured by Iraqi and American forces.

According to al-Hashimi, those captured include a Syrian and two Iraqi ISIS field commanders. More importantly, they include Saddam Jamal, a notorious ISIS fighter who rose through the ranks to become the organization’s governor of the Euphrates’ region, located on Syria’s east. Al-Hashimi told reporters on Thursday that Jamal and al-Eithawi were the most senior ISIS figures to have ever been captured alive by US-led coalition forces. The Iraqi government advisor also said that al-Eithawi’s captors were able to uncover a treasure trove of covert bank accounts belonging to ISIS, as well as several pages of secret communication codes used by the militant group.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 May 2018 | Permalink