Category Archives: Espionage

An Affordable and Risk Free Way to Kill: Drones

Armed drones have become ubiquitous in the Middle East, say Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi and Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, a British think-tank, in a recent report. America has jealously guarded the export of such aircraft for fear that they might fall out of government hands, be turned on protesters or used against Israel. America has also been constrained by the Missile Technology Control Regime, an arms-control agreement signed by 35 countries, including Russia, that restricts the transfer of particularly capable missiles and drones (both rely on the same underlying technology).

China…has sold missile-toting drones to Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All are American security partners…. Other countries, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran, have filled the gap with their own models.  America wants to muscle its way back into the market. In April 2018 the Trump administration began loosening export rules to let countries buy armed drones directly from defence companies rather than through official channels. Drones with “strike-enabling technology”, such as lasers to guide bombs to their targets, were reclassified as unarmed. American drones are costlier and require more paperwork than Chinese models, but are more capable. ..The flood of drones into the market is already making an impact—sometimes literally. Ms Tabrizi and Mr Bronk say some Middle Eastern customers see drones as an “affordable and risk-free” way to strike across borders… 

Drone Bayraktar made by Turkey

Non-state actors are unwilling to be left out of the party. The jihadists of Islamic State often used drones in Iraq and Syria. Hizbullah used drones when it hit 23 fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Syria in 2014. The Houthi drone that bombed Al-Anad looked a lot like an Iranian model. Last year the Houthis sent a similar one more than 100km (60 miles) into Saudi Arabia before it was shot down. ..

Excerpts from Predator Pricing: Weapon Sales, Economist,  Mar. 9, 2019

The Secret Powers of Saudi Arabia — Murder not Included

In 2016 Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto ruler, announced the latest stage of “Saudisation”—the replacement of foreign workers with Saudi ones. It now appears the policy does not stop at swapping out bankers and bakers, but extends to ballistic missiles.  Satellite photos analysed by researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and reported by the Washington Post, appear to show that Saudi Arabia has been building a factory for rocket engines, at an existing missile base in al-Watah, south-west of Riyadh. It seems to be configured for solid-fuel rockets, which can be launched more quickly than liquid-fuelled ones….he rocket factory was “designed, equipped and constructed by an outside entity”. Saudi Arabia has “no capacity” for such a project. The facility, he notes, closely resembles a Chinese one in Lantian.

Saudi Arabia is no newcomer to missiles. Having watched Iran and Iraq fling them at each other during the 1980s, it bought a few dozen df-3 missiles from China in 1987. It came close to unleashing them after being struck by Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf war in 1991. In the 2000s it probably picked up a batch of newer, more accurate Chinese df-21s.

Iran, the kingdom’s arch-rival, has been honing its missile force despite Western opposition and un rebukes, conducting 135 test launches since 1990. On December 1st, 2018  it tested one thought capable of comfortably reaching any corner of Saudi soil….Nor is Iran the only concern. Hizbullah, a Lebanese militant group nurtured and armed by Iran, has a growing arsenal of missiles; some can already reach the north-western parts of Saudi Arabia. Israel is also armed to the teeth. Though Prince Muhammad is on good terms with the Jewish state, satellite images published in 2013 reportedly showed that one of the Saudi df-3 launching pads at al-Watah was set in the direction of Tel Aviv.

Because missiles are ideal delivery systems for nuclear weapons, news of the plant has also revived worries about Saudi Arabia’s atomic intentions…Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb,” warned Prince Muhammad last March, “we will follow suit

So the Saudis may turn to other nuclear friends. Western diplomats and spooks have long been concerned that Pakistan, whose own nuclear programme was bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, might be a ready supplier of know-how, fuel or bombs. In 1999 Saudi Arabia’s then defence minister horrified American officials by touring Pakistan’s nuclear facilities and meeting A.Q. Khan, the scientist who sold nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Ties remain close. Prince Muhammad was due to agree on $14bn of investment in Pakistan during a visit to the country on February 16th.  2019. ….

Excerpts from Protection rocket Saudi Arabia’s missile race, Economist, Feb. 16, 2019

How Iranian Oil Escapes US Sanctions

 At least two tankers have ferried Iranian fuel oil to Asia in February 2019 despite U.S. sanctions against such shipments, according to a Reuters analysis of ship-tracking data and port information, as well as interviews with brokers and traders.  The shipments were loaded onto tankers with documents showing the fuel oil was Iraqi. But three Iraqi oil industry sources and Prakash Vakkayil, a manager at United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipping services firm Yacht International Co, said the papers were forged.  The people said they did not know who forged the documents, nor when.

“Some buyers…will want Iranian oil regardless of U.S. strategic objectives to deny Tehran oil revenue, and Iran will find a way to keep some volumes flowing,” said Peter Kiernan, lead energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.  While the United States has granted eight countries temporary waivers allowing limited purchases of Iranian crude oil, these exemptions do not cover products refined from crude, including fuel oil, mainly used to power the engines of large ships. Documents forwarded to Reuters by ship owners say a 300,000 tonne-supertanker, the Grace 1, took on fuel oil at Basra, Iraq, between Dec. 10 and 12, 2018. But Basra port loading schedules reviewed by Reuters do not list the Grace 1 as being in port during those dates.  One Iraqi industry source with knowledge of the port’s operations confirmed there were no records of the Grace 1 at Basra during this period. 

Grace 1 oil tanker

Reuters examined data from four ship-tracking information providers – Refinitiv, Kpler, IHS Markit and Vessel Finder – to locate the Grace 1 during that time. All four showed that the Grace 1 had its Automatic Identification System (AIS), or transponder, switched off between Nov. 30 and Dec. 14, 2018, meaning its location could not be tracked.  The Grace 1 then re-appeared in waters near Iran’s port of Bandar Assaluyeh, fully loaded, data showed. The cargo was transferred onto two smaller ships in UAE waters in January, from where one ship delivered fuel oil to Singapore in February 2019.  Shipping documents showed about 284,000 tonnes of fuel oil were transferred in the cargoes tracked by Reuters, worth about $120 million at current prices…

One of those vessels, the 130,000 tonne-capacity Kriti Island, offloaded fuel oil into a storage terminal in Singapore around Feb. 5 to 7. Reuters was unable to determine who purchased the fuel oil for storage in Singapore.  The Kriti Island is managed by Greece’s Avin International SA… Avin International’s Chief Executive Officer George Mylonas told Reuters. Mylonas confirmed the Kriti Island took on fuel oil from the Grace 1.There is no indication that Avin International knowingly shipped Iranian fuel oil. Mylonas said his firm had conducted all necessary due diligence to ensure the cargo’s legitimate origin….

Kriti Island oil tanker

Excerpts from Roslan Khasawneh et al, Exclusive: How Iran fuel oil exports beat U.S. sanctions in tanker odyssey to Asia, Reuters, Mar. 20, 2019

Satellites and Algorithms against Slaveholders

Brick kilns, tens of thousands across South Asia are often run on forced labor.  Satellite imagery of such kilns can help tally the kilns, enabling organizations on the ground to target slaveholders at the sites…

Some 40.3 million people are held in bondage today, according to the latest estimates from the International Labor Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. But finding them is hard… Boyd who works for the Rights Lab estimates, however, that one-third of all slavery is visible from space, whether in the scars of kilns or illegal mines or the outlines of transient fish-processing camps.

Boyd is now using artificial intelligence to speed up the search. As a pilot project, she and her colleagues at the Rights Lab used crowdsourced visual searchers to identify brick kilns. The oval shape of the large ovens, sometimes 150 meters long, and their chimneys are distinctive, even from space. “You cannot mix them up with something else,” Boyd says.

Since then, Boyd has turned to machine-learning algorithms that recognize the kilns after being trained on the human-tagged examples. Last month, in the journal Remote Sensing, she and her colleagues reported that the algorithms could correctly identify 169 of 178 kilns in Google Earth data on one area of Rajasthan, although it also output nine false positives…

Another company, called Planet, has about 150 small satellites that snap images of the globe’s entire landmass daily. The images are lower-resolution than DigitalGlobe’s, but their frequency opens up opportunities to identify changes over time.With Planet data, Boyd and the Rights Lab plan to investigate fast moving signatures of slavery. From space, you can watch a  harvest in Turkmenistan and, based on how quickly the cotton disappears, you can tell whether machines or hands picked it. In the Sundarbans, an area spanning India and Bangladesh, shrimp farms and fish-processing camps employ slave labor to clear mangrove trees—a process satellites can capture.

Excerpts from Sarah Scoles, Researchers Spy Signs of Slavery from Space, Science, Feb. 21, 2018

After Khashoggi: the Saudi Missiles

Satellite images suggest that Saudi Arabia has constructed its first known ballistic missile factory, according to weapons experts and image analysts, a development that raises questions about the kingdom’s increasing military and nuclear ambitions under its 33-year-old crown prince.  If operational, the suspected factory at a missile base in al-Watah, southwest of Riyadh, would allow Saudi Arabia to manufacture its own ballistic missiles, fueling fears of an arms race against its regional rival Iran.  Saudi Arabia currently does not possess nuclear weapons, so any missiles produced at the apparent factory are likely to be conventionally armed. But a missile-making facility would be a critical component of any eventual Saudi nuclear weapons program, hypothetically giving the kingdom capability to produce the preferred delivery systems for nuclear warheads.

Two additional missile experts who reviewed the satellite images for The Washington Post… agreed that the high-resolution photographs of the al-Watah site appear to depict a ­rocket-engine production and test facility, probably using solid fuel…The complex…highlights the nation’s intention to make its own advanced missiles after years of seeking to purchase them abroad, at times successfully….

Saudi Arabia has been pursuing a nuclear power-plant deal with the United States that would potentially include allowing it to produce nuclear fuel. The kingdom’s insistence on domestic fuel production has raised worries among U.S. officials that the kingdom wants the atomic power project not only for civil use but also for covert weapon-making purposes. ..

How the Saudis obtained the technological expertise necessary to build the facility is unclear. One potential supplier: China…China has sold ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the past and has helped supply ballistic missile production capabilities to other nations. In the 1990s, Pakistan secretly built a plant for medium-range missiles using blueprints and equipment supplied by China. The factory in Pakistan has long drawn the attention of top Saudi officials. ..

The main way the United States seeks to prevent the spread of drone and missile technology is through the Missile Technology Control Regime, or the MTCR, an informal multicountry pact designed to prevent the transfer of certain missile technologies. China is not a member but has agreed to abide by some of its stipulations.   While the United States sells an array of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, Washington has not sold ballistic missiles to Riyadh, in part because such missiles traditionally have been seen as destabilizing for the region. Saudi Arabia has turned to China in the past when met with refusals from the United States for certain weapons requests.

For example, the United States declined repeated Saudi requests to purchase what are known as category-one American drones, including Predators and Reapers, partly because of MTCR’s regulations. Instead, the kingdom turned to China, first purchasing drones and later striking a deal in which China will build a drone factory that will produce a Chinese copycat of the Predator in Saudi Arabia.

Excerpts Paul Sonne, Can Saudi Arabia produce ballistic missiles? Satellite imagery raises suspicions, Washington Post, Jan. 22, 2019

Natural Gas and Freedom

[A] tanker chartered by Cheniere Energy, an American company, left a Louisiana port this week with the first major exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas, or LNG. This shipment isn’t going to Europe, but others are expected to arrive by spring.  “Like shale gas was a game changer in the U.S., American gas exports could be a game changer for Europe,” said Maros Sefcovic, the European Union’s energy chief.

Many in Europe see U.S. entry into the market as part of a broader effort to challenge Russian domination of energy supplies and prices in this part of the world. Moscow has for years used its giant energy reserves as a strategic tool to influence former satellite countries, including Lithuania, one of the countries on the fringes of Russia that now see a chance to break away.

Some are building the capacity to handle seaborne LNG, including Poland, which opened its first import terminal in 2015. In Bulgaria, which buys about 90% of its gas from Russia, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said last month that supplies of U.S. gas could arrive via Greek LNG facilities, “God willing.”… Deutsche Bank estimates the U.S. could catch up with Russia as Europe’s biggest gas supplier within a decade, with each nation controlling around a fifth of the market. Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas via pipeline….The U.S. will compete with Russia, Norway, U.K., Australia and others in Europe’s gas market. Germany, for example, gets half its gas and Italy a third from Russia.Low prices also mean natural gas could compete with coal and help Europe achieve its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions .In Lithuania, officials have accused Moscow of engaging in a campaign of espionage and cyberwarfare to keep its share of the lucrative energy market….

Bulgarian officials allege Russia bankrolled a wave of street protests in 2012 that forced the government to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration. In 2014, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then-head of NATO, told reporters that Russia was covertly funding European environmental organizations to campaign against shale gas to help maintain dependence on Russian gas.

Until 2014, Gazprom owned 37% of Lithuania’s national gas company, Lietuvos Dujos, and dominated its boardroom, said current and former officials.“There was no negotiation about gas prices,” said Jaroslav Neverovic, Lithuania’s energy minister from 2012 to 2014. He said Gazprom would send Lietuvos Dujos a list of gas prices, which the board automatically approved..  In 2015,  [though] Lithuania began receiving Norwegian LNG, reducing Gazprom’s gas monopoly to a market share of less than 80%. In the months before the terminal opened, Gazprom lowered Lithuanian gas prices by 23% and it remained cheaper than Norwegian gas. Still, Lithuania plans to increase its purchase of Norwegian gas this year. The U.S. is next….

Klaipeda’s mayor, Mr. Grubliauskas, said during a recent interview at his office, decorated with photographs of U.S. naval drills in the port: “U.S. LNG is more than just about gas. It’s about freedom.”

Excerpts With U.S. Gas, Europe Seeks Escape From Russia’s Energy Grip, WSJ, Feb. 26, 2016

Shut-out, Cut-off and Suicidal: Aliens v. America

The United States leads the world in punishing corruption, money-laundering and sanctions violations. In the past decade it has increasingly punished foreign firms for misconduct that happens outside America. Scores of banks have paid tens of billions of dollars in fines. In the past 12 months several multinationals, including Glencore and ZTE, have been put through the legal wringer. The diplomatic row over Huawei, a Chinese telecoms-equipment firm, centres on the legitimacy of America’s extraterritorial reach.

America has taken it upon itself to become the business world’s policeman, judge and jury. It can do this because of its privileged role in the world economy. Companies that refuse to yield to its global jurisdiction can find themselves shut out of its giant domestic market, or cut off from using the dollar payments system and by extension from using mainstream banks. For most big companies that would be suicidal.

But as the full extent of extraterritorial legal activity has become clearer, so have three glaring problems.  First, the process is disturbingly improvised and opaque. Cases rarely go to court and, when they are settled instead, executives are hit with gagging orders. Facing little scrutiny, prosecutors have applied ever more expansive interpretations of what counts as the sort of link to America that makes an alleged crime punishable there; indirect contact with foreign banks with branches in America, or using Gmail, now seems to be enough. Imagine if China fined Amazon $5bn and jailed its executives for conducting business in Africa that did not break American law, but did offend Chinese rules and was discussed on WeChat.

Second, the punishments can be disproportionate. In 2014 bnp Paribas, a French bank, was hit with a sanctions-related fine of $8.9bn, enough to threaten its stability. In April ZTE, a Chinese tech firm with 80,000 employees, was banned by the Trump administration from dealing with American firms; it almost went out of business. The ban has since been reversed, underlining the impression that the rules are being applied on the hoof.

Third, America’s legal actions can often become intertwined with its commercial interests. As our investigation this week explains, a protracted bribery probe into Alstom, a French champion, helped push it into the arms of General Electric, an American industrial icon. American banks have picked up business from European rivals left punch-drunk by fines. Sometimes American firms are in the line of fire—Goldman Sachs is being investigated by the doj for its role in the 1mdb scandal in Malaysia. But many foreign executives suspect that American firms get special treatment and are wilier about navigating the rules.

America has much to be proud of as a corruption-fighter. But, for its own good as well as that of others, it needs to find an approach that is more transparent, more proportionate and more respectful of borders. If it does not, its escalating use of extraterritorial legal actions will ultimately backfire. It will discourage foreign firms from tapping American capital markets. It will encourage China and Europe to promote their currencies as rivals to the dollar and to develop global payments systems that bypass Uncle Sam…. Far from expressing geopolitical might, America’s legal overreach would then end up diminishing American power.

Excerpts from Tackling Corruption: Judge Dread, Economist, Jan. 19, 2019