Airport workers are particularly attractive recruits for criminal organizations
In a restroom stall in the departure hall of St. Thomas airport in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a recently hired worker waited in January with two taped-up bricks of cocaine until he heard the signal: stomping and knocking.
The airport worker reached down and passed the packages, weighing a total of nearly 5 pounds, under the partition separating him from the adjoining stall. His accomplice, whose face he wasn’t meant to see, stuffed them into a red backpack to take with him on a Spirit Airlines flight to Orlando, Fla.
Both were apprehended before the accomplice could board his flight. Court documents show that the worker, who had been with Hyannis, Mass.-based Cape Air for less than a year, was set to make $2,000 for getting the drugs into the departure hall.
The incident is among a spate of criminal activity since the recovery in air travel that has involved so-called airport insiders, those who have access to areas that for passengers would require security checks or be off-limits.
As air travel rebounds from its pandemic-era hibernation, the aviation industry has grappled with widespread disruption, near collisions of aircraft and rising workplace injuries. It is also wrestling with the growing threat of criminal gangs recruiting airport workers, according to law-enforcement authorities, government agencies and security specialists.
“This is a huge challenge,” said Peter Nilsson, head of Airpol, a European law-enforcement group tasked with fighting crime at airports. Tackling insider threats stemming from rapid hiring at airports is among Airpol’s top postpandemic priorities, he said.
“We raised a warning when, after the pandemic, we had all airports more or less in the world rehiring people,” he said.
Similar warnings about criminal groups targeting airport workers to be their accessories have come from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the U.K.’s National Crime Agency and Airports Council International, an industry group. A United Nations panel of aviation security experts this year listed the risk posed by airport workers colluding with criminal groups as one of six biggest security concerns currently facing civil aviation.
Airport workers are particularly attractive recruits for criminal organizations. Experts point to examples where baggage handlers have been recruited to shift contraband-filled suitcases from international flights onto domestic carousels, bypassing checks by customs security; runway workers have been tasked with planting narcotics in the panels of aircraft; and customs officials have been paid to wave through bags known to contain illicit items.
While there has always been some degree of threat posed by insiders, experts say the mass hiring after the dropping of pandemic-era travel restrictions has given criminal entities the chance to plant or recruit new accomplices as they work to re-establish their own operations.
Hundreds of thousands of new staff have joined the aviation industry, typically with less experience and security know-how. There has also been an increase in the use of temporary security passes, requiring less-thorough screening, to ease staffing shortages.
“You have the same criminal activities or the same terrorist groups that already wanted to attack aviation. They will find new people,” said Sonia Hifdi, head of aviation security policy at the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations’ aviation arm, which sets international standards for the global industry.
The combination of low pay at a time of high inflation and dissatisfaction among airport workers amid the postpandemic recovery is also making some more susceptible to criminal recruiters, experts warn.
“You’ve got unhappy people, people desperate for money and criminal organizations looking to expand their reach,” said Andy Blackwell, an analyst at ISARR, an aviation security specialist. “It’s fertile ground right now.”
Blackwell said the number of serious security incidents recorded by ISARR involving airport insiders worldwide so far this year is 48, up from 35 for all of 2022. Those include a cargo handler in Miami being arrested after allegedly stealing $1.2 million worth of Samsung cellphones from a DHL freight container, and two United Airlines bag handlers in San Francisco being charged with removing marijuana from checked luggage and sneaking it out disguised as trash in 20-gallon bin bags.
Security training was difficult to conduct during the pandemic and there has been a lot of pressure on resources to provide that training to new staff since then, which the U.N.’s ICAO said has added to the vulnerabilities. Workers who left their jobs while on furlough but who still have access codes to secure areas of airports and insider knowledge of operations also pose a risk, the agency said.
| Israel & the Middle East
High-Level Iranian Spy Ring Busted in Washington
The trail that leads from Tehran to D.C. passes directly through the offices of Robert Malley and the International Crisis Group
The Biden administration’s now-suspended Iran envoy Robert Malley helped to fund, support, and direct an Iranian intelligence operation designed to influence the United States and allied governments, according to a trove of purloined Iranian government emails. The emails, which were reported on by veteran Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon, writing in Semafor, and by Iran International, the London-based émigré opposition outlet which is the most widely read independent news source inside Iran, were published last week after being extensively verified over a period of several months by the two outlets. They showed that Malley had helped to infiltrate an Iranian agent of influence named Ariane Tabatabai into some of the most sensitive positions in the U.S. government—first at the State Department and now the Pentagon, where she has been serving as chief of staff for the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, Christopher Maier.
On Thursday, Maier told a congressional committee that the Defense Department is “actively looking into whether all law and policy was properly followed in granting my chief of staff top secret special compartmented information.”
The emails, which were exchanged over a period of several years between Iranian regime diplomats and analysts, show that Tabatabai was part of a regime propaganda unit set up in 2014 by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The Iran Experts Initiative (IEI) tasked operatives drawn from Iranian diaspora communities to promote Iranian interests during the clerical regime’s negotiations with the United States over its nuclear weapons program. Though several of the IEI operatives and others named in the emails have sought to portray themselves on social media as having engaged with the regime in their capacity as academic experts, or in order to promote better understanding between the United States and Iran, none has questioned the veracity of the emails.
The contents of the emails are damning, showing a group of Iranian American academics being recruited by the Iranian regime, meeting together in foreign countries to receive instructions from top regime officials, and pledging their personal loyalty to the regime. They also show how these operatives used their Iranian heritage and Western academic positions to influence U.S. policy toward Iran, first as outside “experts” and then from high-level U.S. government posts. Both inside and outside of government, the efforts of members of this circle were repeatedly supported and advanced by Malley, who served as the U.S. government’s chief interlocutor with Iran under both the Obama and the Biden administrations. Malley is also the former head of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which directly paid and credentialed several key members of the regime’s influence operation.
The IEI, according to a 2014 email from one Iranian official to one of Iran’s lead nuclear negotiators, “consisted of a core group of 6-10 distinguished second-generation Iranians who have established affiliation with the leading international think-tanks and academic institutions, mainly in Europe and the US.” The network was funded and supported by an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) official, Mostafa Zahrani, who was the point of contact between IEI operatives, and Iran’s then-Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
According to the correspondence, the IEI recruited several U.S.-based analysts, including Tabatabai, Ali Vaez, and Dina Esfandiary, all of whom willingly accepted Iranian guidance. These Middle East experts were then subsequently hired, credentialed, supported, and funded by Malley and the ICG where he was president from January 2018 until January 2021, when he joined the Biden administration. Malley was also ICG’s program director for Middle East and North Africa before the Obama administration tapped him in February 2014 to run negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal. Vaez joined the ICG in 2012 and served as Malley’s top deputy.
Emails quoted in the stories show that even once in government, Malley directed Vaez’s actions at ICG, sending him to Vienna where the Iranian and U.S. teams held nuclear negotiations. “Following the order of his previous boss Malley, Ali Vaez will come to Vienna,” Zahrani reportedly wrote Zarif in an April 3, 2014, email. “Who from our group do you instruct to have a meeting with him?”
Vaez wrote Zarif directly after the Iranian foreign minister expressed dissatisfaction with an ICG report on Iran. “As an Iranian, based on my national and patriotic duty,” wrote Vaez in an October 2014 email, “I have not hesitated to help you in any way; from proposing to Your Excellency a public campaign against the notion of [nuclear] breakout, to assisting your team in preparing reports on practical needs of Iran.”
These emails likely explain why Vaez was unable to obtain a security clearance in order to join Malley in the Biden administration. At the same time, they raise the question of why Malley sought to bring Vaez into the State Department in the first place, and why he remained in close operational contact with him even after he was denied a security clearance.
After the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was finalized in July 2015, ICG hired another IEI operative as a consultant—Adnan Tabatabai, not to be confused with Pentagon official Ariane Tabatabai. Like Vaez, Adnan Tabatabai also pledged to dedicate his efforts to the Iranian regime.
In an email from 2014, as the agreement was being negotiated, Adnan Tabatabai wrote to Zarif about the foreign minister’s meeting in Vienna with IEI operatives: “As you will have noticed, we are all very much willing to dedicate our capacities and resources to jointly working on the improvement of Iran’s foreign relations. Iran is our country, so we, too, feel the need and responsibility to contribute our share. When I say “we” I mean the very group you met.”
In early 2021, shortly before he joined the Biden administration, Malley brought a third IEI operative, Dina Esfandiary, into the ICG. ICG did not respond by press time to Tablet’s email requesting comment on its employees’ role in an Iranian spy ring.
In February 2021, Malley hired Ariane Tabatabai to join his Iran team at the State Department. The emails document her cloying determination to prove her worth to the Iranian regime. Shortly after the 2014 meeting in Vienna, Ariane Tabatabai sent Zahrani a link to an article she’d co-authored with Esfandiary. “As I mentioned last week, Dina and I wrote an article about the nuclear fuel of Bushehr [nuclear power plant] for the Bulletin which was published today. Our goal was to show what is said in the West—that Iran does not need more than 1500 centrifuges—is wrong, and that Iran should not be expected to reduce the number of its centrifuges.” Zahrani then forwarded the email to Zarif.
In June 2014, Ariane Tabatabai emailed Zahrani to say she’d been invited to conferences in Saudi Arabia and Israel and asked for his prior approval of her trips. “I would like to ask your opinion too and see if you think I should accept the invitation and go,” she wrote. Zahrani replied that “Saudi Arabia is a good case, but the second case [Israel] is better to be avoided.” She responded: “Thank you very much for your advice. I will take action regarding Saudi Arabia and will keep you updated on the progress.” There is no record of Tabatabai traveling to Israel.
A month later, she again wrote Zahrani asking for additional instructions. She’d been invited to join academic experts Gary Samore and William Tobey to brief House members on the Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Intelligence committees. “I am scheduled to go to the Congress to give a talk about the nuclear program,” she wrote the IRGC official. “I will bother you in the coming days. It will be a little difficult since both Will and Gary do not have favorable views on Iran.” Zahrani forwarded the email to Zarif.
Ariane Tabatabai’s correspondence with Zahrani offers clear evidence that Malley’s protégé was an active participant in a covert Iranian influence campaign designed to shape U.S. government policy in order to serve the interests of the Iranian regime. Her requests for guidance from top Iranian officials, which she appears to have faithfully followed, and her desire to harmonize her own words and actions with regime objectives, are hardly the behavior of an impartial academic, or a U.S. public servant. Tabatabai’s emails show her enthusiastically submitting to the control of top Iranian officials, who then guided her efforts to propagandize and collect intelligence on U.S. and allied officials in order to advance the interests of the Islamic Republic.
“I know what a spy network looks like,” says Peter Theroux, a veteran Mideast analyst who is now retired from the CIA, where he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal for his service. During his 25 years at the agency, Theroux was frequently called on to analyze the Iranian regime and its foreign spying and terror networks. “This is how recruited assets speak to their handling officers. There’s lots of the mood music around that correspondence saying, let me know what you need me to collect. It seems clear who’s the subordinate here—what you’d call responsive to tasking.”
| National Security
The Ongoing National Security Threats Posed by Senator Bob Menendez
The recent indictment of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) reads like the script of a B crime movie: A politician, three New Jersey businessmen, a shady trucking business, and envelopes and a safe deposit box stuffed with cash and gold bars. But the most important thru-line in the narrative isn’t the criminal charges. Rather, it is the national security threat raised by the espionage and counterintelligence concerns which run throughout the 39-page document. In sum, the government of Egypt–with whom the United States has an ostensible “critical defense partnership”–appears to have recruited the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The indictment explicitly lists five ways Menendez has already compromised U.S. national security, and implicitly reveals one ongoing threat Menendez poses as long as he continues to hold his current position.
1. Disclosing the United States’ Staffing Blueprint in its Egyptian Embassy
According to the indictment, on May 6, 2018, Menendez requested that the State Department provide him with non-public information regarding the number of people serving at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and their nationality. Upon receiving this information, Menendez texted that information to his then-girlfriend (now wife), Nadine Menendez, who forwarded it to an Egyptian businessman, Wael Hana, who in turn forwarded it to Egyptian officials. Notably, the senator requested this information from the State Department after having met with Nadine Menendez and Hana earlier that day.
Such tasking by the Egyptians would be consistent with classic modus operandi in a recruitment operation. One requests a seemingly innocuous document, that once is provided, gets their hooks into an agent-candidate. Indeed, the chronology that follows in the indictment indicates the senator had become compromised and increasing demands were then placed on him by the Egyptian officials and intermediaries.
Although the precise staffing numbers of a foreign embassy are not classified, they are considered sensitive because they can potentially be used to determine a foreign intelligence presence in that country. Foreign embassies are a primary focus for a domestic counterintelligence service. In addition, understanding the number of locals employed at the embassy offers opportunities for a domestic counterintelligence service to recruit those individuals to be their “eyes and ears” inside the embassy – even just to spot and assess potential targets who may be vulnerable.
2. Providing Advance Information on U.S. Military Aid
Because Menendez serves as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had the ability to place “holds” on pending military financing and sales, or to release those holds. That said, the direct negotiation of such financing and sales is an executive branch function, conducted by the State Department as the lead agency. The State Department reviews and approves this type of aid, based on certifications that a receiving country has met particular criteria – in the case of Egypt, this involved demonstrating commitments to human rights and democracy. Prior to the events described in the indictment, the United States had withheld or cancelled aid to Egypt due to concerns and objections regarding Egypt’s performance on this front.
In May 2018, Menendez provided – again using Nadine as an intermediary – non-public information to Egyptian officials regarding the release of military aid to Egypt. Menendez also personally met with Egyptian government and military officials in July 2018 in which he received briefing materials regarding Egypt’s foreign policy goals, and subsequently communicated that he would be approving their requests (lifting the holds) via his then-girlfriend. In so doing, Menendez apparently surreptitiously undermined the State Department’s leverage and negotiating power with the Egyptian government to the material benefit of Egypt. This was especially duplicitous since a few months earlier, Menendez raised the issue of human rights and democracy in Egypt in a bipartisan letter with senate colleagues to the State Department (which his office publicly released). Meanwhile, his secret backdoor assurances told Cairo they would be getting the military sales they wanted.
3. Ghostwriting a Letter Requesting U.S. Military Aid from the Government of Egypt
Also in May 2018, Nadine conveyed to Menendez a request from Egyptian government officials seeking his help in drafting a letter to lobby other senators to support providing Egypt with military aid. Menendez acquiesced, secretly writing a letter purporting to be from the Government of Egypt. In so doing, Menendez used his knowledge of his colleagues’ beliefs and concerns – ones that they no doubt would have shared or communicated with him on the understanding that they would not be shared with or used to directly benefit a foreign government – let alone to allow Egypt to present its case in a way that specifically addressed those concerns. In short, Menendez apparently used his insider knowledge to dupe his own colleagues (and by extension, the U.S. government) into believing that Egypt had, independently, considered the issues relevant to the U.S. Senate in determining whether to release military aid. (This episode has echoes of Paul Manafort, who in 2017 was caught by prosecutors ghost-writing an op-ed with an individual tied to Russian intelligence, Konstantin Kilimnik.). More broadly, these are additional signs of a successful foreign intelligence service’s covert influence operation.
4. Providing a Heads-Up on Questions U.S. Senators Intended to Ask of Egyptian Officials
In June 2021, Nadine arranged a meeting between Menendez and a senior Egyptian intelligence official in a hotel. Menendez provided the intelligence official with a copy of a news article reporting on questions that his colleagues in the Senate would be asking the official at a meeting the next day, about a human rights issue. A Twitter thread by reporter Amy Hawthorne links the date of the meeting with a visit by Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, who was visiting the United States and scheduled to meet with U.S. senators to answer questions regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Specifically, reporting at that time indicated that senators intended to question the intelligence chief regarding reports that the Saudi plane carrying Khashoggi’s assassins stopped in Cairo to pick up drugs used in his murder.
Although the report of the forthcoming line of questioning was in the U.S. media, Egypt may not have been aware of it or trusted its reliability. In proactively providing the news article to the intelligence official prior to their private meeting, Menendez would have assisted Egypt in preparing for such questions. If, indeed, the official in question was Egypt’s chief and the questioning was regarding the Khashoggi murder, Menendez’s advance warning would have been helping Egypt come up with a potential alternate or cover story regarding the Cairo stopover, undermining his colleagues’ fact-finding efforts on behalf of the United States. In fact, the indictment quotes Nadine following up with another Egyptian official, stating, “I just thought it would be better to know ahead of time what is being talked about and this way you can prepare your rebuttals.” What is particularly notable is that Menendez has championed himself a defender of democracy and human rights and had previously spoken about the need for Saudi Arabia’s leadership to suffer consequences for Khashoggi’s murder; yet, in this case, he apparently protected the Egyptians for any role they may have played in the murder of the U.S. resident and journalist.
5. The Ongoing National Security Threat Posed by Menendez in His Current Role
It is possible that the events laid out in the indictment represent the full breadth of interactions between Menendez and the Egyptian government. However, there is the distinct possibility that it is not, and that Egypt is in possession of other communications or actions taken by Menendez that the FBI has not yet uncovered or that has not been made public. The indictment notes that many of the meetings Menendez undertook with Egyptian officials took place without either his staff or other committee members being present. As a result, it is impossible to know how much leverage Egypt continues to have over Menendez, especially given that he is under criminal indictment and their release of any such information could worsen Menendez’s liability and his ability to raise funds for his defense. Under all these circumstances, Menendez is not suitable to continue to hold a position of public trust, given the number and nature of issues handled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate itself related to Egypt’s direct and indirect interests.
6. The Aftermath
Ordinarily in such spy scandals, there are repercussions when one side is caught, even amongst strategic partners. As such, do we expect that the Biden administration will sanction Egypt for running such an espionage operation against a powerful member of Congress? For example, will the United States declare persona non-grata (PNG) any officials from the Egyptian embassy in Washington? Such PNGs can be done quietly, but failure to do anything here will be seen as a sign of weakness. Finally, given Menendez’s historic antipathy for weapons sales to Turkey, as well as his hawkish stance on Iran, will there be any other foreign policy effects of this scandal? We will be watching this space.