Spy Vs Spy: The Secret Wars Waged In New Spooks' Playground
London Times, 11 February 2012
Azerbaijan: This small country is used to being a listening post, but its position at the centre of activity in the present climate is a big cause for concern. Sheera Frenkel reports from Baku.
In a warm café in central Baku, Shimon sips his Persian tea and grimaces at the unusually large snowdrifts outside. Nearby is the building that houses the Israeli Embassy — and Shimon's unofficial place of work. In all the years he has worked in Azerbaijan, he has only been to the building once.
Shimon is one of dozens of Israeli Mossad agents who work in Azerbaijan at any given time. His familiarity and comfort in the country are obvious as he speaks about various towns and cities that he has come to know.
“This is ground zero for intelligence work,” he said, having agreed to talk on condition of anonymity. “Our presence here is quiet, but substantial. We have increased our presence in the past year, and it gets us very close to Iran. This is a wonderfully porous country.”
Nestled between Iran and Russia, Azerbaijan has long been a listening post. But the recent tensions over Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions have brought the small country to the forefront and established it as a pivotal hub for the spy wars being conducted between Iran and the West.
According to Arastun Orujlu, a former Azeri counter-intelligence officer and director of the East-West Research Centre, the capital, Baku, is like Norway during the First World War. “Or like Casablanca was during the Second World War. Yes, exactly like this — it is at the centre of the spying.”
A few hours south of Baku is the border with Iran, which Shimon calls “the grey zone” for intelligence operatives. “There is a great deal of information there from people who regularly and freely travel across the borders. It is unregulated — almost. Except for the Iranians who are watching us watch them,” he said.
Dr Orujlu said that thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guard members were operating in Azerbaijan. He estimated that there were fewer agents from Israel's Mossad agency, but that they operated in a “more effective” way. “The Iranians act in the open, they want everyone to know that they are here. The Israelis are more subtle, like the Americans. But in the end everyone knows they are here too.”
In his previous work in counter-intelligence, Dr Orujlu tried to keep tabs on who was in the country and what they were working on. “But there are so many of them and we are a small country. They play above us,” he said.
Zazdusht Aleizada, who met The Times in the newspaper offices he runs, said the spy networks were an “open secret” in Baku. “We all know that they are here. The only secret is how much money they paid the Azerbaijani Government in bribes.”
It was a sentiment echoed by half a dozen officials. Many point to the Gabala mission defence complex in the north of the country, on the Russian-Azerbaijani border, as a hub for intelligence work. It is here that Russia, and increasingly the US and Europe, use advanced surveillance equipment and radio networks to monitor Iran. It was originally built during the Soviet era, but Dr Orujlu said that its equipment was now “lent out” to other agencies.
The US also built two massive installations in Azerbaijan: one in the south to monitor Iran, and another in the north to monitor Russia, officials in Baku said.
“There is a natural relationship between Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijan is a gateway to Iran,” said Kamil Salimov, a law professor at Baku University with former ties to the Government. About 16 per cent of Iranians are native Azeris, many of whom live in the northern part of Iran and enjoy visa-free travel between the two countries.
But tensions between the two countries have recently been on the rise, with the state-run Azerbaijani news service increasingly reporting the mistreatment of Azeris in Iran.
“There is anger over perceived Iranian arrogance, and the fact that Iran continues to support and grow ties with Armenia, with which Azerbaijan has a territorial dispute,” said Mehman Aliyev, director of the independent news agency Turan.
Israel has capitalised on such discontent and an open market in Azerbaijan, forging business and military links over the past two decades. Israel buys 30 per cent of its oil from Azerbaijan, and recently awarded a lucrative gas-drilling contract off the coast of southern Israel to an Azerbaijani company. Israel has also recently set up a factory outside Baku, which makes approximately one third of the parts for its drones. The unmanned aerial vehicles, which are used to gather intelligence, are also being sold to Azerbaijan amid speculation that a base is being constructed for a permanent mission over Iran.
“The Azerbaijani military force is already completed in sync with the Israeli and American systems,” Dr Orujlu said. “Largely because the Americans have been using Azerbaijan for medevacs from Afghanistan for years.” Shimon confirmed that the Israeli and Azerbaijani militaries were “well acquainted” with one another.
But for residents of Azerbaijan who maintain ties to Iran, the newfound closeness with Israel is a subject of distress.
A recent plot to attack the Israeli Embassy in Baku is being attributed to two young Azeris with ties to Iran. Their families said that their sons' cases were being blown out of proportion to set an example.
“Azerbaijan is increasingly speaking up against Iran,” Mr Aleizada said. He pointed to statements made by Azerbaijan's ruling Yeni Party this month that suggested changing the name of the country to “North Azerbaijan”, arguing that “South Azerbaijan” was under the control of Iran.
Tehran was worried by the statements, wondering how large a role Azerbaijan could play if the West chose to launch a military strike on Iran, Mr Aleizada said. “They sense that there is a growing distance between their country and ours. They have responded with threats, saying that they will start a war against their neighbouring states, including us, if they felt threatened by Israel. This is dangerous for us because we cannot stand against them alone and we are not sure how much the West will help us.”
Few believe that Azerbaijani soil would be used to host large standing armies or to launch an attack, but the nation's role in intelligence gathering could be invaluable.
Dr Orujlu said: “If an airstrike is launched against Iran, or Iran should fire missiles from its own soil, the early detection system in Gabala would be the first to know it. And so would Israel and their friends in the West.”
Phi Beta Iota: The two obvious questions: how much did the two NSA installations cost, and what specific outputs can be identified in the past year to warrant that cost? And second, does CIA have, right this minute, direct contact with the top ten journalists and top 100 academics, regardless of citizenship, for any country, much less all of them? [It is called citation analysis — one country, $1,000, update annually. Duh.]