Special Report: Iran’s cat-and-mouse game on sanctions

Here’s another REUTERS Special Report that I helped put together:

By Rachel Armstrong, Stephen Grey and Himanshu Ojha

SINGAPORE | Wed Feb 15, 2012 8:30am EST

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Just before noon on a sticky, overcast Saturday morning earlier this month a truck carrying two white containers waited at an electronic checkpoint to leave Singapore’s main port. The containers bore the bright red letters IRISL, the initials of Iran’s cargo line, which has been blacklisted by the United Nations, United States and European Union.

Anchored just off Singapore’s playground island of Sentosa that same day, the container ship Valili was also stacked high with IRISL boxes. A couple of miles to the east the Parmis, another container ship, also carried IRISL crates. Shipping movements data tracked by Reuters shows the Parmis had pulled into Singapore waters from the northern Chinese port of Tianjin early that morning.

The ships and containers are key parts in an international cat-and-mouse game, as Iran attempts to evade the trade sanctions tightening around it. Washington and European capitals want to stop or slow Iran’s nuclear program. They believe Iran Shipping Lines(IRISL), which moves nearly a third of Iran’s exports and imports and is central to the country’s trade, plays a critical role in evading sanctions designed to stop the movement of controlled weapons, missiles and nuclear technology to and from Iran.

IRISL would not comment for this story. Last June the company said in an interview that there was no evidence it had been involved in arms trafficking. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and that IRISL has no links with any weapons program. Tehran complained vigorously last June when the European Union followed the United States with beefed-up sanctions that banned new contracts with IRISL. A United Nations resolution forces all states to inspect IRISL’s cargo.

But many in the West hold up IRISL as exhibit A for Iran’s ability to evade sanctions because the shipping line regularly reflags its ships and changes their official owners.

An analysis of shipping data sheds new light on that deception. Using data from IHS Fairplay, a ship tracking group that uses ship registration documents from various sources, and Reuters Freight Fundamentals Database, which compiles location data from every ship’s Automatic Identification System, shows that despite the sanctions 130 of the 144 banned ships in IRISL’s fleet continue to call at many of the world’s major ports hidden behind a web of shell companies and diverse ownership.

Dozens of Iranian ships have used Singapore several hundred times in the past two years, for instance, as a stop-off on their way to other destinations such as China.

The data shows that in the 48 months before U.S. sanctions began in September 2008, IRISL made 345 changes to its fleet including names, the flags ships sailed under, operators, managers and registered owners. In the 40 months since sanctions began there have been at least 878, including 157 name changes, 94 changes of flag, 122 changes of operator, and 127 changes of registered ownership.

Continue reading Special Report: Iran’s cat-and-mouse game on sanctions

Special report: Greece claims magnate stole from his own bank

A REUTERS special report

By Stephen Grey    ATHENS | Thu Jan 12, 2012

ATHENS (Reuters)- With the money tight all over Europe, one high-flying Greek businessman allegedly found a novel way of getting easy credit: two years ago he bought a controlling share in a bank, installed his own managers and then loaned himself and his associates nearly 600 million euros ($760 million).

Greek prosecutors allege Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, 39, turned the country’s Proton Bank, which has since been nationalized, into what one Athens newspaper called a “bank of cronies.” Lavrentiadis, who vigorously denies the allegations and has accused the authorities of acting illegally, has been called to appear before public prosecutor Ioannis Dragatsis at an Athens court next week. He is formally under investigation over accusations of fraud, embezzlement and corruption, but has not been charged.

An audit by the Bank of Greece, which regulates the industry, found that more than 40 percent of Proton’s commercial loans in 2010 were made to companies related to Lavrentiadis. The report says this was part of a “misuse of the basic principles of lending and assurance.”

A separate investigation, signed by a senior prosecutor who heads the country’s money laundering authority, found that Lavrentiadis – once hailed as the rising star of Greek business and known as a leading patron of the arts – had with others “formed a criminal team” that embezzled up to 51 million euros from the bank. It alleged loans made to dormant companies had been wired from Proton to another bank, the Piraeus Bank, and then withdrawn by an employee in bags of cash.

“In every case the leading figure of the team was Lavrentis Lavrentiadis, president of the board and major shareholder in Proton Bank,” says the confidential report by Greece’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), seen by Reuters. The bank’s management “developed continuous, intense and to a great extent criminal activity which led to the deception of depositors.” The bank used “unusually high interest as a bait” to draw savers in, it stated.

The secret report was completed on July 27 last year, but its full findings have not been disclosed until now.

Continue reading Special report: Greece claims magnate stole from his own bank

I just handed in my notice, to myself

Well, it looks like after years and years of working as an independent freelance, I’m off to join Reuters as a special correspondent, which is a roving role within Europe and the Middle East as part of a wider global enterprise team. It’s an exciting time to join the organisation as they’ve decided to give a real boost to long-form explanatory and investigative work. Serious journlism, in other words, of the sort that is often in short supply. Details announced today in Press Gazette. I’ll start there in December.

Gangsters miss home – adventures in Karachi

While getting rather bored in London, I glanced through some old emails of mine and found this to friends of a trip to Karachi, in Pakistan, dated 16 May 2000. So i publish it here for the sake of amusement> it shows even when you discover almost nothing, the act of searching can be quite interesting.

It was the machine gun that rather betrayed his profession.  It was hanging from his shoulder down to his knees and he strode into my room at the Sheraton. Quite disconcertingly, he was also carrying a bouquet of roses and lilies. The note attached said: “With best wishes from Mr Shakeel”.

For those not familiar with Asian criminals, Chota Shakeel is the brother of what Indian papers like to call the “dreaded” or “notorious” gangster Dawood Ibrahim: the arch criminal master said to be in league with Pakistan intelligence in spreading all kinds of dastardly terror across the sub-continent, including hijacking a jet from Nepal and blowing up the Bombay stock exchange a few years ago and killing a large number of people. Continue reading Gangsters miss home – adventures in Karachi

Cyber spies – a UK firm accused of helping Egypt’s secret police


By Stephen Grey File on 4, BBC Radio 4

An Egyptian anti-Mubarak protester Technology was used to monitor the conversations of pro-democracy activists, evidence suggests

A UK firm offered to supply “cyber-spy” software used by Egypt to target activists, the BBC has learned.

Documents found in the headquarters of the country’s security service suggest it was used for a five-month trial period at the end of last year.

Hampshire-based Gamma International UK denies actually supplying the program, which infects computers with a virus that bugs online voice calls and email.

The foreign secretary says he will “critically” examine export controls.

William Hague, who speaks for the government on computer security issues, said: “Any export of goods that could be used for internal repression is something we would want to stop.”

Continue reading Cyber spies – a UK firm accused of helping Egypt’s secret police

Man’s conquest of Space

As the Space Shuttle carries out it’s final mission, here is a look at the result of decades of space flight – the debris of missions and the clutter of so many satellites.
This view – from 8700km – is a visualisation in Google Earth with data from the Union of Concerned Scientists satellite database and the US Space Track record catalog, pulled together here.  (Click on the picture to enlarge)

Casualties in Afghan war level off

UPDATED: 29/9/11 – Despite a UN report released today reporting higher violence than ever in Afghanistan – the latest figures show fatalities trending massively down for US and UK troops in Afghanistan. The number of US servicemen and women killed is significantly down despite the unusual loss of so many SEALS in a helicopter crash. Details see amended graphs here:

Continue reading Casualties in Afghan war level off

Raiders of the Night

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times on June 5, 2011.

BY the light of a full moon, a team of America’s most elite Special Forces fast-roped from helicopters into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

Creeping through the pine nut groves of Qalandar district, Khost province, they approached a hide-out of bunkers, tents and make-shift buildings that was now used as a training camp for suicide bombers.

Their target, tracked to this location from Pakistan, was a senior leader of the Haqqani Network – a ruthless branch of the Taliban.

In the fire fight that ensued, the special force operators faced counter-fire from machine guns and RPG rockets, and even a suicide bomber that attempted to creep up on them. But at the end, they had killed both their target and 18 of his fighters.

Michael Waltz, a reserve officer with US special forces, was deployed to the region. And he recalled the attack won support from local people: “The elders were thrilled, even though we had destroyed some of their crop. There was an actual procession that came down from the mountains, down to our base to thank us.” Continue reading Raiders of the Night

Peace talks need a strategy

On another moonlit runway every month these days, another bearded man is hustled aboard a military jet. He is an ‘intermediary’ from the Taliban and  is about to be flown many hours before sitting down for another chance to talk about ending this war.

As Spiegel reported this week, Germany is one country that his hosting very preliminary “peace talks” in a hope of ending a war in Afghanistan that has cost so many lives. It’s not the only show in town. According to intelligence officials and senior diplomats I’ve interviewed, various “representatives” of the Taliban movement have also been flown to Norway and to Turkey in parallel tracks.

Fresh impetus to this process has been given by President Obama. As terrorism analyst Peter Bergen reports, a little-noticed shift of US policy has all but abandoned pre-conditions for talks to start.

Bergen is sceptical the Taliban is ready for talks – or, citing Pakistani truces with the Talban in its tribal areas, he argues they cannot be trusted anyway.

But while I judge the Taliban is becoming ever more extreme (despite attempts to argue the opposite by former Taliban ambassador Mullah Zaeef and indeed by Mullah Omar himself), if the White House is serious about a peace process, as I believe it is, then the critical question is what path could be chosen that could firstly make the Taliban less extreme and therefore an acceptable partner in a future accord and secondly make the peace process acceptable to the Taliban itself. Continue reading Peace talks need a strategy