UN denies army’s claim about Israeli spyware, calls for corruption investigations

Al Jazeera film starts to have political impact as UN spokesperson puts spotlight on Bangladesh.

UN denies army’s claim about Israeli spyware, calls for corruption investigations
A UN peacekeeper from the Bangladesh Army carries an injured child role-player to medical facilities as part of a field training exercise for real-world peacekeeping operations. Photo: Alamy/US Marine Corps

A spokesperson for the United Nations peace operations has disputed the Bangladesh Army’s claim that it had purchased Israel-origin surveillance equipment — featured in a recent explosive Al Jazeera documentary — to deploy in a UN peacekeeping mission. 

In the UN’s agreements with Bangladesh for peacekeeping operations, the spokesperson said, “the United Nations has not identified a requirement for the capability provided by the operation of electronic equipment of the nature described in the Al Jazeera reporting and such equipment has not been deployed with Bangladeshi contingents in United Nations peacekeeping operations.”

The capability being referred to is an “IMSI” catcher that can be used to monitor the mobile phones of hundreds of people simultaneously. The Al Jazeera’s documentary, titled “All the Prime Minister’s Men”, claimed the Bangladesh military had bought the mass spying technology from an Israeli company using front companies and via a middleman.

The spokesperson also told Netra News that the serious allegations of corruption in Bangladesh set out in the investigative documentary should be investigated. “The allegation of corruption is a serious matter that should be investigated by the relevant authorities,” he added. 

However, the spokesperson maintained that Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations and other senior UN officials will go ahead and meet next week with the head of Bangladesh’s army, General Aziz Ahmed, who was at the centre of the film’s corruption allegations. The meeting has been organised at Bangladesh’s request, the spokesperson said.

Earlier, the US government’s decision to hold meetings with Bangladesh’s army chief, despite serious corruption allegations raised against him, drew rebuke from human rights groups. 

Most of this statement was subsequently read out by Stéphane Dujarric, the Spokesperson of the United Nations Secretary-General on Thursday, February 4th at his daily press briefing.

“Aggressive and intrusive” technology

In the Al Jazeera film, the middle man involved in the purchase of the Israel-origin equipment by the Bangladesh army, was recorded as saying that “The technology is very aggressive and intrusive. You don’t want the public to know that you’re using that equipment.”

According to Eliot Bendinelli from Privacy International interviewed by Al Jazeera, the equipment can intercept “up to 200 or 300 mobile phones” simultaneously. “This specific model is also capable of interfering with the communications. So, you are going to be able to change the content of a text message. You could be spoofing the identity of someone,” he added.

Previous media reports suggest such technologies are often used by Bangladeshi authorities—including the military intelligence, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI)—to keep track of political opponents and dissents.

The Israeli connection

Citing documents, the film alleges that the Bangladesh Army purchased the equipment manufactured by Israel-based PicSix company and used front companies to conceal the origin of the equipment. 

It also alleged that officers with Bangladesh’s military intelligence, DGFI, were trained in Hungary by Israeli intelligence experts.

James Maloney, a Bangkok-based Irish CEO of Sovereign Systems, acted as a middleman. “It’s from Israel, so we don’t advertise that technology,” he was secretly recorded as saying. 

Bangladesh does not recognise Israel and prohibits trade with it.

In addition, the contract, approved by General Aziz Ahmed, contains the condition that the Israeli company and the Bangladesh military sign a non–disclosure agreement.

The military’s rejoinder

After the film was aired, the Inter Services Public Relations Directorate (ISPR) of the Ministry of Defence issued a rejoinder, condemning the “the concocted and ill-intended report by a vested group.”

Specifically, the statement denied that it purchased the IMSI catcher from Israel. “The truth is the equipment was procured from Hungary for one of the Army Contingents due to be deployed in the UN Peacekeeping Mission.” it said. “Nowhere in the equipment was mentioned/written that these were of Israeli origin.”

Although omitted in the English version of the statement, the Bangla version of the rejoinder claimed that the equipment was “merely signal equipment” as opposed to “mobile monitoring technology.”  

“UN doesn’t spy, ever”

The UN peace operation’s spokesperson has not only rejected the Bangladesh Army’s claim but also clarified that the use of such technology in UN peacekeeping missions is approved under extremely rare and extraordinary circumstances.

He said that the UN has used on one occasion similar equipment to intercept certain types of communications but only “as a measure to enhance the security of United Nations personnel in situations where the security conditions warrant its use.” 

He added that the capability is employed strictly in accordance with the United Nations Peacekeeping-Intelligence Policy and under the operational authority of the mission Force Commander.

When approached by Netra News, a senior UN diplomat familiar with the internal workings of UN peacekeeping said, “It seems really unlikely that something like a IMSI catcher would be used by a specific contingent on a peace operation.”

“For that to have happened, Bangladesh would have had to have been specifically asked to provide that type of equipment which I don’t think is the case. It’s certainly nothing I’ve ever heard of,” he added.

“I can’t imagine [a contingent] would be allowed to bring sophisticated equipment like that unless it was agreed ahead of time for a very specific purpose and I haven’t heard that it was,” he said. “The UN doesn’t really do general spying, ever.”

UN peacekeeping missions and the Bangladesh military

Bangladesh has long been one of the largest contributors to the UN peacekeeping missions. In 2020, the country regained its position as the largest contributor to the UN missions.

Participation in the UN missions is considered “lucrative” among the Bangladeshi military personnel, according to a study published by the New York-based International Peace Institute. In 2016, Bangladesh said its peacekeepers sent home nearly USD 1 billion over the previous three years. 

The issue is considered so sensitive within the Bangladesh military that in 2007 the then army chief, General Moeen Uddin Ahmed, argued that the uncertainty surrounding the participation in the UN peace missions was one of the reasons why the military overthrew the caretaker government. 

However, now it appears, the army was willing to jeopardise its integrity in relation to the UN peacekeeping missions as it attempts to defend its beleaguered chief, General Aziz Ahmed.●