Decoding the secrets of espionage

PETALING JAYA: A Malaysian arrested in Norway for alleged espionage was recruited by a foreigner while studying in Australia.

A Kuala Lumpur-based diplomatic source said he was approached by a foreign intelligence agent operating Down Under.

“He was befriended by a ‘consultant’ from a foreign country who operated in Australia. The person gave financial assistance to the Malaysian.

“The consultant was on the radar of Australian intelligence. They informed their Norwegian counterparts that the consultant and the Malaysian were travelling together to Norway,” said the embassy source.

The source said the 25-year-old student from Kuala Lumpur came from a low-income family and was pursuing a Diploma in Business Studies at a college in Melbourne.

“The student informed his parents that he was getting financial assistance from the consultant and they were not suspicious at all that a foreigner had recruited their son,” he added.

The Star visited the Malaysian student’s wooden house in a low-cost housing area known as rumah panjang (longhouse) in Kuala Lumpur. A neighbour said the parents were at work and confirmed that their son studied in Australia.

However, the neighbour said she did not know the student was arrested in Norway.

On Sept 12, the Foreign Ministry, through its embassy in Stockholm, confirmed that a man believed to be a Malaysian citizen had been arrested in Oslo, and was believed to have been involved in espionage activities.

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In a statement, Wisma Putra said the embassy was in close contact with the local authorities in Oslo to get more information on this case.

The source said Norway did not reveal to the Malaysian government which country the intelligence agent was from.

“However, they wanted to send the message to Malaysia that Malaysians of certain ethnicities were the target of recruitment by an intelligent agency,” he said.

The source said the identity of the intelligence agent was not revealed as investigations were still ongoing.

According to a report by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sept 10, Norway’s police intelligence agency PST charged the Malaysian with spying on the Office of the Prime Minister, the Defence Ministry and other government offices in Oslo.

The Malaysian allegedly drove around or parked near these offices in a rental car and tried to tap into their electronic communications.

“We face quite an extensive investigation and have just begun,” state prosecutor Thomas Fredrik Blom told NRK, shortly after a local court ordered the Malaysian to be held in custody for at least four weeks while the investigation continues.

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He will be kept in isolation for the first two weeks.

“We’re not quite sure what we’re up against,” Blom told NRK. “We’re in a critical and preliminary phase of the investigation.”

Blom added that there was a “real and high” danger of tampering with evidence, so isolating the defendant was deemed necessary.

NRK reported that court papers revealed that Norwegian police think the Malaysian would want to communicate with others involved in the alleged espionage.

It said police needed “to secure several technical items without the man interfering” with the investigation.

“There’s such danger of tampering with evidence that we’re being very careful with what we can reveal right now,” Blom said.

The PST said the Malaysian was arrested on the night of Sept 8 after his rental car’s movements were picked up by surveillance cameras mounted outside the government offices he was believed to have targeted.

“His car was photographed repeatedly within a certain time period and he’s charged with signaletterretning (the Norwegian term used for trying to tap into electronic signals including mobile phone conversations, text messages, email surveillance or electronic signals from weapons and tracking devices),” it said.

Aftenposten, a Norwegian newspaper, reported on Sept 11 that the most common form of such spying involves mobile phone surveillance with the help of false base stations and so-called IMSI catchers.

IMSI (international mobile subscriber identity) catchers are a type of surveillance equipment that allows users to conduct indiscriminate surveillance of mobile devices and their users. They are usually used by governments and state apparatus.

The Malaysian’s car landed on the PST’s watch list, and he was reportedly under PST surveillance before being arrested.

Aftenposten also reported that the Malaysian claimed to be a student but lacked ties to Norwegian educational institutions.

“The PST said he had not been in Norway very long, and there were concerns he would try to flee and return to Malaysia, especially since Norway has no extradition treaty with Malaysia,” it added.

In its previous assessments, the PST had singled out neighbouring Russia, China and North Korea as state actors that pose a significant intelligence threat to Norway.

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