Lethal Spy Charming

My career as an intelligence agent has taught me many various approaches in intelligence and counterintelligence operations, but one thing no one could ever teach us was how some cities’ charm can be lethal.

I recently visited Dubai, and I must say that it is one of the most beautiful and pleasant towns I have ever been (and I have visited several).

Upon landing at the airport, the diversity of the population from all over the world is immediately obvious.

Of course, the trip to Dubai included some pleasure, but the major reason I was there was for business. However, I must acknowledge that pleasure can be pretty costly.

When I saw that many people and that much energy and money, I thought of the “Spies” cities of the world, or the most well-known spy cities and locations around the world.

Looking back in time, we can certainly say that each of these cities still bears that moniker today. Because the story begins here, we don’t have to go back very far in time:

Dubai is undoubtedly unfamiliar to the majority of you. Dubai is a popular destination for wealthy people from all around the world, as well as spies from the Middle East and beyond.

Dubai is a key covert battleground in the US-Iranian conflict, and it is used for numerous secret intelligence activities and there are some real life examples:

Mahmoud al-Mabhouh’s assassination: In 2010, the prominent Hamas militant was slain in a hotel room in Dubai. The local police department published surveillance footage that indicated a group of people accused of being involved in the assassination. The Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, was accused by Dubai police of carrying out the operation, but Israel neither confirmed or denied its role.

Herve Jaubert’s case: This former French intelligence officer turned businessman fled Dubai after running into legal problems. He allegedly used his espionage skills to plot his escape via water. He later resurfaced in the public eye when he was involved in the escape attempt of a Dubai princess, Sheikha Latifa.

Cybersecurity incidents: According to certain accounts, multinational spyware attacks have targeted Dubai and the UAE. This has included the employment of sophisticated software to monitor the activity of targeted targets, a type of digital espionage. For example, the Israeli business NSO Group’s Pegasus project was purportedly utilised to spy on chosen persons in the UAE.

On a lovely July day in 2010, an American and a Russian airliner were parked for about an hour and a half on the runway of the airport in Vienna, Austria’s capital. Cars transported spies from one plane to the next. The Russian and American jets then took off.

Later, it was revealed that the US and Russia had engaged in the first and largest espionage exchange since the Cold War. The US has turned over ten members of a Russian spy cell who were detected attempting to smuggle themselves into the US as “sleeper agents” after being discovered trying to smuggle themselves into the country.

The exchange also included Anna Chapman, sometimes known as “Putin’s spy” (I’ve written about her before), who possessed not just a network of contacts but also all the characteristics of a successful spy, such as remarkable attractiveness, intelligence, and the ability to make judgements under duress.

On the other hand, Russia released four of its detainees accused of spying for the US and other Western countries.

The exchange of spies did not take place at night or in the presence of armed men in jackets, as we might expect from Cold War epics. On that day, though, Vienna demonstrated why it is recognised as the world’s spy capital.

In Vienna, espionage has a long history. Between the First and Second World Wars, Vienna became a hub for European espionage operations. The majority of Nazi Germany’s intelligence on southern and eastern Europe was gathered in Vienna during Adolf Hitler’s rule, or what was later referred to as the “Third Reich.”

Vienna was a prime location for intelligence gathering at the start of the Cold War due to the enormous number of refugees eager to make a living, even if it meant selling information to foreign intelligence services.

Estoril, a port city in Portugal, was known as the “city of spies” and was a hub of espionage activity during World War II, employing many secret agents under the cover of their diplomatic status from both the Allies (which included Britain, France, China, and later the USA and the USSR) and the Axis (which included Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Japan, Austria, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary).

Legend has it that Portuguese monarch Antonio Salazar “played both sides” throughout the battle to protect his country from criticism.

However, in order to persuade Salazar’s administration to abandon its neutrality, the Allies and Axis engaged in a war in Estoril, employing spies, propaganda, and diplomatic pressure.

The ambience in the city at the time was eerily comparable to that of the classic spy thriller “Casablanca,” which is about the dark secrets of espionage.

Cyprus is divided into two nations: the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is supported by Ankara but is not officially recognised by the international community, and the internationally recognised Greek Republic of Cyprus, which governs the rest of the country. Nicosia, the capital of the Republic of Cyprus, was divided as a result of Turkish intervention in 1974, which followed a coup led by Greece the previous year.

Because of its unpredictable political environment and strategic location, Cyprus is a desirable location for intelligence activity in Europe and the Middle East.

Cyprus, a well-known financial haven and renowned tourist destination, acts as a base of operations for Russian intelligence organisations. Members of other intelligence services are drawn to areas where Russians and Russian spies can easily fit in.

In 2019, Cypriot police captured a “spy van” outfitted with sophisticated monitoring technology and questioned its Israeli owner in response to media accusations that the vehicle was rented to eavesdrop on people.

According to Forbes, the advanced equipment in the van can then listen in on conversations regardless of encryption level, monitor electronic devices within a 500-meter area, and hack any telephone device.

Berlin Glienicker, Bridge
The Glienicker Bridge, which connects West Berlin with Potsdam across the Havel River, appears to be obsolete nowadays. The “Bridge of Spies” is another name for this bridge, so first impressions can be deceiving.

The bridge, which is in Berlin’s westernmost suburbs, still bears a faint line that marked the border between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. On the other side of this line, some 61 years ago, the world witnessed a detainee exchange between the American and Soviet sides after an American U-2 surveillance plane was shot down over Soviet territory.

Francis Gary Powers, an American spy plane pilot, was returned to his homeland during the exchange on February 10, 1962. In exchange, William August Fisher, also known as Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, one of the deadliest Soviet spies, was given.

As a result, spy Fisher was released from prison and returned to freedom. On the other hand, the Americans returned pilot Francis Gary Powers, whom some criticised for being a coward for not killing himself but instead allowing himself to be taken by the Soviets.

Many spies arrested during the cold war were exchanged across the bridge.

(This prisoner swap operation is depicted in the Steven Spielberg-directed American film “Bridge of Spies,” starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.)

Berlin – Teufelsberg
Following WWII, the rubble of the razed city was used to build the man-made Teufelsberg, or Devil’s Hill, in Berlin, Germany.

The Americans felt that this hill would give them the ideal perspective and location for listening in on Russian radio discussions in East Berlin and elsewhere. When the Americans erected a listening station there, local soldiers began referring to the place as Teufelsberg Hill.

Meurice Le Meurice

Bloch had a dinner meeting in Paris in May 1989 with a man he identified as “Pierre Bart,” a fellow stamp collector. Bloch was stationed in Washington, D.C. at the time, but he was one of the State Department’s top European specialists. Bloch was in France on official business at the time of the meeting. “Bart” was a Soviet agent who lived in Paris after previously living in Vienna as Reino Gikman. Bloch had no idea that the entire conference was being observed by French counterintelligence operatives. Surveillance revealed that Bloch had brought a shoulder bag with him to the meeting, which he left with “Bart” at the end of the supper. Bloch later revealed that the bag contained stamps that he had left for Bart.

London-The Waterloo Bridge
Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian opposition journalist and writer, was assassinated on London’s Waterloo Bridge across the Thames River in 1978. Markov felt a strong soreness in his right leg as he crossed the bridge and made his way to the bus terminal to catch a bus to his place of employment at the BBC.

When he turned around, he witnessed a man, believed to be a member of Bulgaria’s secret police, pick up an umbrella from the ground, cross the street to the opposite sidewalk, get into a cab, and drive away.

When Markov arrived at work, he noticed a tiny red dot on his leg, and the pain was getting stronger. He described what had occurred to his coworkers at work. After developing a high body temperature in the evening, he was sent to St. James’s Hospital in London, where he died four days later.

According to the investigation, Markov, 49, was wounded by a gunshot laced with ricin poison. It was launched from a Bulgarian secret service member’s umbrella, and the Russian KGB intelligence organisation is thought to have participated in the operation.

The term “Bulgarian umbrella” alludes to illegal conduct. Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s then-president, was opposed by Georgi Markov, who vehemently and violently opposed communism.

Bucharest -Hotel Athenee Palace
During WWII and the Cold War, Bucharest’s iconic Athenee Palace Hotel functioned as a safe haven for spies. Prior to the Second World War, in 1937, the structure that had been built in 1914 was renovated.

In the years leading up to WWII, Romanian authorities used the hotel to spy on German Gestapo agents and British spies.

After the hotel was nationalised in 1948, the new communist government wiretapped it and staffed it with informants. The Hilton Group purchased this building in 1994.

The Dutch city of Leeuwarden honours dancer and German spy Mata Hari, who is perhaps its most well-known citizen, with a statue in the centre.

One could claim that “Mata Hari” was the most famous female spy of the twentieth century. On July 25, 1917, a French court hanged the well-known dancer on charges of spying for Germany during World War I. She was executed by firing squad on October 15, the same year.

Mata Hari used extremely complex encryption to communicate with German operators outside of France, which proved difficult to decipher and overcome.

Thailand, South-east Asia’s only uncolonized nation, is akin to Switzerland in this regard. Bangkok, Thailand’s capital and largest city, is located in the country’s centre on the Chao Phraya River.

It is the country’s main port and its most important business and cultural hub, with an estimated area of 1,565 square kilometres. In the nineteenth century, the city was dubbed “Venice of the East” because to its large network of waterways.

The proximity of Bangkok to China is a significant benefit for the US and other Western intelligence organisations. Intelligence agents from China, the United States, Iran, Russia, and many other countries are at ease operating there.

Despite being classified as a “major espionage centre” and “open playground” for spies as early as 1984, Bangkok remained so. Because the flow of individuals in and out of Bangkok has become so important to espionage organisations, Chinese intelligence has successfully obtained biometric information from the airport.

The small nation of Djibouti, with a population of less than a million people, came to the attention of the world’s major powers due to the presence of military bases belonging to powerful nations, as well as other nations’ aspirations to establish bases there, due to its strategic location and stability.

Djibouti is a country in the Horn of Africa that borders both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti and Yemen are separated by only 30 km across the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which also separates Africa and Asia Minor. It is an important station for ships passing the Suez Canal as well as a major oil shipping route.

Djibouti, on the other hand, has recently emerged as a critical battleground in the battle between US and Chinese spies. China created its first military camp there in 2017, stationing up to 10,000 troops outside of Beijing.

The station strengthens China’s ability to help Chinese ships conducting patrols in the waters off the shores of Yemen and Somalia in order to fulfil humanitarian missions in the area.

Camp Lemonnier, the lone permanent US post on the continent and the primary overseas base for the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), is located near Djibouti’s international airport. It is the principal point of departure for many unmanned aerial vehicle activities as well as special operations missions in the area.

In 2018, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) purchased and deployed the notorious Pegasus spyware to Djibouti’s intelligence agencies.

Because of Djibouti’s past as a French colony, Paris maintains a strong military and intelligence presence there, with personnel stationed from Spain, Italy, and Japan.

City of Mexico
For spies, Mexico City has an advantage over others: it is close to America.

In compared to Canada, which is likewise extremely close to the UHA, Mexico provides a more neutral atmosphere for foreign espionage. This is not to say that Mexican security agents are unaware of the situation in their country.

In the late 1970s, Mexican police imprisoned American Andrew Daulton Lee after he threw a message over the fence of the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. He was detected with a top-secret film in his possession. Lee and his friend, American spy Christopher Boyce, sold vital material to the Soviets.

When he was apprehended in Mexico, Lee was attempting to contact KGB spies once more. After being questioned, Lee was brought back to the United States, where he was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to life in prison.

According to US authorities, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Cuban agents are working out of Mexico.

According to one former US national security official, some persons have attempted to cross from Mexico to the US overland. Foreign spies trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States “were involved in several plots that were thwarted or prevented,” according to the former officer.

According to General Glenn VanHerck, chief of the North American Air Defence Command, Russia has more intelligence agents stationed in Mexico than any other country.

Which spy-related cities and locations do you suppose are the most well-known around the world?

This post was written by Mario Bekes