Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka defended Friday’s release of a terrorist indicted in U.S. federal court, in spite of a U.S. extradition request that was approved by the Prague High Court. Ali Fayyad, a Lebanese national with Russian black arms trading contacts and a Ukrainian passport, had been arrested in Prague 18 months ago as part of a DEA-led sting. He was deeply involved in the connections among Russia, Hezbollah, arms sales to terrorists, terrorist financing, money laundering, and the drug trade. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty identifies Fayyad as an advisor to the Russia-backed former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.
The American Embassy in Prague immediately released an unusually harsh statement condemning Fayyad’s release: “We are shocked by the decision of the Czech government to release Ali Fayad and Khaled Marabi. These men faced charges in a U.S. federal court of planning the murders of employees of the U.S. government, as well as attempting to acquire, transfer and use anti-aircraft missiles and attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization.”
“We’re obviously dismayed by this decision,” Robert Kirby, the State Department spokesman, stated. “These men were indicted in a U.S. federal court for conspiring to kill officers, employees of the United States, conspiring to acquire, transfer, and use anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist organization. So clearly we’re deeply concerned by this, and as our embassy said, dismayed by this decision.” Kirby continued: “It is of deep concern to us and certainly isn’t going to help improve bilateral relations. That’s for sure.”
On Friday, the Czech Defense Minister, Martin Stropnicky (of ANO, the populist party led by the controversial oligarch and Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babis) said he was exchanged for five Czech citizens who had gone missing in Lebanon six months earlier. Justice Minister Robert Pelican (ANO) said he executed the release for “internationally political” reasons based on intelligence reports.
Who were the five missing Czechs, and how did they disappear? This is the most implausible part of the story, the point where the Czech government’s claims unravel. According to the Czech media, a team of Czech investigators were sent to Lebanon in July 2015 to rescue a Czech cook who had been kidnapped by ISIS in Libya months earlier. The team consisted of two journalists who had been promised an interview with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad; an officer in the Czech Military Intelligence (MI); and the attorney and interpreter who had assisted Ali Fayyad when he first was arrested.
The five Czechs were met at Beirut airport by Ali Fayyad’s brother, whose van was seen on airport surveillance footage. This account strains credulity. Why would an MI officer, two journalists, and Ali Fayyad’s attorney and interpreter search for a missing cook? How would Fayyad’s brother have gotten involved? Lebanese newspapers report that this was the team’s third visit to Beirut within two months, and that the men had not been kidnapped, but merely had been guests in a secret location to induce pressure to release Fayyad.
Czech politicians insist that Fayyad was released to achieve Czech objectives, but does this statement bear scrutiny? Who really benefits from his release? Russia. To avoid a life sentence in U.S. prison, Fayyad may have revealed the entire supply chain of the Russian black arms trade, and the corresponding money laundering and drugs trade. Who had the capability to execute an operation that hinged on influencing both the Czech and Lebanese governments? Only Russia. Who released Fayyad? ANO party appointees, and Czech President Milos Zeman (who openly advocates for a new world security order with Russia at the center).
We’ve seen past suggestions that Babis, President Zeman, and other regional politicians speak in lockstep with the Russian line. Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer on matters Russian and Eastern European, famously asked what new title to give these actors in Russia’s behalf, since the old ones (fellow travelers, useful idiots) may no longer apply. But Zeman’s comments Monday seemed to answer her question. By asserting that the U.S. government negotiates with terrorists all the time, he seemed interested only in pleasing the Russians. We don’t need a new term to describe Zeman: he really is just a useful idiot for his Russian friends.
I asked the Justice Minister whether party Chairman Babis influenced his decision to release Fayyad, whether the Minister was aware that Fayyad had attempted to murder U.S. government officials, whether he believed the story of the alleged kidnapping, or felt he had been tricked by Jan Beroun, chief of Military Intelligence. The Ministry replied only that “[the] Minister’s decision was based on many complex information, regarding political and intelligence reports.”
The Civilian Intelligence Service and Counterintelligence Service both refused to get involved with this case — only MI was involved. In stark contrast to the stable leadership at the civilian Counterintelligence Service, the MI unit has been rocked by a series of scandals. Former Minister of Defense Alexander Vondra says MI’s counterintelligence capabilities have been decimated by Robert Slachta, the head of the Organized Crime unit whose department is under investigation by Internal Affairs and who is a close ally of ANO Chairman Babis. MI Director Jan Beroun was appointed by Defense Minister Stropnicky, an ANO appointee. Is it possible that the Czech MI unit was hijacked by a hostile intelligence agency, and conspired with a terrorist? I asked the Prime Minister’s office whether he has any doubts about Beroun’s loyalties, but received no response.
But this case is not the only symptom of this problem: there is a general concern about Russian penetration of Czech government, especially in the defense sector. A former U.S. diplomat with experience in Eastern Europe told me that Russia’s top priorities are keeping control of Ukraine and Crimea; and weakening NATO/European defense readiness, including NATO’s priority, a strong transatlantic defense industry.
There is good news on the horizon, however. The Russian attempts to undermine NATO have caught the attention of Congress and the intelligence community, and Congress has authorized U.S. intelligence to probe Russian influence in the European media, government and protest parties. The release of Ali Fayyad is likely to spur even more action on the part of the U.S. government: officials at all levels will insist upon it, and cannot be ignored.
The dedication of the Foreign Service Officers, law enforcement and intelligence officers of the U.S. should not be underestimated, and the release of Ali Fayyad was a slap in the face to them all. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the U.S. officials who pursued this man for so long, to have had him within their grasp and to see him released by our allies. I wonder what it’s like for the officials whose lives he threatened, and their families, to know he is still out there, nursing a greater hatred. I wonder what terrorist and criminal acts could have been prevented if U.S. officials could have learned what he knows about international criminal activities, especially those supported by Russian intelligence agencies.
The resolution of this bilateral crisis in in the hands of the Czech Prime Minister, Sobotka, who is responsible for ensuring that his government policies are in line with NATO commitments. The Czech people decided over 15 years ago to join NATO and reject Russian servitude. The Prime Minister has not responded to my enquiry whether he will resign if evidence emerges that elements of his government conspired with a hostile intelligence agency to release a terrorist wanted by the U.S. government.