GRU Implicated In Sabotage and Terrorist Arms Deal in Czech Republic
Are Czech Officials Involved?
Earlier this year, the Czech Counterintelligence agency, the BIS, issued a bombshell report filled with detailed evidence proving that two Russian military intelligence officers from the infamous GU Unit 29155 were involved in explosions in a munitions warehouse in Vrbetice, Czechia, on 16 October 2014. Passport and other substantial information identify the men as the same two GU officers who carried out the 2020 Novichok poisonings of Russian defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, England.
The Czech police identified Alexander Mishkin and Colonel Anatoliy Chepiga as the suspects that carried out the 2014 bombings. Mishkin and Chepiga are officers of the GU, formerly called the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service. (Mishkin and Chepiga had traveled under false names: Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, respectively. Their true identities were first discovered by Bellingcat.)
The involvement of the GU in the Vrbetice explosions has resurrected another scandal that involved military intelligence operations, the Ali Fayad affair of 2015-16. This series of events reads like a spy thriller. It includes a shadowy arms-for-drugs merchant who works with drug dealers, Russian military intelligence, and Hezbollah; a dramatic DEA sting operation to capture him; high-level diplomatic pressure over his extradition or release; and a phony kidnapping in Lebanon to set up a false ‘hostage exchange’ to provide political cover for releasing him. In both the Vrbetice and Fayad operations the role of the Director of Czech Military Intelligence (VZ) Jan Beroun requires scrutiny.
Who Is Jan Beroun?
Put simply, Jan Beroun is Czech president Milos Zeman’s trusted spymaster. Zeman himself is widely recognized as an agent of malign Russian and Chinese influence in Europe. Respected researcher Jakub Janda from the European Values Think Tank calls him “Putin’s Trojan Horse.”
Sources in Prague confirm that Beroun serves Zeman loyally. Czech investigative journalist Sabina Slonkova responded to an OpsLens inquiry about the relationship, stating, “I think Zeman is talking directly to Beroun. There is trust between them.” She added “And Beroun – [Prime Minister] Babis is afraid of him; Zeman trusts his service, unlike the BIS.” Indeed, Zeman has promoted Beroun to the rank of General, despite protests by influential cabinet members, and has awarded him several military decorations.
In contrast, Zeman has refused six proposals by the cabinet to promote the Director of the BIS Michal Koudelka to General. In fact, Zeman has done everything he can to undermine Koudelka. This is easy to understand, because the BIS is thwarting Russian and Chinese intelligence activities, which places Zeman in an uncomfortable position in front of his Russian and Chinese partners.
Why does Zeman value Beroun so highly? (And why would Prime Minister Babis fear him? But that’s a question for another time.) I believe it is because Beroun was involved with the GU in the Vrbetice and Fayad operations, and that the GU has protected him. Understanding this matter is vital for U.S. and allied national security.
Terrorist Arms Dealer Ali Fayad
In 2015 Lebanese arms dealer Ali Fayad was arrested in Prague by Czech authorities, in cooperation with the American DEA, in a sting that had been years in the making. Ali Fayad sold illegal weapons to drug cartels and terrorist groups for drugs and cash, and had plotted to assassinate U.S. government officials who stood in his way. His arrest was part of a major operation called Cassandra, designed to dismantle Hezbollah’s drugs-for-weapons network.
The story of his release reads like a John Le Carré plot. Recent events in Czechia suggest that it was organized by the GU, the Russian military intelligence service. Further investigation suggests that Jan Beroun, chief of the Czech military intelligence service, the VZ, cooperated with the GU to engineer Fayad’s release.
Cooperation Among Iran, Hezbollah, South American terrorists, Ukraine, and Russia
Jailing Ali Fayad would have brought huge advantages to the U.S. He had connections to the Iranian proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah, and to South American narcoterrorist groups. He was arrested trying to sell arms to the FARC, the Colombian guerilla group that controls much of the drug traffic coming out of South America. Fayad also had worked closely with the Ukrainian military complex, and traveled on a Ukrainian passport, during the time that Ukraine was closely allied with Russia.
He could have exposed the complex web of connections among Iran, South American drug traffickers, and Russia. He would have been a gold mine of operational intelligence, as he tried to avoid a very long sentence in an American prison.
The U.S. government requested Fayad’s extradition, but the Russian Federation got involved in the release of Fayad at the highest level of the Czech government. Czech media reported contacts between Milos Zeman and Vladimir Putin about the release. The Czech government delayed a decision for 21 months.
Supporters of Russia, such as President Milos Zeman, then-Finance Minister Andrej Babis, and Ministers who belonged to Babis’ ANO Party, opposed extradition. His Minister of Justice, Robert Pelikan, visited Fayad in prison to lend him his personal phone for calls to Lebanon, an event that was strongly criticized at the time as suspicious.
Phony Kidnapping for “Hostage Exchange”
While this battle over extradition was playing out, Jan Beroun’s military intelligence unit, the VZ, organized a trip to Lebanon and Syria for two Czech reporters. The reporters were promised a personal interview with Syrian President Bashar al Assad. They were escorted to Lebanon by an interpreter, and inexplicably, a Czech military intelligence officer and Ali Fayad’s lawyer. Ali Fayad’s brother met them in Lebanon. On its surface the trip had nothing to do with Fayad, so the presence of his lawyer and brother struck an odd note.
The Czech government told the public that the five men were kidnapped shortly after the Czechs arrived. They were being held, according to the reports, to exert pressure on Czechia to prevent Ali Fayad’s extradition. Lebanese media told a different story, however, calling it a suspicious abduction.
Given the presence of a Czech military intelligence officer among the putative hostages, there was a strong suspicion that the operation had been organized by the VZ to release Fayad. Subsequent revelations strengthened those suspicions. Slonkova remarked to OpsLens that “Beroun’s activities in the release of Fayad are also confirmed from our information sources….”
Extradition Denied, Ali Fayad Released
In February of 2016, Czech Justice Minister Robert Pelikan (from the ANO Party founded by Andrej Babis, an ally of President Zeman) announced that Ali Fayad would be released to Lebanese authorities, rather than extradited to the United States. The U.S. Embassy and State Department reacted with outrage, but the damage was done.
President Zeman praised the release of Fayad in exchange for the hostages, and admitted to urging the Minister of Justice to deny the U.S. extradition request, and release Fayad. The decision was seen as a victory for Russian foreign policy: the United States had lost the opportunity to obtain evidence of Russia’s links to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah.
The move sparked acute congressional interest. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), subcommittee chair on the House Intelligence Committee, called for an investigation into the decision, and for sanctions against those who had engineered it. He stated that the “…hostage situation was a sham….” In a floor speech about the Fayad affair, Stewart said:
“This episode is significant for several reasons. First, Mr. Fayyad’s presence and influence in Central Europe are yet more evidence–as if we needed more–that Iran, through its proxies like Hezbollah, has tentacles throughout the world. More importantly, the event demonstrates Vladimir Putin’s increasing influence with an important member of NATO. And it is not just the Czech Republic. This is a trend, and it is more concerning. Mr. Putin appears to be quietly undermining NATO by leveraging his cronies in influential positions in a number of European nations.”
Was the Ali Fayad Release Engineered by the GU (GRU)?
The recent report about GU (GRU) involvement in Czechia prompted OpsLens to investigate whether Ali Fayad was helped by the VZ. I searched for USG officials who were familiar with the case, or who had handled similar cases in the past. They were not willing to speak on the record because of ongoing sensitivities, but their responses were clear and consistent.
- A retired federal law enforcement officer who was familiar with the Fayad case said, “Ali Fayad was a facilitator of international trafficking in illicit arms and drugs. Operators like that depend on the patronage and protection of intelligence services. Anyone operating in Eastern and Central Europe would have to deal with the GRU, and would have to have GRU protection. And anyone operating in Lebanon and Syria would have to have the protection of Hezbollah. Ali clearly had both.”
- A retired intelligence official familiar with the case said that an arms dealer would only consent to a transactional meeting (such as the arms purchase set up in the DEA sting) in a country where he had protection from that country’s intelligence service. “Ali Fayad would never have agreed to the meeting unless he had an existing relationship with a local intelligence service.”
- A long-time source for the U.S. government, who helped law enforcement agencies develop information about Hezbollah involvement in Latin American arms and drug trafficking, echoed the statements of the two former USG officials. “Ali Fayad would not have been willing to conclude an arms deal in Prague without his belief that he had the backing of a local intel agency and the GRU. He would never have taken the risk without those assurances.”
Did Czech Military Intelligence (VZ) Director Jan Beroun Facilitate Ali Fayad’s release?
I noted above that among the Czechs who were kidnapped was a Military Intelligence (VZ) officer, Martin Psik. That was the first red flag about the whole operation. Why would a junior VZ officer be on that trip in the first place? He would have to have been assigned by the highest level of his service. And when Fayad was released, Beroun personally accompanied him on the plane to Lebanon.
Adding to the suspicions that the VZ had some involvement in staging the kidnapping were reports about prior contacts between Czech military intelligence and Fayad, saying that the VZ had tried to “recruit” Fayad. Czech media reported that a VZ officer named Radek Horacek visited Fayad in prison to “recruit” him in exchange for VZ’s assisting Ali with U.S. intelligence. The immediate question is under what authority was Horacek, a non-US officer, offering U.S. assistance to a terrorist wanted by U.S. authorities? According to our sources Horacek is a close confidant of Beroun who handles highly sensitive matters directly for him, off the record and outside the system.
There were also indications that while Fayad was imprisoned, he received special privileges. He was reported to have made over 400 telephone calls, most of them international, during his incarceration. That too suggests a local protecting power, in addition to his probable GRU patronage.
Interestingly, the Czech Foreign Intelligence office – the UZSI – issued a public statement at the time, declaring that they were not involved with Fayad, the ill-fated trip to Lebanon, or Fayad’s release.
Ukrainian Military Intelligence Points Finger At Jan Beroun
I shared with retired Ukrainian military intelligence sources what I learned about the Vrbetice explosions, the presence of the GU officers, and my suspicions about Jan Beroun and Ali Fayad. I received a fascinating response, reprinted below:
“Fayad was the GU’s undercover agent deployed to Ukrspetsexport to supply weapons to forces that Russia wanted to support unofficially. Fayad worked directly with the GU, and he was assisted by the Salamatin Defense Ministry.” [Dymytro Salamatin was the pro-Moscow Defense Minister of Ukraine.]
“It was a scheme of black arms supplies. Under the guise of Ukraine, he created a chain for GU throughout Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East. The goods were stored mainly in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In both countries he had good ($$$) relations with the security forces, but in the Czech Republic he felt doubly protected because of [Czech President Milos] Zeman. There he had close relations with the leadership of military intelligence, the contact he had through the defense attaché Moskalyuk and Ambassador Boris Zaychuk. He kept the goods in Vrbetice, and they helped to avoid problems. Everything was beautifully organized by Beroun: he recorded Ali as a source to be recruited, and thus covered him without allowing other services to touch him.”
We reached out to Jan Beroun for comment, and as of publication, we have received no response.
Why did it take the Czechs so long to figure out Mishkin & Chepiga?
The Director of the Czech National Center for Organized Crime, Col. Mazanek, admitted that the original investigators working the case failed to identify Mishkin and Chepiga because “they lacked motivation.” A new investigator in 2019 identified the Russian operatives. But Col. Mazanek omitted the involvement of the Czech military intelligence service in the original investigation. The director of the military intelligence service was personally involved in investigating the explosions because it was Ministry of Defense property that was damaged, along with military matériel.
So we will ask the question here: how is it that the Czech military intelligence (which includes military counterintelligence) failed to identify Russian military intelligence operatives at a military matériel storage facility? Czech military counterintelligence should counter Russian military intelligence. Yet the original investigation was brought to the hasty and unsatisfactory conclusion that the explosions had been the result of an undefined “accident.”
Milos Zeman’s Intelligence Service
I believe that two operations were conducted by Russian Military Intelligence on NATO soil: Vrbetice 2014 and Fayad 2015. In both instances it was the duty of Czech Military Intelligence – the VZ — to thwart their Russian adversaries. It was their duty to bring those that killed two innocent Czechs to justice. It was their duty to help American allies dismantle the unholy alliance of Hezbollah and Putin. In both instances the director of VZ, Jan Beroun, failed to counteract his ‘adversaries,’ the GU.
But was it a failure, or had he colluded with the GU? Did VZ rush to conclude the explosion was accidental, to cover up the GU’s activities? Likewise, did VZ facilitate the hostage exchange for Fayad in order to release a GU operative?
Milos Zeman must have been deeply satisfied with Beroun’s performance, because he decorated and promoted Beroun. In the Vrbetice explosions, Zeman staunchly defended the Russian position that GU wasn’t involved in the explosions, and called the “accident” story credible. In the Fayad affair, Zeman praised all those involved in the release of the GU operative. Vladimir Putin’s proxy, Zeman, is clearly pleased with the performance of Director Beroun. Czechia’s NATO allies should not be pleased at all.
Stay tuned for the third and final installment about GU operations from OpsLens. You can read the first installment here.