Prosecutors in Montenegro have demanded the arrest of former CIA officer Joseph Assad, accusing him of involvement in an alleged 2016 Russian-backed plot to overthrow the government and block the country’s inclusion in Nato.
Assad – an Egyptian-American who came to the US in 1990 before serving as a counterterrorism specialist in the CIA, has denied the charges, claiming that he was in Montenegro to provide personal security advice to a political consultant from the west. He has asked that the US reject any extradition request.
“This is a deception campaign against a loyal American who had no role in any crimes or coup in Montenegro,” Assad said in a statement issued on Saturday through his lawyer, reports The Guardian.
The accusation against Assad is the latest twist in a convoluted year-long trial in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, of 14 suspected coup plotters, including two Russians, nine Serbs and three Montenegrins accused of a conspiracy to bring down the country’s pro-Nato government and assassinate its then prime minister Milo Đjukanović.
Prosecutors claim the goal of the putsch, on the day of parliament elections in March 2016, was to stop Montenegro from joining Nato but it was foiled by the security services. Montenegro became the alliance’s 29th member two months later. -The Guardian
The opposition says that the cliams are nothing more than a publicity stunt invented to save Đjukanović’s party from election defeat, while the Kremlin dismissed the claims as “absurd.”
“These (are) absurd accusations … We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, including Montenegro,” said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in February.
Assad, meanwhile, is suspected by Montenegro of “creating a criminal organisation,” and a warrant has been issued for his request, according to statements made to the Guardian by the special prosecutor’s office in Podgorica. While details of his involvement are scant, prosecutors have previously referred to Assad in court documents for allegedly helping the plotters escape after the attempted coup.
The former CIA officer was working in Montenegro on a temporary basis as a security advisor to British-Israeli political consultant and television commercial producer Aron Shaviv – who in turn was working for the Democratic Front (DF), a pro-Moscow Montenegrin opposition group.
Shaviv said he hired Assad because he was being harassed by Montenegrin security services because he was working for the DF. The two men had worked together on previous projects in potentially dangerous parts of the world over several years.
The key witness in the trial, Saša Sinđelić, a Serb nationalist, told the court he was paid €100,000 (£89,000) by two Russian intelligence officers to organise the coup. The two Russians, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, are being tried in absentia.
Assad describes the prosecution’s version of events as a conspiracy.
“The regime claims of an attempted coup are undermined by way it handled the so-call mastermind and evidence. The person the regime labeled as the leader and a terrorist was released from custody,” Assad said. “The weapons the alleged plotters used – primarily hunting rifles – were destroyed by the government and could not be produced for the defence to examine. When asked to produce evidence to substantiate the allegations, the regime refused and called the evidence a state secret.”
After leaving the CIA and establishing a private security business, Assad and his wife Michele – also a former CIA officer, headed up a privately financed operation in 2015 in an effort to rescue Iraqi Christians driven out of Mosul by ISIS. Shaviv was involved in that effort. Michele would go on to write a book about the experience, Breaking Cover.
Shaviv specializes in producing television commercials for international politicians. According to his werbsite, he “has helped 14 heads of state win elections,” and “consulted other parties and candidates in over 40 elections worldwide.”
He won prizes for commercials in 2015 for Benjamin Netanyahu, presenting the Israeli leader in a soft, humorous light.
In 2016 Shaviv produced satirical commercials on behalf of the DF party, which opposed Nato membership and was generally pro-Russian. As a result, he claimed he was repeatedly stopped and questioned by Montenegrin police and security officers. -The Guardian
Assad and his firm Peregrine Consulting was hired by Shaviv to provide counter-surveillance, determinet whether Shaviv was being followed, and plan escape routes in case Shaviv was at risk, according to the defense. Prosecutors, however, claim that the real prupose of Assad’s employment was to help the coup plotters after election day.
In June, another former CIA officer and private security consultant, Brian Scott, told the court that he considered collaborating with Assad on the project, but was warned off by a colleague in the region who noted that DF is reportedly linked to Russian intelligence.
“I told him there were allegations of Russian intelligence involvement in DF. While I cannot remember his exact response, he did not seem to find that credible,” Scott said.
“Mr Assad advised me that he had not done any liaison with Montenegrin authorities,” Scott added. “I advised him that protective counter-security and evacuation planning was difficult without the support of host nation police services. He noted that he thought he would be fine as he had two former FBI special agents works with him. I expressed my opinion that was not acceptable overseas given their expertise is inside the domestic US.”
Scott says he wished Assad luck on the project, and the next time he heard about it was after FBI agents questioned him around three months later in December 2016 about Assad.