Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Investigation

Spy-air? EU warned on VIP jet leasing

  • EU Council head Donald Tusk (c) getting off a Belgium defence ministry air-taxi in Austria last year (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Flying EU and Nato VIPs on jets from a part-Chinese firm could be a security risk, a Belgian aviation company has said.

Its warning was lambasted as a "James Bond" fantasy, by reference to the fictional British spy.

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But if there is a risk, then top EU officials have already been exposed on other "air-taxis".

And the Belgian aviation company which raised the China alarm has its own security questions to answer on Russia.

Courtroom drama

The spy scare was aired in the Conseil d'État, a Belgian high court, in Brussels on Friday (22 November), when the judge heard that Chinese intelligence services might plant "listening devices" on the VIP jets if the Belgian military did not stop them.

The Belgian defence ministry had awarded the €124m VIP contract, earlier in October, to Luxaviation, a Luxembourg-based firm that is 33 percent-owned by China Minsheng Investment Group, a huge Chinese fund.

But FlyingGroup, a Belgian competitor, challenged the award to Luxaviation in court.

The Chinese-linked jets would be used for "delicate missions", such as flying the Belgian prime minister, the Belgian king, and EU and Nato VIPs, FlyingGroup's lawyer, Philippe Vande Casteele, said on Friday.

And the Belgian military should first do security vetting of Luxaviation before making up its mind, Vande Casteele said.

"With this talk of hidden microphones ... you have plunged us straight into the world of James Bond. It makes me laugh," Luxaviation's lawyer, Pierre Frühling, hit back.

"We've served all the Nato and EU summits in Brussels for several years," he added, referring to Luxaviation's existing contracts with international institutions.

"We've got enormous experience in taking care of sensitive personalities," Frühling said.

Leasing the VIP jets - two state-of-the-art Dassault Falcons - from a part-Chinese firm was acceptable because only Belgian air force pilots would actually fly them, a Belgian defence ministry lawyer also told the court.

The Belgian king and his EU and Nato guests currently fly on two Brazilian-made ERJ jets, in service since 2001.

But the ride on the Belgian air force's 5th Melsbroek Air Wing flights has few frills, according to a former passenger.

"Already 10 years ago, official trips were delayed all the time as something in the jets was broken or not fit for flying. That's not just embarrassing, it's bad policy," the Belgian source told EUobserver.

The EU Council president, Donald Tusk, flew on the old planes six times in 2018 under "an agreement with Belgium to make use of their jets", a council spokesman told this website.

The ERJ planes were "routinely used by the Nato secretary general [Jens Stoltenberg] and his accompanying delegation for official travel within Europe", a Nato official said.

But the "regional" jets cannot even cross the Atlantic, and, "frankly, it was high time to replace them", the Belgian source noted.

Funny?

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg on Belgian taxi to Estonia in 2014 (Photo: nato.int)

The mention of James Bond prompted wry smiles in the Conseil d'État.

But there is nothing funny about Chinese espionage for the Belgian state security service, the Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE), whose job it is to protect EU and Nato personnel from foreign spies in Belgium.

Half the VSSE's counter-intelligence inspectors work on China and the other half on Russia.

Chinese intelligence has already been caught hacking EU foreign service communications.

Some EU states and the US have voiced security fears over China's bid to build 5G networks in Europe.

And Nato also takes surveillance seriously, according to an anecdote by a Belgian security source.

"There are some empty houses beside Shape [a Nato base in Belgium] where member states' intelligence services hold exercises on listening devices," the source told EUobserver.

"One team has 24 hours to place as many bugs as it can and the other team has 24 hours to sweep for them. The Estonians are the best [at detection], but no one ever finds all the devices," the source said.

Nato declined to comment on the Shape story and referred EUobserver to "Belgian authorities" for security questions.

But the Belgian defence ministry's argument, in the Conseil d'État, on the details of Luxaviation's so-called "dry lease" contract, might have had a blind spot.

The Belgian defence ministry owns the old ERJ jets it currently uses for VIP flights.

They may be "embarrassing", but that means Belgian soldiers, who are security-vetted, take care of the machines.

The Luxaviation "dry lease" would see Belgian air force pilots fly the EU Council and Nato chiefs, but the part-Chinese firm would do the servicing and maintenance of the Dassault Falcons, creating scope for concern.

The EU Council once found listening devices in the communications systems of its former HQ, the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, in 2003.

A Belgian inquiry said the Mossad, the Israeli spy service, probably did it via a US telecommunications firm called Comverse Technology.

"The lesson ... is you should be careful when choosing your subcontractors," Peter de Smet, a Belgian politician who took part in the investigation, told EUobserver at the time.

The lesson

Needle in haystack: bugs could be placed during jet maintenance (Photo: luxaviation.com)

If Luxaviation did pose a security risk, then EU institutions were already exposed.

Luxaviation's three subsidiaries - Masterjet, Unijet, and Abelag - already fly VIPs from the EU Council, the European Commission, and the EU foreign service under an existing deal.

"There's an inter-institutional contract in place for air-taxis that is currently awarded to Luxaviation," the EU Council spokesman said.

He declined to comment on the China espionage alert.

"[But] one can expect our leaders to know where and when they can or cannot have conversations on sensitive issues", the EU spokesman said.

"Security risks exist in many areas of our work, including transport. The [EU] commission takes the necessary steps to mitigate them," a commission spokesperson added.

Meanwhile, if the Conseil d'État gives the green light to Luxaviation, in a decision expected in the next two weeks, the firm will gain an even bigger share of Belgium's VIP jet market.

And that was a market of "global" significance due to the EU and Nato events, Luxaviation's lawyer, Frühling, noted.

If the Belgian court gives a red light, then the defence ministry might have little choice but to lease the planes from FlyingGroup instead, due to lack of competition in the sector.

The ministry earlier named FlyingGroup as its second favourite in the tender process.

But if Belgian authorities were to do the same kind of vetting on them as FlyingGroup has called for on Luxaviation, then FlyingGroup would also have hard questions to answer.

A FlyingGroup executive, who asked not to be named, told EUobserver in court on Friday it was "fully" owned by Bernard Van Milders, a Belgian millionaire.

But its ownership looked less clear on paper.

It was run by three other Belgian firms, an aviation tycoon called Eric Weisskopf who lives in Malta and who was once involved in a Venezuela cocaine smuggling imbroglio, as well as Van Milders himself and others, according to its Belgian central bank declaration.

If Belgian authorities simply googled FlyingGroup, they would see it has links to Alijan Ibragimov, a Kazakh oligarch widely reported to work for Russia.

Ibragimov has used a FlyingGroup jet, a Dassault Falcon with registration OO-IDY, in recent years, according to wealth-tracker websites.

His family owns a mansion at Avenue de la Tendraie in the Belgian village of Ophain-Bois-Seigneur-Isaac.

And DDSF Holding, a Belgian firm owned by four of his sons and registered at the same location, invested €2.7m in a FlyingGroup warehouse in Antwerp in 2012, according to de Vlaamse Ondernemer, a local news website.

Van Milders declined to say who ultimately owned FlyingGroup or how Ibragimov was involved.

And no one picked up when EUobserver tried to phone DDSF.

But the openly-available facts also conjured up a James Bond scenario, in which EU and Nato VIPs flew in machines that were being serviced in a part-Russian warehouse.

Fly4What?

Fly4Health: A front for "Russian mafia oligarchs"? (Photo: fly4health.org)

If Belgian authorities also thumbed through their own files, they would find other red flags.

FlyingGroup, a few years ago did business with a Belgian firm called Fly4Health, whose website says it ferries wealthy Russians for medical services in the St Elisabeth's clinic in Brussels, in what would make a curious bedfellow for EU and Nato top brass.

FlyingGroup and Fly4Health had a "big contract ... probably for leasing of aircraft," according to a "secret" VSSE report dated 2014 and seen by EUobserver.

The VSSE has a cache of related invoices, worth tens of thousands of euros each.

And Fly4Health's other secrets made it a more curious bedfellow still.

One of its owners, Simon Devos, was a reservist in the Belgian military intelligence service, the Algemene Dienst Inlichting en Veiligheid (ADIV), but the ADIV later fired him on suspicion of Russia espionage.

And what Fly4Health really did was "logistical support to Russian mafia oligarchs: money-laundering; traffic in diamonds, petrol, and medications", multiple VSSE reports seen by EUobserver said.

FlyingGroup declined to comment on Fly4Health.

And the phone numbers and emails on Fly4Health's website did not work.

But whatever it really does, it is still doing something because it filed accounts with the Belgian regulator in May, which describes its activity as "normal".

And that something is not flying people to St Elisabeth's, because the medical project flopped years ago, the clinic told EUobserver.

"It never worked ... I don't think they [Fly4Health] exist any more," a St Elisabeth's contact said.

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