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Kazakh Oligarchs Invest in Leading US Cyber Defense Companies

Galimzhan Yessenov, a politically-connected oligarch from Kazakhstan, has emerged as a possible investor in US companies operating in sensitive sectors including cyber defense and drone manufacturing.

Yessenov, who is estimated to be worth $500 million, is the co-owner of a private equity fund called Asadel Partners, which is part of a group that has secretly acquired stakes in various US businesses that have links to the Pentagon.

Yessenov’s potential involvement in these sensitive US businesses has raised concerns given his close ties to the regime of Kazakhstan’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. His father-in-law is Akhmetzhan Yessimov, the former deputy prime minister of Kazakhstan and the current chairman of the country’s $60 billion sovereign wealth fund.

Yessenov’s wealth reportedly stems from his political connections and he is described as a “politically exposed person” in global compliance databases.

Yessenov’s business partner in Asadel is Margulan Seisembayev, who was convicted in 2012 of embezzling more than $1 billion from Alliance Bank in Kazakhstan. Seisembayev was given a two-year suspended sentence but has since developed the Asadel group to include a range of investment funds.

According to archived Asadel webpages, the funds have invested in companies including Cylance Inc, a California-based cyber security firm. Cylance’s “Operation Cleaver” investigation uncovered an Iranian cyberattack in 2014 that had targeted global critical infrastructure including US Government and military installations. Cylance was acquired by Blackberry in 2019 but it is not known if Asadel remains an investor.

Galimzhan Yessenov’s close ties to the Nazarbayev regime could be an issue given growing concern at the Pentagon and US Treasury over infiltration of US technology companies by rich investors from Russia, China and other nations.

In January, the Treasury expanded the powers of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which monitors foreigners buying stakes in US companies. The new rules significantly expanded CFIUS’s powers and it can now block foreign investors buying stakes in technology companies, telecommunications, utilities, energy companies and firms that process personal financial or biographical data.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has also blocked several deals involving Chinese technology companies amid growing concern over foreign influence in key industries.

Although the Asadel group has taken down a number of its websites, the archived pages reveal other companies that the funds have apparently invested in. These include Dark Shadows Inc. a Silicon Valley-based cyber firm that offers threat intelligence and dark web monitoring. The company was founded by defense industry veterans and actively recruits former military personnel.

Another Asadel investment was in Countertack, which is now called GoSecure Inc. GoSecure has attracted funding from OnPoint Technologies, a venture capital fund created by the US Army and the Pentagon. Another of GoSecure’s partners is ManTech, which provides intelligence services to the US military.

Asadel also appears to have invested in SkyWard IO, which manages and operates drones for American energy and utility companies. SkyWard was acquired by Verizon in 2017.

Asadel Partners was launched by Yessenov and Seisembayev in 2014 and is one of a number of funds within the Asadel group. Other funds in the group are based in opaque jurisdictions such as United Arab Emirates and are owned by Seisembayev or his wife. It is not known how many of the funds Yessenov is involved with.

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