Taliban pose open threat to 70% of Afghanistan, BBC study finds

TalibanThe Taliban have an open and constant presence in 70 percent of Afghanistan, according to an extensive study undertaken by the BBC, which was conducted over several months in every corner of the country. The report comes nearly 17 years after a military coalition led by the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Since then, Western forces, most of them members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have spent countless lives and billions of dollars in an effort to defeat the Pashtun-led insurgency of the Taliban. American forces in the country, which at the end of 2009 numbered close to 100,000 troops, were reduced to a force of fewer than 8,000 by 2014, when US President Barack Obama declared the war over.

But the BBC study has found that the Taliban have grown in strength since the US military withdrawal, and are now more powerful than at any time in the past decade. The BBC said that it carried out the study between August and November of 2017, with the help of a large network of reporters who spoke to more than 1,200 local sources. Thousands of interviews were conducted either in person or by telephone with Afghans across the country, and every report of a Taliban-related violent incident was cross-referenced with as many as six other sources, said the BBC. The interviews covered every one of Afghanistan’s 399 districts, using a representative sample from both urban and rural areas.

The findings were described by one expert, Kate Clark, co-director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network, as “shocking”. They show that more than half of Afghanistan’s population resides in areas that are either mostly controlled by the Taliban, or where Taliban forces are openly and regularly active. The group is now in complete control of 14 Afghan districts, which represent 4 percent of the country’s territory. But they maintain an open armed presence in another 263 districts, which represent a further 66 percent of Afghan territory. No open Taliban presence was reported in 122 districts (30 percent of Afghanistan), but the BBC cautioned that many attacks by the Taliban are not reported by the locals. The statistics published in the study show that the Taliban have managed to establish strongholds far beyond their traditional strongholds of southeastern Afghanistan. They are now openly active in much of central, western, and even northern Afghanistan, where their power had been limited in the past.

The BBC reported that the Afghan government dismissed the findings of the study, arguing that its forces are in control of most areas in the country. The US government has not commented on the BBC study. US President Donald Trump said last week that his representatives would not hold talks with the Taliban, and announced that 1,000 more American troops would be sent to the country.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2018 | Permalink

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China hacked African Union computer servers for five years, report claims

African UnionChinese spies hacked the computer servers of the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, which the Chinese government funded and built as a gift to the organization, a French newspaper has claimed. Beijing donated $200 million toward the project and hired the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation to build the tower, which was completed in 2012. Since then, the impressive 330 feet, 19-storey skyscraper, with its reflective glass and brown stone exterior, has become the most recognizable feature of Addis Ababa’s skyline. The majority of the building material used to construct the tower was brought to Ethiopia from China. Beijing even paid for the cost of the furniture used in the impressive-looking building.

However, according to the Paris-based Le Monde Afrique newspaper, African Union technical staff found that the computer servers housed in the organization’s headquarters were secretly communicating with a server facility in Shanghai, China. The secret communications reportedly took place at the same time every night, namely between midnight and 2 in the morning. According to Le Monde Afrique, the African Union servers forwarded data to the servers in Shanghai from 2012, when the building opened its doors, until early 2017.

Interestingly, even though the organization was allegedly notified about the breach by its technical staff in January of 2017, there has been no public reaction on record. However, according to Le Monde Afrique, African Union officials took immediate steps to terminate the breach. These included replacing the Chinese-made servers with new servers purchased with African Union funds, without Beijing’s mediation. Additionally, new encryption was installed on the servers, and a service contract with Ethio Telecom, Ethiopia’s state-owned telecommu- nications service provider, which uses Chinese hardware, has been terminated.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the French newspaper’s allegations as “baseless” and “complete nonsense”. A statement issued by the ministry said that Beijing would “in no way interfere with the internal policies of African countries or do anything that would hurt their interests”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 30 January 2018 | Permalink

Dutch spies identified Russian hackers who meddled in 2016 US election

Cozy BearDutch spies identified a notorious Russian hacker group that compromised computer servers belonging to the Democratic Party of the United States and notified American authorities of the attack, according to reports. In 2016, US intelligence agencies determined that a Russian hacker group known as Cozy Bear, or APT29, led a concerted effort to interfere in the US presidential election. The effort, which according to US intelligence agencies was sponsored by the Russian government, involved cyber-attacks against computer systems in the White House and the Department of State, among other targets. It also involved the theft of thousands of emails from computer servers belonging to the Democratic National Committee, which is the governing body of the Democratic Party. The stolen emails were eventually leaked to WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and other online outlets. Prior descriptions of the Russian hacking in the media have hinted that US intelligence agencies were notified of the Russian cyber-attacks by foreign spy agencies. But there was no mention of where the initial clues came from.

Last Thursday, the Dutch current affairs program Nieuwsuur, which airs daily on Holland’s NPO 2 television, said that the initial tipoff originated from the AIVD, Holland’s General Intelligence and Security Service. On the same day, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published a detailed account of what it described as AIVD’s successful penetration of Cozy Bear. According to these reports, AIVD was able to penetrate Cozy Bear in mid-2014, before the hacker group intensified its campaign against political targets in the US. Citing “six American and Dutch sources who are familiar with the material, but wish to remain anonymous”, De Volkskrant said that the AIVD was able to detect the physical base of the Cozy Bear hackers. The latter appeared to be working out of an academic facility that was adjacent to Moscow’s Red Square. The AIVD team was then able to remotely take control of security camera networks located around the facility. Eventually, the Dutch team hacked into another security camera network located inside the buildings in which the hackers worked. They soon began to collect pictures and footage of Cozy Bear members, which they then compared with photos of “known Russian spies”, according to De Volkskrant.

The paper said that the AIVD team continued to monitor Cozy Bear’s activities until at least 2017, while sharing intelligence with the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency in the US. The intelligence was allegedly instrumental in alerting US spy agencies about Russian government-sponsored efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. Several newspapers, including The Washington Post in the US and The Independent in Britain, contacted the AIVD and the MIVD —Holland’s military intelligence agency— over the weekend. But the two agencies said they would not comment on reports concerning Cozy Bear.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 January 2018 | Research credit: E.J. & E.K. | Permalink

Britain to set up intelligence unit to combat ‘fake news’ by foreign states

Theresa MayThe British government has announced that it will form a new intelligence unit tasked with preventing the spread of so-called “fake news” by foreign states, including Russia. The decision was revealed earlier this week in London by a government spokesman, who said that the new unit will be named “National Security Communications Unit”. The spokesman added that the unit will be responsible for “combating disinformation by state actors and others”. When asked by reporters whether the effort was meant as a response to the phenomenon often described as “fake news”, the spokesman said that it was.

According to The Times newspaper, the proposal for a National Security Communications Unit was presented during a scheduled meeting of the country’s National Security Council earlier this week. It was put forward by its strongest proponent, Sir Mark Sedwill, Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan and current national security adviser to the government. The unit will be directly accountable to the Cabinet Office, the government department that is responsible for providing support to the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. It will be staffed with professionals from Britain’s intelligence and security agencies, but will also rely on contributions from external experts in cybersecurity, communications and public relations. The unit will also include a “rapid response unit” that will be tasked with countering “fake news” in real time, according to The Times.

The move follows a similar development in the United States. In December of 2016, the then President Barack Obama signed a new law that designated $160 million to set up a government center for “countering foreign propaganda and disinformation”. The law, entitled “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act”, authorized the departments of State and Defense to work with other federal agencies in establishing the new body. According to a statement by the White House, the goal of the Center would be to collect and analyze “foreign government information warfare efforts” and to “expose and counter foreign information operations” directed against “US national security interests”.

On Wednesday it was announced in London that the British Secretary of Defense, Gavin Williamson, will be providing further details about the National Security Communications Unit in a speech to the House of Commons “within the next few days”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 January 2018 | Permalink

Lebanese media accuses Mossad of assassination attempt in Sidon

Mohammad HamdanMedia reports from Lebanon claim that Israel was behind a bomb explosion that injured an official of the Palestinian group Hamas in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon eight days ago. The official, Mohammad Abu Hamza Hamdan, who is originally from the Gaza Strip, suffered light wounds when his parked car blew up on January 14. Television footage posted online by Lebanon24 from the site of the alleged attack shows smoke coming out of a white BMW car, parked on the courtyard of Hamdan’s home. Reporters at the site said the car belonged to Hamdan and that it had been booby-trapped by unknown assailants. Hamdan was reportedly transported to a nearby hospital, where he received treatment for light wounds.

Reports quoted Lebanese officials who pointed to the fact that the booby-trapped car was parked inside the enclosed courtyard of Hamdan’s home as evidence that the attack was specifically targeted at Hamdan. Others said that the attackers may have originally planned to kill Hamdan’s brother, Osama Hamdan, also from the Gaza Strip, who has served as Hamas’ Lebanon representative for 30 years. Now a new article published by Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper has accused Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency of having orchestrated the assassination attempt. The paper also said that Lebanese security officials had managed to identify the Mossad operatives that carried out the attack. It said they were headed by Ahmed Battiya, a Dutch-born Lebanese man who was recruited by the Mossad in Holland and has participated in prior assassination operations perpetrated by the Israeli spy agency. Al Akhbar said that Battiya had traveled extensively inside Lebanon on behalf of the Mossad, in order to identify Hamas officials and track their movements. The article was published hours after Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite paramilitary group Hezbollah, also accused Israel of attempting to kill Hamdan.

In Israel, however, government officials appeared to reject claims that the Mossad was behind the attack on Hamdan. The country’s Minister of Defense, Avigdor Liberman, told reporters that the Lebanese media blames Israel for everything that happens in Lebanon, and warned Hamas not to open a “new front against Israel from Lebanon”. Yisrael Katz, Israel’s Minister for Intelligence, said that, if Israel had been involved in the attack against Hamdan, “this wouldn’t have ended with him lightly wounded”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 22 January 2018 | Permalink

Lebanese spy agency used Android app to spy on thousands, say researchers

GDGS EFF LookoutThe spy agency of Lebanon used a virus designed for the Android mobile operating system to compromise the cell phones of thousands of people in at least 20 countries, according to a new mobile security report. The 50-page report was published on Thursday by a team of researchers from Lookout, a mobile security company, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Washington, DC. In an accompanying press release, the researchers said that the virus, which they named Dark Caracal, has been in existence for at least six years. They added that it was traced to a building in Beirut belonging to the General Directorate of General Security (GDGS), Lebanon’s primary external intelligence agency.

According to the Lookout/EFF research team, the trojanized phone application was camouflaged as a secure messaging service, resembling popular applications like Signal or WhatsApp. However, once an Android user downloaded it, it gave remote users access to the compromised phone’s cameras and microphone, thus turning it into a bugging device. The virus also stole email and text messages, pins and passwords, lists of contacts, call logs, photographs, as well as video and audio recordings stored on the compromised device. The report states that compromised devices were found in over 20 countries, including Lebanon, France, Canada, the United States and Germany. The majority of those targeted by the virus were civilian and military officials of foreign governments, defense contractors, and employees of manufacturing companies, financial institutions and utility providers.

On Thursday, Reuters contacted Major General Abbas Ibrahim, who serves as director general of GDGS. He insisted that the GDGS is known for collecting intelligence using human sources, not cyber technologies. “General Security does not have these type[s] of capabilities. We wish we had these capabilities”, General Ibrahim told the news agency.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 19 January 2018 | Permalink

Ex-CIA case officer was arrested after being lured back to US at least once

FBIA former case officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, who was arrested this week for violating the United States Espionage Act, was lured back to America from Hong Kong at least once by counterintelligence investigators, according to reports. Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007. He was arrested by Federal Bureau of Investigation officers on Monday, as soon as he arrived in the US from Hong Kong. He is accused of carrying with him top-secret information about CIA agents and operations, which he was not authorized to possess. It now appears that the FBI had been investigating Lee since 2010, and that he was lured to the US in 2012 so that he could be investigated. It is also possible that he was lured back to the US from his home in Hong Kong on Monday, so that he could be arrested by the FBI.

The New York Times said on Wednesday that a consortium of FBI agents and CIA officers identified Lee as a suspect in a counterintelligence case involving the loss of over a dozen CIA assets in China between 2010 and 2012. By that time, Lee had left his job as a case officer —essentially a spy handler— in the CIA and was living in Hong Kong. According to NBC, the FBI decided to lure Lee back to American soil by creating a job for him in the nation’s capital. That was the reason why Lee traveled with his family back to the US in August of 2012. The family stopped in Hawaii, where, according to court documents, the FBI surreptitiously searched Lee’s possessions in a Honolulu hotel. FBI officers also searched Lee’s belongings in a hotel in Virginia a few days later. Lee was found to have with him two notebooks containing “operational notes from asset meetings”, “operational phone numbers” and even “the addresses of CIA covert facilities” —safe houses where CIA case officers meet their assets in privacy.

According to The Times, the FBI confronted Lee five times in subsequent months, but did not inform him that his belongings had been surreptitiously searched or that he had been found to possess classified information without authorization. But the FBI did not press charges against Lee, nor did it prevent him from returning to Hong Kong with his family in the summer of 2013. Instead, it focused on establishing a connection between Lee and the catastrophic loss of CIA assets in China. It was only this week, when Lee returned to the US, that authorities decided to arrest him. The reason why Lee decided to return to the US remains unknown. The possibility that he may have been lured back to the US by the FBI, just as he was in 2012, should not be excluded.

It appears that investigators have not at this point connected Lee with the more serious charge of conveying the classified information to foreign agents. Instead, the former CIA officer is charged simply with possessing top-secret information, but not with communicating it. The charge is believed to be “the same single charge that could have been brought years ago”, namely when Lee was found to be carrying classified information with him in Hawaii.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 January 2018 | Permalink