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Monday, February 25, 2019

What's going on in the World Today 190225



Meet ‘Charming Kitten,’ the Iranian Hackers Linked to Air Force Defector

Monica Witt fled to Iran and was indicted for espionage—alongside an Iranian hacking luminary.

Maverick, an American shorthair, keeps his claw on the mouse as he uses a computer at a press preview for the Cat Fanciers’ Association show at Madison Square Garden in New York on Oct. 10, 2007. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

When U.S. prosecutors unsealed an indictment this week revealing that Air Force intelligence officer Monica Witt had defected to Iran and revealed top secret information, the news sent a shockwave through Washington. But Witt wasn’t the only person in prosecutors’ crosshairs: Also indicted were top Iranian hackers, charged with targeting U.S. intelligence officials for espionage.

The inclusion in the indictment of one notorious hacker, Behzad Mesri, provides a window into Iranian intelligence efforts and shows how a human intelligence operation to recruit a U.S. counterintelligence official informed an online espionage campaign. According to U.S. prosecutors, Mesri and three other Iranian hackers used intelligence provided by Witt to target U.S. intelligence officials for surveillance.

With all eyes focused on Witt after the Wednesday indictment was unsealed, Mesri’s involvement has been mostly overlooked. But for veteran observers of Iranian hacking activity, his name set off alarm bells.

In November 2017, Joon Kim, then-acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, delivered a melodramatic proclamation about a newly indicted Iranian hacker: “Winter has come for Behzad Mesri.” Mesri had allegedly broken into HBO’s computer systems, stealing unreleased episodes and scripts from the hit show Game of Thrones and demanding $6 million in exchange for not releasing the pilfered material. He remained free—and, apparently, a free agent.

Mesri is one of a number of Iranian hackers who maintain an ambiguous relationship with the country’s intelligence services. When he was indicted for breaking into HBO, U.S. prosecutors made no claim that he was operating on behalf of the government. Rather, he appeared to be freelancing in an ambitious attempt to cash in on his hacking skills.

That shadowy relationship between Iranian security services and the country’s hacking community provides groups such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps access to hackers and gives black hats lucrative sidelines.

“These guys are probably contractors—or not necessarily uniformed officers—who probably have other side projects going on,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at the cybersecurity firm FireEye. “It really makes it difficult to tell” what their relationship is with the government, he said...




Britannia Helps Rule the Waves

The Royal Navy’s return to Asia can guarantee the freedom of the seas.

Britain's new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth arrives in New York on Oct. 19, 2018. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The freedom of the seas is facing its greatest threat in decades from authoritarian rulers who flout maritime law and the liberal “rules-based order” of seagoing trade, commerce, and martial endeavors it underwrites. Xi Jinping’s China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over some 80-90 percent of the South China Sea, meaning it intends to make the rules governing maritime activities and amass overpowering armed might to enforce them—including in waters apportioned to its neighbors by treaty. Meanwhile Vladimir Putin’s Russia has mounted a de facto blockade of Ukraine’s southeastern seacoast, seizing Ukrainian vessels and their crews trying to enter the Sea of Azov from the Black Sea.

That’s why it’s time for European leaders to speak up and show up—and perhaps none more so than Britain, once the chief enforcer of the modern law of the sea. Remaining silent about lawlessness is tantamount to consenting to it—and the consent of states is a wellspring of international law.

So the news that “global Britain” is returning to waters “east of Suez” is music to the ears of friends of nautical liberty. It’s the opposite of acquiescing to Chinese or Russian affronts. “This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War,” said British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson. “This is our moment to be that true global player once more—and I think the armed forces play a really important role as part of that.” In short, Britain is staging a comeback in the Indian and Pacific oceans—and it has put the region on notice that it intends to stay.

If it’s critical to speak up, friends of maritime freedom must also build up naval and military forces and dispatch them to hot spots where the freedom of the seas is in peril. They must put steel behind their words. And they must pool their military might with allies, not just to bolster their strength but to telegraph unity and resolve. If the allies speak with one voice—and put skin in the game, in the form of fighting ships and sailors, to show they mean it—Beijing, Moscow, and others may take heed. At the same time, their message will gladden the hearts of weaker states subjected to autocrats’ bullying. It will embolden the weak to stand up for their rights and privileges.

A standing British presence in Indo-Pacific waters will be a throwback to imperial days. Britain began the withdrawal of its forces east of Suez starting in the 1950s for good reason: It had exhausted itself beating back the Central Powers and then the Axis in the world wars, the sun was setting on the empire, and the United States had taken up the mantle of Western diplomatic and military leadership.

Britannia no longer rules the waves. For all that, though, its navy remains a world-class force despite its shriveled inventory of ships and aircraft. In 2020, the Royal Navy will deploy a projected 30 vessels suitable for fighting for control of the seas, including an aircraft carrier and a handful of nuclear-powered attack submarine and guided-missile destroyers and frigates. (A clutch of logistics, repair, and other auxiliary vessels helps keep the fleet fit for action.) Though stretched thin, such a fleet can help protect the freedom of the seas by concentrating its few warships in or near embattled expanses such as the South China Sea and working alongside U.S. and allied navies. It increasingly boasts ships able to anchor a serious presence, such as its recently commissioned first supercarrier, dubbed HMS Queen Elizabeth. A second, HMS Prince of Wales, should commence sea trials this year...


Murder in Mexico: What's the Danger to an American Tourist?


- Mexico broke its record for homicides last year, and the dynamics that are driving that violence are unlikely to abate in the near future.

- At the same time, record numbers of U.S. citizens are either visiting Mexico as tourists or residing in the country, yet the number of Americans murdered in Mexico remains remarkably low.
- Still, violent crime remains a problem in Mexico, and visitors and residents should take measures to mitigate the risk.

With spring break right around the corner, our Threat Lens team is once again in demand, as clients — along with a wide array of friends and family — are all wondering about the safety of a Mexican getaway for some spring sun. Of course, the concern is understandable. As our 2019 Mexico cartel forecast reported, murders in the country hit their highest rate ever last year and, worryingly, there's nothing to suggest that this year will be any different...

Mexico: Government to No Longer Allow Oil Joint Ventures Between Pemex, Private Companies

What Happened: Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said his government will not permit any new joint ventures for oil production between state-owned energy company Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and private companies, Reuters reported Feb. 21. Lopez Obrador added that new joint ventures would not be allowed until existing investments begin their production.

Why It Matters: The announcement is part of Lopez Obrador's strategy to limit private investment in Mexico's energy sector and strengthen state-owned Pemex instead.

Background: Lopez Obrador has been considering legislation to strengthen the authority of Pemex's director by defunding independent energy regulators and by appointing political allies to key energy watchdogs, such as Mexico's Energy Regulatory Commission.


Heckler & Koch fined for illegal gun sales to Mexico

A German court has handed suspended jail terms to two ex-employees of gun maker Heckler & Koch and fined the firm €3.7m (£3.2m) for illegal arms deliveries to Mexico.

The Stuttgart court acquitted three other H&K ex-employees.

H&K was found to have breached German arms export rules by shipping nearly 5,000 G36 assault rifles and smaller firearms to strife-torn regions.

Mexico is plagued by warfare involving drug gangs and paramilitaries.

Germany's arms export restrictions include Mexican states such as Chiapas, Chihuahua and Guerrero, which are blighted by murders and kidnappings.

The H&K deliveries took place in 2006-2009. One ex-employee was given a suspended sentence of one year and 10 months, plus a fine of €80,000. The other received one year and five months and was ordered to do 250 hours of social work.

H&K guns, made in the south-western town of Oberndorf, are used in conflicts worldwide. Besides Mexico, they have gone to troops and militias in Pakistan, Myanmar (Burma), Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey...

...German broadcasters SWR and BR found evidence that G36 guns were used in a notorious militia attack on Mexican students in Iguala in 2014, in which six students died and 43 were kidnapped. All but one of the 43 disappeared without trace.

The Stuttgart case was triggered by evidence against H&K presented by peace activist Jürgen Grässlin eight years ago, German media report.




China Sets a Course for the U.S.'s Pacific Domain


- The decrease in U.S. interest in Pacific islands like the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau will provide further openings for Chinese influence in the area at a time when competition is mounting between Washington and Beijing.

- Remote islands that are unable to foster a self-sustaining economy will continue to leverage their strategic position to extract benefits from both sides.

- Australia, Japan and South Korea will all be critical in helping Washington to counterbalance growing Chinese influence here.

James Michener called the Pacific Ocean "the meeting ground for Asia and America," a world of endless ocean and "infinite specks of coral" that form a highway between east and west. Indeed, these scattered islands stretching from Papua New Guinea to Easter Island have been an important link between the two rims of the Pacific since at least the 16th century, when imperial Spain's Manila Galleons sailed between colonial Mexico and the Philippines — bypassing the dominance of its Iberian neighbor, Portugal, in the Indian Ocean.

The gradual emergence of the United States as the premier Pacific power, cemented in the wake of World War II and the subsequent Cold War, involved the establishment of footholds on these vital stepping stones. Today, these footholds remain — either as sovereign U.S.-held territories or freely associated states — but the end of the Cold War reduced these lands' importance to the United States.

But with China rising and great power competition heating up, these islands have gained renewed strategic prominence. Beijing's maritime ambitions center first and foremost on the first island chain that runs from the Kurils through Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to Borneo, but the second island chain from Japan south to the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Micronesia, Palau and Papua New Guinea will be critical in the long term. And given their small size and economic challenges, these Pacific microstates ultimately offer a low-cost opportunity for China to grow its influence and challenge U.S. strategic dominance...

China: Dalian Port Halts Imports of Australian Coal

What Happened: The port of Dalian, one of China's largest ports, has halted coal imports from Australia and will reportedly limit total coal imports for 2019 to 12 million tons, Reuters reported Feb. 20.

Why It Matters: The ban comes amid a diplomatic spat between Beijing and Canberra that includes Australian allegations that China was orchestrating a cyberattack on the country's parliament and the visa termination of a prominent Chinese businessman, among others. The development also raises speculation that China is increasingly using its economic leverage to gain influence over other countries.

Background: Australian coal made up nearly half of all imported coal at the Dalian port in 2018 and accounts for 43.5 percent of China's total imports of coking coal. The Chinese government has been introducing efforts to limit steel and coal imports to shore up prices for domestic firms.


Iran showcases first submarine cruise missile as part of Gulf war games

Iran has showcased its first submarine cruise missile as part of extensive naval drills at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the state news agency IRNA reported on Friday.

More than 100 vessels were taking part in the three-day war games in a vast area stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean.

The naval drills come at a time of rising tensions with the United States, and less than a week after the Warsaw conference that aimed to create a US-backed alliance against Iran that would include Israel and other Arab states in the Gulf.

"The exercise will cover confronting a range of threats, testing weapons, and evaluating the readiness of equipment and personnel," navy commander Hossein Khanzadi said in remarks carried by state television.

"Submarine missile launches will be carried out... in addition to helicopter and drone launches from the deck of the Sahand destroyer," Khanzadi said.

Iran will be testing its new domestically built Fateh (Conqueror) submarine, which is armed with cruise missiles and was launched last week at the Bandar Abbas naval base, state media said.

Iranian officials in the past have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil shipping route, in retaliation for any hostile US action, including attempts to halt Iranian oil exports through sanctions.

The Islamic Republic has expanded its missile programme, particularly its ballistic missiles. Western experts say Iran often exaggerates its weapons capabilities.

Iran launched its domestically made destroyer Sahand in December, which officials say has radar-evading stealth properties.

As part of celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution earlier this month, Iran displayed a new cruise surface-to-surface missile with a range of 1,300 km...




How Israel's Elections Will Shape Its Regional Strategy


- Israel's April 9 general elections could potentially end the Benjamin Netanyahu era, ushering in new dynamics for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, the Israel-Gulf rapprochement and Israel's relationship with the Palestinians.

- But whoever leads the next Israeli government will still face rising tensions in Gaza, the West Bank and Syria that threaten to escalate into large-scale violence or even conflict between Israel and Iran.
The next Israeli government will also have to contend with a less-friendly United States due to rising bipartisan concerns about Chinese-Israeli ties, as well as increasing skepticism of Israeli strategies among some Democrats in Congress.

Israel's general election on April 9 could usher in a new era of politics in the country. Although opinion polls still generally favor incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling center-right coalition, rising discontent has created a path for center-left challenger Benny Gantz to take the helm of the government and reshape Israel's relations both near and far. But regardless of who wins, the next government will still be forced to grapple with brewing threats from Iran and the Palestinian Territories that could both easily escalate into major conflict. As well, it will have to deal with a U.S. government that's critical of its ties with China — and U.S. politicians increasingly critical of Israeli actions...




Russian Military Says Nyet to the Internet

Putin wants soldiers to stop revealing secrets of his shadow wars on their social media pages.

In early 2015, Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists defeated government forces in the city of Debaltseve in a major battle that seemed to prove something about the balance of forces in the conflict: The ragtag insurgents could face the country’s conventional military on their own and win.

But it later became clear that Russian troops deployed in the area helped the separatists defeat the Ukrainian forces—a fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin had tried to hide. How was the secret revealed? Russian soldiers involved in the fighting posted details of the battle on social media.

Now, four years later, Russia has passed a law that forbids military personnel from posting photographs, video, and geolocation data on the internet. As Russian forces are increasingly involved in secretive campaigns far from home, the idea is to prevent the details of these shadow wars from seeping out.

But researchers who have tracked Russian troop movements using open-source material and social media argue that the new measure is unlikely to obscure the Kremlin’s maneuvers...


U.S. Ally in Syria Welcomes Trump’s Reversal on Troops

The decision is a win for Kurdish-led forces who feared the withdrawal would leave them unprotected against Turkey’s plans for northern Syria

BEIRUT—The U.S.’s main ally in the fight against Islamic State welcomed President Trump’s decision to leave U.S. troops in Syria, a change in American plans that the Syrian Kurds have lobbied for ever since the withdrawal announcement.

The White House said the U.S. will maintain a small peacekeeping force of about 200 troops in Syria, a partial reversal of an earlier decision by President Trump to remove all American troops. The hastily announced withdrawal in December was criticized by members of his own administration, U.S....




U.K.: London Signals a Challenge to Washington's Hard Line on Huawei

The Big Picture

Huawei has grown in strength to become one of the world's most important telecommunications companies. But as the firm strives to participate in the rollout of 5G networks around the world, some Western countries — particularly the United States — have expressed concerns that its technology could open a back door to Chinese espionage. New findings in the United Kingdom, however, appear to challenge the U.S. stance that Huawei represents a clear and present danger.
What Happened

Two trans-Atlantic allies might soon be coming to a head over Huawei. On Feb. 17, the British National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) downplayed the alleged dangers of using 5G network gear from the Chinese tech giant on the country's telecommunications infrastructure, concluding that it was possible to mitigate the risks that equipment made by the company might pose. The cybersecurity authority has yet to publish its findings, yet it has conspicuously refrained from denying reports about the conclusion. The authority's report follows recent comments by the former head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Robert Hannigan, who said the NCSC had never discovered "any malicious Chinese state cyber activity through Huawei." Echoing his optimistic view was Alex Younger, the head of British foreign intelligence service MI6, who suggested late last week that the United Kingdom could take a softer line on Huawei than the United States...


CIA Lies Low, Waiting for Trump Storm to Pass

With Dan Coats’s job as director of national intelligence on the line, senior CIA officials avoid criticizing the president.

For most of his presidency, Donald Trump has waged a war on members of his own intelligence community, openly scorning their assessments and now reportedly weighing whether to fire Dan Coats as director of national intelligence for publicly opposing his views.

But current CIA Director Gina Haspel, despite her own quiet repudiation of the president’s rhetoric, appears to be safe in her post. And that may be in part because the agency and most of its former senior officials have avoided public criticism of Trump for fear of incurring his wrath and jeopardizing Haspel’s job as well as the institution, according to former agency officials. Indeed, the CIA is one of the few major government departments that has not been subjected to a Trump political appointee at its senior levels.

Many career intelligence professionals are privately shocked and appalled by Trump’s behavior, in particular his tendency to credit the statements of bad actors such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the assessments of the CIA. But with a few exceptions such as former CIA Director John Brennan, most of these career officials have remained silent, knowing that Trump typically focuses his ire on public agencies he considers disloyal...



Orbex’s Prime Launcher Combines Innovations

Executives from Orbex, an Anglo-Danish startup opening its UK headquarters and rocket integration facility in Forres, Scotland, say astronautical and commercial imperatives have aligned to drive novel design elements for its Prime small satellite launch vehicle.

“Essentially, we sat down and tried to rethink the look for a modern-day rocket with a modern-day fuel, if you are not bound by anything,” Jonas Bjarnoe, Orbex’s chief technical officer, said at a Feb. 7 unveiling of Prime’s second stage. “Suddenly it dawns on you that there is a combination of production techniques, system architecture and propellants that allows you to do something that is really efficient. And you are not even stretching the technology to its extremes. It’s just the right combination of technologies.”

Orbex provided a peek at the Prime rocket’s second stage

The launch vehicle will loft payloads of up to 200 kg...

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