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Russian Hackers: The shadowy world of US and Gulf hacks just got murkier

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The covert Qatar-United Arab Emirates cyberwar that helped spark the 13-month-old Gulf crisis that pits a Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance against Qatar may have just gotten murkier with the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Mr. Mueller’s indictment provided detail on website DCLeaks that was allegedly registered by Russian intelligence officers. The website initially distributed illicitly obtained documents associated with people connected to the Republican Party and later hacked emails from individuals affiliated with the election campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“Starting in or around June 2016 and continuing through the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Conspirators used DCLeaks to release emails stolen from individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign,” the indictment reads.

The indictment focusses exclusively on hacking related to the US election that in 2017 brought Donald J. Trump to office. It makes no mention of hacking related to the 13-month-old Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar.

Yet, the indictment’s repeated references to DCLeaks raises the question whether there may also be a Russian link to the hacking last year of Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the United States.

Mr. Otaiba’s revealing and potentially damaging emails that seemed to help Qatar in its public diplomacy campaign were distributed to major media and analysts, including this writer, by an entity that identified itself as Global Leaks.

Questions about a potential link between Global Leaks, DCLeaks and Russia stem not only from Global Leak’s use of a Russian provider that offers free email service but also by the group’s own reference to DCLeaks. The group’s initial email had ‘DCLeaks’ in its subject line.

It remains unclear whether the use of a Russian provider was coincidental and whether the reference to DC leaks was meant to mislead or create a false impression.

Global Leaks initially identified itself in en email as “a new group which is bringing to limelight human right violations, terror funding, illegal lobbying in US/UK to limelight of people to help make USA and UK great again and bring justice to rich sponsors of crime and terror.”

When pressed about its identity, the group said that “we believe that (the) Gulf in general has been crippling the American policy by involving us in their regional objectives. Lately it’s been (the) UAE who has bought America and traditionally it was their bigger neighbour (Saudi Arabia). If we had to hurt UAE, we have so much of documents given by source that it will not only hurt their image and economy but also legally and will for sure result in UN sanctions at the least. But that is not our goal.

Our goal is plain and simple, back off in playing with American interests and law, don’t manipulate our system, don’t use money as a tool to hurt our foreign policy…. It may be a coincidence that most things (we are leaking) do relate to UAE but in times to come if they continue and not stop these acts, we will release all the documents which may hurt all the countries including Bahrain and Qatar,” the group said.

Global Leaks’ allegation that the UAE was seeking to suck the United States’ into Gulf affairs predated reports that Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, was beside Russia also looking into whether George Nader, a highly paid Lebanese-American advisor to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, had funnelled funds to the Trump campaign.

Mr. Mueller is further investigating a meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, that was brokered by the UAE. Messrs. Prince and Dmitriev have denied that the meeting had anything to do with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump has not publicly addressed reports that his election campaign may have received Gulf funding but at a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, Mr. Trump declined to endorse his government’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, saying he doesn’t “see any reason why Russia would be responsible.”

A British public relations watchdog, Spinwatch Public Interest Investigations, said, in a report published this week detailing UAE lobby efforts, that the Emirates since the 2011 popular Arab revolts had tasked public relations companies in the United States and Britain with linking members of Qatar’s ruling family to terrorism.

The lobbying effort also aimed to get the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood banned, involved UAE threats to withhold lucrative trade deals from Britain if allegedly pro-Brotherhood reporting by the BBC was not curtailed, and targeted journalists and academics critical of the Gulf country, according to the report.

US intelligence officials said the UAE had last year orchestrated the hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. The hacking provided the pre-text for the UAE-Saudi led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state. The UAE has denied the assertion.

US and Qatari officials said earlier that Russian hackers for hire had executed the attack on the Qatari websites. Cybersecurity experts said at the time that the hackers worked for various Gulf states. They said the methods used in the hacking of the Qatari website and Mr. Otaiba’s email were similar.

“They seem to be hackers-for-hire, freelancing for all sorts of different clients, and adapting their skills as needed,” said security expert Collin Anderson.

Two cybersecurity firms, ThreatConnect and Fidelis Cybersecurity said in 2016 that they had indications that the hackers who hit the Democratic National Committee were preparing a fake version of the U.A.E. Minis Britaintry of Foreign Affairs website that could be used in phishing attacks.

The UAE-Qatari cyberwar was indeed likely enabled by Russian hackers working for their own account rather than in coordination with the Russian government. It is however equally possible that the same hackers also put their services at the disposal of Russia.

None of what is known about the murky world of Russian hackers is conclusive, let alone produces a smoking gun. The various strands of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, however, suggest grounds to query not only Russian cyber efforts to influence the US election but also the involvement of Russian nationals in the cyber war in the Gulf and potential links between the two operations.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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How 4chan Radicalizes Youth and Grooms Them Towards Terrorism

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The image board was started in 2003 to discuss anime and various other topics but festered into a safe space for hateful rhetoric soon after. In the aftermath of yet another racially motivated mass shooting by a frequent user, its dangers have finally reached the mainstream.

4chan is an extremely unique website. It has been running since 2003, and over the course of almost 20 years, has influenced many internet memes and phenomena. However, in the wake of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015 and the 2016 Presidential Election, it became associated with white supremacy, especially on its /pol/ board. This hateful rhetoric festered, worsening in 2020 during the COVID pandemic and George Floyd protests. 4chan was sprung into the spotlight once again on May 14th, 2022, when a white supremacists livestreamed his massacre of a supermarket.

This attack, fresh in American’s minds, led many to question why 4chan is still allowed to exist. This comes after 4chan’s rhetoric inspired a 2015 mass shooting in Oregon and its users aided in the organization in the Unite The Right Rally and the January 6th Riots. Clearly 4chan is a hotbed for far-right terrorism. But why is this image board the way it is? The answer lies in its lax moderation of content.

Upon looking at 4chan, you will find it is mostly made up of pornography. However, if you go on the site’s /pol/ board, it does not take long to find the kind of rhetoric that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. One particular post I found featured a racist joke at the expense of Black people. Another was praising fighters in the Ukrainian Azov battalion while joking about killing trans people. Yet another post complained about an “influx of tourists” due to the Buffalo shooter, who they insulted with an anti-gay slur. These memes and jokes seem to appeal to a younger, perhaps teenaged audience. It is clear that they are still trying to recruit youth into their ranks even after the tragedy in Buffalo.

The content is, to say the least, vile. The fact that this stuff is permitted and encouraged by not just the userbase (which numbers in the millions) but also many moderators tells us that there is something fundamentally wrong with 4chan. In fact, copies of the livestreamed Buffalo massacre were spread widely on 4chan to the amusement of its userbase.

Many of the users on 4chan are social rejects who feel as if they have nothing to lose. They feel unaccepted and alienated from society, so they turn to 4chan. Many harmful ideologies, such as White supremacy and incel ideologies, seem extremely validating for these dejected youth.  Young, socially alienated men, who make up the majority of 4chan’s userbase, are also among the most vulnerable demographics for radicalization.

What can we do to prevent further radicalization of youth and deradicalize those already affected by harmful rhetoric? First of all, we need to either heavily regulate 4chan or have it shut down. There is no space on the internet for this kind of hatred or incitement to commit horrific acts like what happened in Buffalo. For those already radicalized, we need to perform a campaign of deradicalization among those affected by this rhetoric. But how can this be done?

4chan prides itself on anonymity, so it is difficult to figure out who uses it. Thus, education on radicalization and identification of propaganda is vital. This education should focus on adolescents mostly due to their predisposition towards radicalization when exposed to hateful rhetoric. While White supremacy must be emphasized, other forms of radicalization should be mentioned as well such as Jihadism and other forms of ethnic supremacy. Finally, tolerance must be fostered among all people, not just those at risk of becoming groomed into terrorism.

The age of 4chan has spawned many humorous memes, but it has since become a hotbed for hatred and terrorism. Since memes are able to convey dangerous ideas, websites like Reddit and Facebook need to be heavily regulated to prevent the dissemination of dangerous misinformation. It is unlikely that 4chan will ever moderate itself, as lack of strict moderation is its defining feature. Thus, it has overstayed its welcome and no longer has a place in today’s information-driven society.

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New ISIS Strategy and the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan

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ISKP Uzbek Jihadist

Unlike Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the second late leader of ISIS, who was derided as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody” for his relative anonymity and non-publicity, the new caliph of the Islamic State, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, has apparently launched a new strategy to strengthen linkages to regional wilayahs (provinces) and boost the group’s global presence.

Indeed, during his short time leading the group (31 October 2019 – 3 February 2022), Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi never publicly addressed his followers, which negatively affected the coordination of the activities of Islamic State-Central (ISC) and its regional branch of the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP). Although his killing during a US counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria in early February was a major blow to the global jihadi organization, the change in leadership nevertheless provided it with new opportunities to update its command-and-control, recruitment and propaganda campaign.

Predictably, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Quraishi, the new ISIS overall leader, sees his historical role not only in ensuring the Caliphate’s continuity and avoiding its potential fragmentation but also in establishing a more direct and consistent command line between its core in Iraq and Sham and its Central and South Asian affiliates.

ISIS collage dedicated to rocket attack on Uzbek Termez

The new strategy of the Islamic Caliphate not only gave a new impetus to its Khorasan offshoot waging a holy jihad in post-American Afghanistan against the Taliban but also opened a new front line against the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes. Indeed, the analysis of ISKP activities revealed that the proclamation of Abu al-Hassan al-Quraishi as the new Caliph and the launch of a new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” increased the combat capability of IS Uzbek and Tajik fighters, as well as strengthened the coordination of local language and IS-Central propaganda machines.

Notoriously, on April 17, ISIS launched the new campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi, and his official spokesperson, Abu Hamza al-Qurashi, who were killed in a US raid in February in the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh. In his recent audio address, Islamic State’s new spokesman Abu-Omar al-Muhajir called on the Caliphate warriors to avenge the deaths of the former ISIS leaders by “painfully striking” the enemies of “al-mujahideen” and saying that if they kill, they should “kill by many.” This call was made to the group’s followers worldwide and asked them to remain patient, but also be ready when the “war” begins. Al-Muhajir called to expand the campaign “Revenge Incursion for the Two Sheikhs” to the territory of US, Europe and Central Asia, urging Muslims living there to follow the lead of past “lone wolves” who conducted operations that “filled with horror.” He asked them to repeat “lone wolf” operations by stabbing, attacking, and ramming, and drawing inspiration from recent attacks in Israel.

ISKP Threat to Central Asia

Among the first to support the Islamic State’s new ‘global offensive’ campaign were ISKP Uzbek and Tajik jihadists challenging the new Taliban government and dreaming of overthrowing the ‘Taghut (idolaters) regimes’ in Central Asia. Thus, inspired by the new Caliph’s new strategy, for the first time in the history of the Islamic State, they managed to conduct a transnational jihadi operation from Afghanistan to the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Initially, on April 18, 2022, the ISKP fired ten rocket salvos into the territory of Uzbekistan, which was successfully exploited by the Uzbek-speaking regional jihadi media and IS-Central’s propaganda resources as evidence of the opening of a “second front” in the Central Asian direction. Expert assessments clearly observed the good coordination between the IS-Central’s media and ISKP’s local jihadi mouthpieces, both in terms of Islamic ideological content and hierarchical sequences.

ISKP Uzbek nasheed performer Asadulloh Urganchiy

The Islamic State-Central’s Amaq News Agency reported that “Mujahedeen of the Caliphate have fired 10 Katyusha rockets at a murtad (apostasy) Uzbekistan’s military base in the border town of Termez.” The ISIS central media wing also released a photo and video of the projectiles to back its claims. Another IS-Central’s weekly al-Naba newsletter also widely covered the topic of rocket attacks by detailing how the projectiles were fired from Afghan territory on the Central Asian nation.

Following IS-Central official news agencies reports, IS-Khurasan Willayah’s local media outlets, such as Al-Azaim Foundation and Khurasan Radio, the Uzbek-language Xuroson Ovozi (Voice of Khurasan), Tavhid Habar (Tawhid News), Tajik-language Telegram channels Mujahideen of the Caliphate and The Army of the Victorious Nation published a series of audio, video and text messages in Uzbek and Tajik detailing the goals, causes, and consequences of the rocket attack. In particular, Al-Azaim Foundation glorified the rocket attack as “the heroism of the brave lions of Allah Almighty punishing the corrupt army of the murtad Uzbek government.”

The ISKP media outlets were extremely outraged by the Uzbek government’s denial of the rocket attack, claiming that nothing had landed on their territory. In response, pro-ISKP Uzbek, Tajik and Russian Language Telegram channels re-posted IS-Central’s statement, photos, videos of the attacker and a map marked with the possible rocket impact location in Termez.

Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi experts’ attention was drawn to a 24-minute audio address of Khuroson Mujahid, the leader of ISKP Uzbek group, whose speech style and ideological views strongly resembled the late ISIS chief strategist Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. His speech revealed that the ideological vision of ISKP Central Asian jihadists, staunch followers of Takfiri Salafism, is in line with the Islamic State’s global agenda. He considers democracy to be the religion of “murtad states” of Central Asia, the Taliban government and Pakistan. He believes that due to committing shirk (idolatry), deviating Allah and doubting Tawheed (God’s Oneness), the leaders of taghut countries should be killed.

Considering Khuroson’s oratorical skills, Takfiri persuasion and ideological savvy, it is quite possible that the ISKP recruitment and incitement campaign will intensify in Central Asia in the near future. Obviously, the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP in the military, media and ideological directions reached a new level in the more permissive operating environment of post-American Afghanistan.

On May 7, the ISKP carried out a second rocket attack, this time into Tajikistan. According to the Central Media Office (Diwan al-I’lam al-Markazi) of ISIS, “Caliphate’s fighters fired seven rockets from the Khawaja Ghar district of Afghanistan’s Takhar Province towards the Tajik military base near the city of Kulob.” The rocket attacks on the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for three weeks nevertheless mark a clear escalation by ISKP Central Asian foreign fighters from just hostile anti-five post-Soviet “murtad governments” rhetoric to direct militant action.

Notably, the methods of media coverage of both attacks and the engagement between IS-Central and ISKP’s local media resources were clearly similar. The algorithm of their actions was in line with the new ISIS strategy. Thus, IS-Central posted a brief information about the rocket attacks with video and photos, then the Tajik, Uzbek and Pashto-language local media resources of ISKP glorified the “warriors of Allah”. The Uzbek-language pro-Islamic State Telegram channels Islomiy Maruza Davat Guruh, Khuroson Ovozi, Tawheed news, the Tajik-language Telegram channel of Ulamoi Rabboni (إنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا) actively propagated ISKR rocket attacks, undermining the image and credibility of the military potential of Tajikistan and the Taliban.

These Central Asian pro-IS media resources, supported by IS-Central propaganda bodies and comprised of a constellation of official branch outlets, regional pro-ISKP groups, and grassroots supporters have become a prominent voice aggressively impugning the Taliban’s reputation in the global jihadi world. Such method makes it possible to preserve the hierarchical structure and maintain a uniform media strategy of the global jihadi group. This reflects that after the fall of the Caliphate and a series of dramatic losses of its leaders, ISIS has learned a bitter lesson and is now moving from centralizing power to strengthening its wilayahs.

Apparently, the ISKP seeks to broaden its appeal in Central Asia both through increasing cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors and ramping up the production, translation, and dissemination of propaganda directed at Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz communities in the region. These rocket attacks and ISKP’s propaganda campaigns targeting Central Asians for recruitment are any indicators, the group has become a serious jihadi power challenging not only the Taliban government, but also the post-Soviet authoritarian regimes. Through its Uzbek, Tajik and Pashto-language Telegram channels, the ISKP is conducted an unprecedented activity to recruit Central Asian jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as new radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley.

Future of ISKP Central Asian Jihadists

Obviously, the ISKP is exploiting the US military withdrawal from the region and the Afghan Taliban’s deviation from the hardline jihadi concept by successfully portraying their government as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization rather than a bona fide Islamic movement.

In conclusion, it is to be expected that the ISKP will actively capitalize external operations to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, which assured the US and Central Asian neighbors not to allow Afghan soil to be used to attack Afghanistan’s neighbors. Strengthening cross-border rocket attacks has already raised the morale of ISKP fighters and consolidated its support base.

Thus, the new Islamic State’s strategy to strengthen its offshoots in its provinces is quite capable to reestablish its positioning in the broader global jihadi movement, which we see in the example of IS-Khorasan Province.

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How Memes Can Spread Dangerous Ideas

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Internet memes are an excellent way to send powerful messages to millions of people. But what happens when they are used for malicious purposes?

Memes have been a means of transmitting messages for centuries, proliferating immensely in recent decades due to their mass proliferation through the internet and their ability to broadcast messages to a massive audience. They have quite a bit of cultural significance and can be based on almost anything, provided they achieve viral status. However, memes have been subject to abuse by malicious groups and actors.

From the Blue Whale Challenge, an internet challenge that resulted in multiple suicides worldwide, to terrorist organizations like ISIS, which use internet memes to recruit young people, memes can be used for malicious purposes. Even toxic subcultures like MGTOW serve as a pipeline towards the incel movement. Indeed, such male supremacist organizations are not strangers to using memes and viral media to propagate their ideas and recruit young men and boys to their cause. In fact, one influencer, who goes by Sandman MGTOW, often posts such misogynistic memes and videos on his Twitter and YouTube channel.

These kinds of memes are easily identifiable by their bias towards a specific issue and their often-political message. One great example of a meme that has been subject to abuse by malicious actors is Pepe the frog. Based on a character by Matt Furie, this meme was abused by the alt right, being depicted as controversial figures such as Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. The meme was so badly abused by these far-right actors that it was listed as a hate symbol by the ADL.

Memes have also influenced major world events like the 2016 election in the United States and the Arab Spring revolutions in the early 2010’s, which garnered immense media attention through the use of internet memes and viral media. This shows that memes can have the power to influence elections (albeit slightly) and topple oppressive regimes. Being a powerful tool for spreading information, there is also the use of memes for spreading misinformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic mediated a sizeable but modest anti-vaccine movement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. These anti-vaxx groups used social media like Facebook and Reddit to spread memes full of misinformation and pseudo-science It can also be argued that memes were effective tools in spreading misinformation around the elections of 2016 and 2020 in the United States. Memes, while powerful, can be used by malicious actors such as far-right groups and anti-vaxx groups to peddle false information. This has contributed to the US having a COVID death toll of over one million, higher than most other countries worldwide.

The world has progressed quite a bit in the information age. People are able to communicate ideas with millions of people worldwide in seconds. The proliferation if information has never been more efficient in history. That is why the threats that arise from the mass proliferation of memes and viral media are so dire. As was seen during the 2016 and 2020 US elections, COVID, and Arab Spring, memes can be spread to convey messages that can change nations, affect millions (perhaps even billions) of people, and topple dictators. It has become possible for people to change the course of history with a single tweet or a single meme on Reddit or Instagram going viral.

What can we do to stem the massive proliferation of memes that serve to recruit people into dangerous organizations and fill their minds with misinformation? The answer lies in how we confront our biases and how we detect misinformation. People need to be informed about how they can detect bias and propaganda, in addition to using independent fact-checking services. By identifying propaganda from malicious actors and misinformation from online groups, we can stop the spread of dangerous memes before they proliferate.

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