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Advanced Persistent Threats: The Mysterious New Ground for Cyber Danger

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As the world continues on a path of increased connectivity, control over the cyber domain has become a matter of state security. The sustained loss of wealth in the form of intellectual property theft and financial shenanigans has reached critical mass. As a warning to America, General Keith Alexander, while serving as the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), stated: “What we need to worry about is when these transition from disruptive to destructive attacks…” He goes on to say: “The conflict is growing, the probability for crisis is mounting.” (Rogin, 2012). In this context, the main danger the “special operations teams” of cyberspace in America is called the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT).

As the APT has evolved into the construct of cyberspace, the prevalent working assumption has been to simply apply technical countermeasures. This techno-centric approach has done little to thwart cyber threats, as the average dwell time to discovery is 206 days (Irwin, 2018). To this end, “technology itself is not a threat – it is the usage made of it that poses a danger.” (Ventre, 2012). In other words, cybersecurity is still a people problem, as much, if not more than, a technical one. Therefore, a more holistic approach is required to understand and mitigate the APT.

The study of cyber-based adversaries, specifically those categorized as APT, is not a well-researched discipline, especially compared to other more popular threats, like terrorism. These two threat actors, APT and terrorism, represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in that APTs are defined by their technology-centric methodologies, whereas terrorists are still largely seen as only slowly embracing technology while still being in favor of “common man” approaches that are predominantly low-tech. However, these groups have more in common when examined with more subtle nuance.

There are significant differences between a terrorist threat and an APT at the tactical level. For example, the manner and type of technology used to conduct an attack, the desired impact of an attack, and their respective stances on attribution. Terrorists tend to quickly claim responsibility while APTs avoid it. That said, at the important strategic level, terrorist and APT groups do have some remarkable similarity. For example, there are six characteristics attributed to terrorism that are shared by the APT. Specifically: asymmetry, cost effectiveness, contributions of loose associations, will to succeed, impossibility to completely defend, and contagion. Interestingly, as terrorists and APTs share characteristics, the non-technical strategies to counter each represent two sides of the same coin. These non-technical strategies to counter consist of: collaboration, partnerships, support of the people/leadership, education, and a better return on investment (ROI).

Collaboration

Collaborative engagement at the state level, designed to solve human issues such as disease control, global water supply, and traffic congestion through cyber means, can reveal insights for counter-threat strategy. The ability to change one’s image of another is, in part, based on familiarity. Further, in working through collaboration, the barriers between in-group and out-group can be broken down by the unified cause of helping the greater good. This shared mission can create a bond and work toward changing the group dynamics that currently seem too often adversarial.

Partnerships

“Alliance requires more meaningful interaction as opposed to mere verbal support or ideological affinity.” (Horowitz and Potter, 2014, p. 201). The identification of partnerships is critical in expanding a sphere of influence to thwart the efforts of APTs and terrorists. Making headway against the problem increases exponentially with substantial partnerships. Partnerships dedicated to combat these threats can enable Social Network Mapping as a means to identify threat group relationships. (Johnston, 2005) Insight into these groups and their associative relationships can change dynamics and “predict the type of attacks groups are likely to launch”. (Horowitz and Potter, 2014).

Support of the People / Leadership

One way to help gain trust of the people is through outreach and counter-messaging following a successful attack. “Pervasive messages, therefore, by politicians, the mass media, or other individuals could emphasize value similarities or differences between the ingroup and the outgroup and consequently influence peoples’ threat perception.” (Garcia-Retamero, et al., 2012) Similarly, the establishment of trust is fundamental for change. “We argue that trust is essential in intergroup behavior because unlike attitudes, trust implies a willingness to engage in behavior that has potential costs.” (Kenworthy et al., 2016) This is equally true for recruitment into criminal enterprises as it is for obtaining the support of the people. It is imperative to create trust, while creating distrust for the threat group. “The challenge of effective intergroup leadership is a microcosm of the wider problems of reconciling intergroup differences and building social harmony from group conflict.” (Hohman et al., 2009) This can serve to change the image of the counter-threat group and the self-image of its members amongst the people at large, which can increase overall strategic effectiveness and societal acceptance.

Education

The presentation of a counter-message is important in creating doubt and changing minds. An often overlooked aspect of counter-messaging is ensuring that the messaging is targeting the same people that the APT and terror groups are focusing on themselves and understanding why those messages might be attractive to those groups. The counter-message must use this baseline to provide meaningful alternatives that resonate with target audiences.

Social media is critical in combating both types of threat groups, as it is the only medium that can effectively but indirectly trigger relevant emotions and feelings. Notably, not only the imminence of an event may be predicted through this analysis but something as subtle as the willingness of an individual to join a threat group as well. The biggest potential power of social media then is to model behavior, predict outcomes, and intercede with the appropriate messaging to alter the course of action.

Economic Well-Being

There is at least some evidence that economy disparity sets the conditions for increased cybercrime. (Watters, et al., 2012) In this context, economic disparity can be a driver for political action, leading to cyber espionage as a means to counter-balance market competition, military prowess, and offset research and development costs. That said, there are conditions in which the economics of committing a crime can be such that it can serve as a deterrent. In the case of APTs and terrorists, given their relationship with the state and anti-state ideologies, deterrence will not stop them. It can, however, make it costlier and slow their pace.

In a world of increasing complexity and unparalleled connectivity, APTsstands at the top of the threat list. As an extension of technology, they cannot be mitigated by technical measures alone. But through non-technical factors that provide a greater understanding of the leaders and people that control and comprise an APT and by encouraging collaborative innovation across multiple national security agencies/disciplines, a more holistic approach can be made apparent and more effective deterrence strategies can emerge. Failing to do this simply means states will always be playing catch-up against persistent adversaries like terrorists and APTs.

Al Lewis is currently a doctoral candidate in Global Security in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University. He currently oversees the Cybersecurity Operations Center of Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace and defense company. Before that he served the United States of America as a Special Agent in the Secret Service.

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US-led ‘Psychological Wars’ Against Russia, China Lead to All Lose Situation

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Andrei Ilnitsky, an advisor to Russian defense minister, said in an interview at the end of March that the US and the West are waging a “mental war” against Russia. Why does the West resort to the psychological war? How will Russia cope with the psychological war? Global Times (GT) reporters Wang Wenwen and Lu Yuanzhi interviewed Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, on these issues by email.

What are the features of such a psychological war?

There is nothing new about psychological wars – they have always been a part of standard military operations. The goal has been to demoralize both your enemy’s army and its population at large in order to break down the will of your opponent to fight and to resist. Ancient kings, emperors and warlords broadly used over-exaggeration, deception, disinformation, mythology, and so on. However, today states commonly use these instruments of psychological wars not only during military conflicts, but in the peacetime as well. Moreover, new information technology offers plenty of innovative ways to get your message to select target audiences in a foreign country; you can customize and focus this message as never before. Each of us is a target in this warfare, even if we do not feel it.

The US-led West used to wage color revolutions on countries they deem as adversaries. What are the differences between the color revolution and the psychological war? Why does the West resort to the psychological war?

A color revolution is an unconstitutional regime change caused by sizeable and sometimes violent street activities of the radical opposition. Western leaders usually welcome such changes and arguably render them diverse political, organizational and financial assistance. Nevertheless, a regime change cannot come from nowhere. There should be significant political, social, economic or ethnic problems that, if remain unresolved for a long time, gradually lead to a color revolution. Psychological wars help to articulate unresolved problems, deprive the leadership of a target country of legitimacy in the eyes of its own population and, ultimately, prepare a color revolution.

What are the likely outcomes for the West’s psychological war on Russia? How will Russia cope with the psychological war?

Russian authorities are trying to limit opportunities for the West to wage the psychological war by exposing Western disinformation and imposing restrictions on select Western media, NGOs and foundations that are perceived as instruments of waging the war.

Is the West capable of launching a military offensive on Russia?

Russia remains a nuclear superpower with very significant military capabilities. A nuclear war with Moscow could lead to the annihilation of the humankind and therefore cannot be considered a feasible option. Even a full-fledged conventional conflict between Russia and the West in Europe would turn into a catastrophe of an epic scale for both sides. It does not necessarily mean that we can rule out such a scenario, but I think that if there were a war, it would erupt because of an inadvertent escalation rather than because of a rational decision to launch a military offensive.

The West has never dropped the illusion of changing China’s and Russia’s systems to that similar of the West by adopting the tactic of “peaceful evolution.” How could Russia and China join hands in face of such Western attempts?

Indeed, many in the West still believe that their system has a universal value and that eventually both Russia and China should move to Western-type liberal political systems. These views are less popular now than they were twenty or thirty years ago, but we cannot ignore them. Moscow and Beijing have the right to defend themselves against the Western ideological and psychological offensive. Still, I see the solution to the problem of psychological wars in a “psychological peace” should be based on a common understanding on what is allowed in the international information exchange and what is not. Russia and China could work together in defining a new code of conduct regulating the trans-border information flows. In the immediate future, the West will be reluctant to accept this code, but we should keep trying. In my view, this is the only way to proceed; if psychological wars continue, there will be no winners and losers – everybody will lose.

From our partner RIAC

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Boko Haram: Religious Based Violence and Portrayal of Radical Islam

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Modern-day global and domestic politics have set forth the trend that has legitimized and rationalized the use of religion as a tool to attain political gravity and interests. Similarly, many religion-oriented groups use religion to shape their political agenda and objectives, often using religion as a justification for their violent activities. Most of these mobilized groups are aligned with Islam. These groups have promoted religion-based violence and have also introduced new waves and patterns in global terrorism. Some prominent organized groups that attain world attention include Boko Haram, ISIS, Al- Qaeda, and the Taliban. These groups have potentially disrupted the political establishment of their regions. Although, a comparative insight delivers that these various organizations have antithetical political objectives but these groups use Islam to justify their violent actions and strategies based on violence and unrest.

The manifesto of Boko Haram rests on Islamic principles i.e. establishing Shariah or Islamic law in the region. A system that operates to preserve the rights of poor factions of the society and tends to promote or implement Islamic values. Hence, in this context, it negates westernization and its prospects. However, the rise of Boko Haram was based on anti-western agenda which portrayed that the existing government is un-Islamic and that western education is forbidden. Hence, the name Boko Haram itself delivered the notion that western culture or civilization is forbidden. Boko Haram has a unique political and religiously secular manifesto. Boko Haram was formed by Mohammad Yusuf, who preached his agenda of setting up a theocratic political system through his teachings derived from Islam. And countered the existing governmental setup of the Christians. The violent dynamics surged in 2009 when an uprising against the Nigerian government took the momentum that killed almost 800 people. Following the uprising, Mohammad Yusuf was killed and one of his lieutenants Abu Bakar Shekau took the lead.

Boko Haram used another violent strategy to gain world attention by bombing the UN Compound in Abuja that killed twenty-three people. The incident led to the declaration of Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organizationby the United States Department. Thus, the group continued the process of violence and also started to seize several territories like Bama, Dam boa, and Abadan. They also extended their regional sphere in terms of occupation using violent strategies. The violence intensified when in the year 2014, 276 girls were abducted from Girl’s school in Chibok. This immediately triggered global outrage and developed an image of religious extremism and violence. This process continued over the years; one reported case articulated that a Christian girl ‘Lean Shairbu’ was kept in captivity for a prolonged period upon refusal to give up her religion. Ever since, the violence has attained an upward trajectory, as traced in the case of mass Chibok abduction and widespread attack in Cameroon in the years 2020 and 2021.

After establishing a regional foothold Boko Haram improvised new alliances especially in 2015 after the government recaptured some of its territories that pushed the militant group near Lake Chad and to the hilly areas. Consequently, Abu Bakar Shekau turned towards international alliance and pledged its allegiance to IS. This created two branches of Boko Haram called Jamat u Ahlis Liddawatiwal Jihad (JAS) headed by Abu Bakar Shekau and Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) lead by Musab Al Barnarwai. The ISWAP developed strong social, political, and strategic roots in the region. It has embedded itself socially in the hearts and minds of people by establishing their caliphate and judicial system.

The pattern of religion-based conflicts has transformed the global religious conflicts. That is often referred to as extremist terrorism based on religion. Hence the rise of Boko Haram also involved demographics that complimented their political objectives. As the state of Nigeria is an amalgamation of Christians and Muslims; and has been constructed as a distinct ethno-lingual society, historically. The Christians resided in the South of Nigeria while the Muslims were located in Northern Nigeria. The northern side suffered from poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and public health issues under the government of Goodluck Jonathan. His government was centrally weak and marginalized the Northern side. This also contributed as one of the major factors that granted an edge for the influence and legitimacy of Boko Haram. Therefore, the main reason that triggered the organization and its move was based on Islamic principles of Jihad and Tajdid. This presents new notions of religion to recruit and incorporate more people into their community. The concept of Jihad has been historically driven which reflects and justifies acts against the unjust state and its authority. It also expands the capacity for social hostilities against the non-religious entities promoting hatred and non-acceptance. This also breeds religious extremism and rigidity that further validates the use of violence on their behalf.  Hence Jihad acts as a driving force to strive against the un-Islamic state structure for Islamic religious social fabric. Moreover, this religiously derived conception of violent confrontation has always been legitimized in terms of the historic concept of war and terms of self-defense. 

As a radical and contemporary religious belief; Jihad is regarded as the manifestation of religious violence and extremist terrorism. The establishment of the caliphate and state-like institutions represents a radical Salafist view regarding the establishment of the Islamic state structure. The ISWAP acts as a pseudo-state or state with in state that has established its authority and control. The reflection of another religious proclamation ofTajdid refers to the renewal of religious norms that aims at reconstruction or reset of social structure in accordance with Islamic values. Jihad and Tajdid collaboratively serve to generate notions about the reset of the political framework as an Islamic state system. The socio-religious reconstruction is particularly divergent from the western one. As western societies are often pluralistic, while Boko Haram’s vision aims as establishing Islamic social composition. Moreover, the western setup provided constitutional provisions to women in terms of rights, freedom, education, and liberty. This completely contradicted their conceptualization of women. Hence, this also generated gender-based violence as means to protect Islamic values. This was closely witnessed during the abduction of girls from their school. Furthermore, Islamic radicalization has been pursued through different channels that have extensively contributed to narrative building amongst the population, propaganda, and the development of a religious mindset in the African region. One of the most prominent tactics used for the purpose has been achieved through the propagation of literature. The scholars started to preach about Jihad and its implications since the 15th Century. The channel continues to date where the teachers preach about these scholarly findings that further encourages the youth to turn towards radical Islamization. The degree of radicalization elevates as Boko Haram propagates the concept of exclusivism that tends to oppose other value systems and beliefs. This creates a rift the society and deteriorates the sense of co-existence. As a result, Boko Haram represents a destructive paradox that promotes religious extremism and violence through misinterpretation of Islamic principles. Pursuing the political agenda of Boko Haram under the banner of Islamic law; which is power-oriented and would help them maintain dominance politically, economically, and territorially in the African region.

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Security of nuclear materials in India

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Terrorism

The author is of the view that nuclear security is lax in India. More so, because of the 123 Agreement and sprawling  nuclear installations in several states. The thieves and scrap dealers even dare to advertise online sale of radioactive uranium. India itself has reported several incidents of nuclear thefts to the international bodies. The author wonders why India’s security lapses remain out of international focus. Views expressed are personal.  

Amid raging pandemic in the southern Indian state of Maharashtra, the anti-terrorism squad arrested  (May 6, 20210) two persons (Jagar Jayesh Pandya and Abu Tahir Afzal hussain Choudhry) for attempting to sell seven kilograms  of highly-radioactive muranium for offered price of  about Rs. 21 crore. The “gentlemen” had uncannily advertised  the proposed sale online.. As such, the authorities initially dismissed the advertisement as just another hoax. They routinely detained the “sellers-to-be” and forwarded a sample of their ware to the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.  They were shocked when the centre reported that “the material was natural uranium”.  As such the squad was compelled to book the duo under India’s Atomic Energy Act, 1962 at Nagpur police station (Explained: ATS seizes 7 kg uranium worth  Rs. 21 crore from a scrap dealer…Indian Express May 7, 2021).

Not a unique incident

The event, though shocking, is  is not  one of its kind. Earlier, in 2016 also, two persons were arrested by Thane (Maharashtra) police while they were trying to sell eight to nine kilograms of depleted uranium for Rs. 24 crore.  It is surmised that sale of uranium by scrap dealers in India is common. But, such events rarely come in limelight. According to Anil Kakodar, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, `Factories using uranium as a counterweight in their machines are mandated to contact the Atomic Energy agencies and return uranium to them. They however resort to short cuts and sell the entire machine with uranium in scrap’.

India media scarcely report such incidents. However, Indian government sometimes reports such incidents to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to meet disclosure requirements. According to international media reports (February 25, 2004), India reported 25 cases of “missing” or “stolen” radio-active material from its labs to the IAEA.  Fifty-two per cent of the cases were attributed to “theft” and 48% to the “missing mystery”.  India claimed to have recovered lost material in twelve of total 25 cases.  It however admitted that 13 remaining cases remained mysterious.

India’s reports such incidents to the IAEA to portray itself as a “responsible state”.  It is hard to believe that radio-active material could be stolen from nuclear labs without operators’ connivance.

Nine computers, belonging to India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation establishment at Metcalfe House, New Delhi, were stolen. India communicated 25 cases of ‘stolen or missing’ uranium to the IAEA. In different incidents, uranium in varying forms and quantities continue to be recovered from scrap dealers and others by Indian authorities. The recoveries include fifty-seven pounds of uranium in rod form, eight kilograms in granular form, two hundred grams in semi-processed form, besides twenty-five kilograms in radioactive form, stolen from the Bibi Cancer Hospital.

Too, the ‘thieves’ stole three cobalt switches, worth Rs. 1.5 million, from Tata Steel Company laboratory at Jamshedpur (Jharkhand). A shipment of beryllium (worth $24 million), was caught in Vilnius, on its way to North Korea. Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship carrying dual-use aluminum oxide from India to North Korea. A New Jersey-based Indian engineer Sitaram Ravi Mahidevan was indicted for having bypassed US export procedures to send blue-prints of solenoid-operated valves to North Korea.

We know that the Taiwanese authorities had intercepted a ship, carrying dual-use aluminum oxide from India to North Korea.  The oxide is an essential ingredient of rocket casings and is, as such, prohibited for export to “rogue” countries.

Pakistan bashing

Despite recurrent incidents of theft of uranium or other sensitive material from indiandian nuclear labs, the IAEA never initiated a thorough probe into lax security environment in government and private nuclear labs in india. However, the international media has a penchant for creating furore over uncorroborated nuclear lapses in Pakistan. The Time magazine article ‘Merchant of Menace’, had reported that some uranium hexafluoride cylinders were missing from the Kahuta Research Laboratories.  Pakistan’ then information minister and foreign-office spokesman had both refuted the allegation.  Masood Khan (foreign office) told reporters, `The story is a rehash of several past stories’.

Similarly,  Professor Shaun Gregory in his report ‘The Security of Nuclear Weapons’ contends that those guarding about 120 nuclear-weapon sites, mostly in northern and western parts of Pakistan, have fragmented loyalties. As such, they are an easy prey to religious extremists.

Frederick W. Kagan and Michael O’Hanlon, also draw a gloomy portrait of the situation in Pakistan. In their article, published in The New York Times, dated November 18, 2007, they predicted that extremists would take over, if rule of law collapses in Pakistan. Those sympathetic with the Taliban and al-Qaeda may convert Pakistan into a state sponsor of terrorism. They pointed to Osama bin Laden’s meeting with Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood and Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, former engineers of Pakistan’s Atomic Energy Commission (having no bomb-making acumen).

They claimed that U.S. military experts and intelligence officials had explored strategies for securing Pakistan’s nuclear assets. One option was to isolate the country’s nuclear bunkers. Doing so would require saturating the area, surrounding the bunkers, with tens of thousands of high-powered mines, dropped from air, packed with anti-tank and anti-personnel munitions. The panacea, suggested by them, was that Pakistan’s nuclear material should be seized and stashed in some “safe” place like New Mexico.

Rebuttal

The fact is that the pilloried Pakistani engineers had no knowledge of weaponisation (“When the safest is not safe enough,” The Defence Journal -Pakistan), pages 61-63). The critics mysteriously failed to mention that Pakistan is a party to the UN Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials. The steps taken by Pakistan to protect its nuclear materials and installations conform to international standards. The National Command Authority, created on February 2, 2000, has made fail-safe arrangements to control development and deployment of strategic nuclear forces. Pakistan’s nuclear regulatory authority had taken necessary steps for safety, security, and accountability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, facilities, and materials even before 9/11 incident. These controls include functional equivalent of the two-man rule and permissive action links (PALs). The indigenously-developed PALs are bulwarks against inadvertent loss of control, or accidental use of weapons. So far, there has been no security lapse in any of Pakistan’s nuclear establishments.

Abdul Mannan, in his paper titled “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Sabotage of a Spent Fuel Cask or a Commercial Irradiation Source in Transport”, has analysed various ways in which acts of nuclear terrorism could occur in Pakistan (quoted in “Pakistan’s Nuclear Future: Worries beyond War”). He has fairly reviewed Pakistan’s vulnerability to nuclear terrorism through hypothetical case studies. He concludes that the threat of nuclear terrorism in Pakistan is a figment of imagination, rather than a real possibility.

There are millions of radioactive sources used worldwide in various applications. Only a few thousand sources, including Co-60, Cs-137, Ir-192, Sr-90, Am-241, Cf-252, Pu-238, and RA-226 are considered a security risk. The Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority (PNRA) has enforced a mechanism of strict measures for administrative and engineering control over radioactive sources from cradle to grave. It conducts periodic inspections and physical verifications to ensure security of the sources. The Authority has initiated a Five-Year National Nuclear-Safety-and-Security-Action Plan to establish a more robust nuclear-security regime. It has established a training centre and an emergency-coordination centre, besides deploying radiation-detection-equipment at each point of nuclear-material entry in Pakistan, supplemented by vehicle/pedestrian portal monitoring equipment where needed.

Fixed detectors have been installed at airports, besides carrying out random inspection of personnel luggage. All nuclear materials are under strict regulatory control right from import until their disposal.

Concluding remarks

Nuclear controls in India and the USA are not more stringent than Pakistan’s. It is not understood why the media does not deflect their attention to the fragile nuclear-security environment in India. It is unfortunate that the purblind critics fail to see the gnawing voids in India’s nuclear security.

The ‘research work’ by well-known scholars reflects visceral hatred against Pakistan. The findings in fresh ‘magnum opuses’ are a re-hash or amalgam of the presumptions and pretensions in earlier-published ‘studies’. It is time that the West deflected its attention to India where movements of nuclear materials, under the 123 expansion plan, are taking place between nuclear-power plants sprawling across different states.

Above all, will the international media and the IAEA look into open market uranium sales in India.

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