Posts Tagged ‘cyber’

Israel says it uncovered planned mass cyber attacks

April 26, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Israel is a global player in the cyber-security industry with about 400 specialist companies

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israeli authorities said on Wednesday that they had detected planned cyber attacks against 120 public and private targets in the Jewish state but did not specify the intended victims.

A statement from Israel’s National Authority for Cyber Defence said that “in recent days” it had uncovered plans for a mass e-mail attack by what it described as an assailant masquerading as a “legitimate organisation” using a bogus security certificate.

It did not say what countermeasures it had taken but said the attacks threatened “government ministries, public institutions and private individuals”.

Haaretz newspaper said that the attackers “tried to exploit a vulnerability in Microsoft Word.”

In November two main Israeli TV newscasts were taken over by hackers who beamed an Islamist message threatening divine fire against the Jewish state.

Hackers ostensibly supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad posted messages on an Israeli army Twitter account during the 2014 Gaza war and in 2012 hackers disrupted the websites of the Tel Aviv stock exchange and national airline El Al.

Israel is a global player in the cyber-security industry, with about 400 specialist companies.

Its success is partly due to graduates of elite army units who take their electronic warfare skills with them into civilian life at the end of their military service.

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Suspected Russia hackers ‘targeted Macron campaign’

April 25, 2017

Researchers say the hacker group Pawn Storm tried to interfere in the campaign of French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron. US spy agencies suspect the group of having links to Russia’s intelligence apparatus.

Symbolbild Cyberangriff (picture-alliance/dpa/MAXPPP/A. Marchi)

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s political campaign was targeted by a hacker group with suspected Russian connections, a report by a cybersecurity research group said on Tuesday, bolstering previous suggestions that the Kremlin has been trying to interfere in the French elections.

Researchers with the Japan-based anti-virus firm Trend Micro said the Pawn Storm group, which is alleged to have carried out a number of high-profile hacking attacks in the West, used so-called “phishing” techniques in an attempt to steal personal data from Macron and his campaign staffers.

“Phishing” employs lookalike websites designed to fool victims into entering sensitive information such as usernames, passwords and credit card details. Trend Micro said it had recently detected four Macron-themed fake domains being created on digital infrastructure used by Pawn Storm, which is also known as Fancy Bear or APT28.

Trend Micro researcher Feike Hacquebord said that determining who was behind a spying campaign was a difficult challenge in the world of cybersecurity, but that he was almost certain.

“This is not a 100 percent confirmation, but it’s very, very likely,” he said.

Read more: France warns Russia

The Kremlin at work?

Trend Micro did not name any country as being behind Pawn Storm’s activities, but the group is widely suspected of having links to Russia’s security services.

The Kremlin is seen as a keen backer of Macron’s rival in the presidential race, Marine Le Pen, who espouses policies considered as likely to be favored by Moscow, such as France’s exit from the European Union. Macron has always staunchly advocated strengthening, rather than weakening, the bloc.

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations of trying to interfere in the French – or other – elections. On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying that claims of the Kremlin’s attempting to influence the election outcome in France were “completely incorrect.”

Pawn Storm is also thought to be behind cyberattacks last summer on the US Democratic National Committee that were suspected to be aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House. Other suspected targets in recent months include media groups such as “The New York Times” and Al-Jazeera.
Read more: ‘Election cyberattacks threat in Germany’

Präsidentschaftswahl in Frankreich Emmanuel Macron (Getty Images/V. Isore/IP3)Macron is widely seen as likely to win the second round of elections on May 7

Attempted intrusions

The head of Macron’s digital campaign, Mounir Mahjoubi, confirmed to The Associated Press that there had been attempted intrusions, but said they had all been foiled.

Mahjoubi also confirmed that at least one of the fake sites identified by Trend Micro had been recently used as part of an attempt to steal sensitive information from campaign staffers.

An internal campaign report lists thousands of attempted cyberattacks since Macron launched his campaign last year. In February, the campaign’s secretary-general, Richard Ferrand, said the scale and nature of the intrusions indicated that they were the work of a structured group and not individual hackers.

Macron, who won the first round of France’s presidential election on Sunday, will face Le Pen in a runoff on May 7.

The French elections were carefully monitored for digital interference following suspicions that hackers backed by Moscow had attempted to influence the US electoral contest in 2016.

http://www.dw.com/en/suspected-russia-hackers-targeted-macron-campaign/a-38580848

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Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security: Cyber Spies Target Germany Ahead of Election, Party Think Tanks Say

April 25, 2017

FRANKFURT — Two foundations tied to Germany’s ruling coalition parties were attacked by the same cyber spy group that targeted the campaign of French presidential favourite Emmanuel Macron, a leading cyber security expert said on Tuesday.

The group, dubbed “Pawn Storm” by security firm Trend Micro, used email phishing tricks and attempted to install malware at think tanks tied to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Feike Hacquebord said.

Hacquebord and other experts said the attacks, which took place in March and April, suggest Pawn Storm is seeking to influence the national elections in the two European Union powerhouses.

“I am not sure whether those foundations are the actual target. It could be that they used it as a stepping stone to target, for example, the CDU or the SPD,” Hacquebord said.

The mysterious cyber spying group, also known as Fancy Bear and APT 28, was behind data breaches of U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Merkel’s party last year, Hacquebord said.

Other security experts and former U.S. government officials link it to the Russian military intelligence directorate GRU. Hacquebord and Trend Micro have stopped short of making that connection.

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Russia has denied any involvement in the cyber attacks.

Since 2014, Merkel has pushed the European Union to maintain sanctions on Russia over its actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Her coalition partners, the Social Democrats, back a more conciliatory stance towards Moscow.

“What we are seeing is kind of a replication of what happened in the United States,” David Grout, a Paris-based technical director of U.S. cyber security firm FireEye, said of technical attacks and efforts to spread fake news in Europe.

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Hacquebord said on Monday he had found new evidence that Macron’s campaign was targeted by Pawn Storm. (https://goo.gl/8Ja2Bq)

German officials have told Reuters that politicians fear sensitive emails stolen from senior lawmakers by Russian hackers in 2015 could be released before the election to damage Merkel, who is seeking a fourth term, and her conservative party.

Trend Micro uncovered efforts to break into the accounts of CDU politicians in April and May, 2016. The BSI, Germany’s federal cyber security agency confirmed these attempts but said they were unsuccessful. New attacks in 2017 suggest renewed efforts to gain comprising data is underway, Hacquebord said.

Pawn Storm set up a fake computer server located based in Germany at kasapp.de to mount email phishing attacks against the CDU party’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) and a server located in the Ukraine at intern-fes.de to target the SPD’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES).

A KAS spokesman said BSI warned KAS in early March of “peculiarities” but that a subsequent network scan by the government cyber security agency found “nothing suspicious”.

The BSI declined to comment, as did the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed allegations of Russian involvement.

“We would be pleased if this investigative group sent us the information, and then we could check it,” Peskov told reporters on Tuesday. “Because for now it does not go beyond the boundaries of some anonymous people.”

Trend Micro published a 41-page report charting Pawn Storm attacks over the past two years, building on a dozen previous technical reports (https://goo.gl/WvjuLv). A timeline can be downloaded here (https://goo.gl/npY0OJ).

(Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen in Frankfurt, Andreas Rinke and Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by Richard Lough)

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“We are noticing attacks against government networks on a daily basis,” Arne Schoenbohm, president of Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), told the newspaper Welt am Sonntag.

BSI is in close contact with election officials, political parties and German federal states to discuss how to guard against cyber attacks and stands ready to react to potential attacks ahead of the elections, Mr Schoenbohm said.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/19/german-cybersecurity-watchdog-raises-attack-alert-level/

Are Russian-Style Hackers and “Fake News” Playing a Role in French Election?

April 25, 2017

Is Russia-Backed ‘Fake News’ Now Being Used in French Elections?

Experts caution that a Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign thought to have been carried out during the 2016 United States election may now be plaguing France.

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Laurentlesax / Shutterstock.com

In the days, weeks and months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a coordinated network of automated social media profiles known as “bots” helped spread what has become known as “fake news” — a term that was popularized once the intelligence community announced their consensus belief that the Kremlin interfered with the election to an unprecedented degree.

Now, experts are looking to the upcoming 7 May 2017 French election runoff with fear that the Russian government is using the same methods that succeeded in fomenting information chaos in the U.S. could similarly disrupt other high-stakes contests in Western democracies.

Experts say the Kremlin aims to weaken such countries from the inside out by waging disinformation campaigns that exploit existing social tensions and promote mistrust in institutions of government and knowledge. Most recently, they have done so with what intelligence experts call “active measures” or cyber activities that spread disinformation to support anti-establishment candidates — like President Donald Trump and France’s extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Such candidates have been buoyed by growing nativist and protectionist sentiments from current global trends in migration that have created an anti-immigrant climate in Europe, the United States and other relatively stable countries where people have in large numbers sought refuge from violence and war in places like Syria.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the Russian hack, Clint Watts, a former FBI counterterrorism agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, described Russia’s aims with these activities:

Russian active measures hope to topple democracies through the pursuit of five complementary objectives: One, undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance; two, foment, exacerbate divisive political fissures; three, erode trust between citizens and elected officials and their institutions; four, popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations; and five, create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction — a very pertinent issue today in our country.

From these objectives the Kremlin can crumble democracies from the inside out, achieving two key milestones: One, the disillusion of the European Union; and two, the break-up of NATO.

Already, Americans may recognize familiar patterns emerging across the Atlantic Ocean. Kremlin-backed news agency Sputnik’s chief Paris bureau editor Nataliya Novikova advocated her own version of “alternative facts” when quoted in a 17 April 2017 New York Times report about Russia elbowing its way into French politics by saying, “There are many different truths. There has to be a pluralism of truth.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on 24 April 2017 that the campaign of Le Pen’s chief opponent, Emmanuel Macron, has been targeted by a pro-Kremlin hacking group with a phishing infiltration attempt similar to the one that penetrated Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s e-mail system:

As part of the attack, hackers set up multiple internet addresses that mimicked those of the campaign’s own servers in an attempt to lure Mr. Macron’s staffers into turning over their network passwords, said Feike Hacquebord, a senior threat researcher for Tokyo-based Trend Micro and the author of the report, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Mounir Mahjoubi, digital director of Mr. Macron’s campaign, confirmed the attempted hacking, saying that several staffers had received emails leading to the fake websites. The phishing emails were quickly identified and blocked, and it was unlikely others went undetected, Mr. Mahjoubi said.

An Oxford University study published on 22 April 2017 found that French voters are being hit with automated political content generated by “bots” like Americans were — but French social media users are more likely to share legitimate news stories. Yet the “junk news” making the rounds in France, according to the study, has a political agenda:

This content [junk news] includes various forms of propaganda and ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan, or conspiratorial political news and information. Much of this content is deliberately produced false reporting. It seeks to persuade readers about the moral virtues or failings of organizations, causes or people and presents commentary as a news product. This content is produced by organizations that do not employ professional journalists, and the content uses attention grabbing techniques, lots of pictures, moving images, excessive capitalization, ad hominem attacks, emotionally charged words and pictures, unsafe generalizations and other logical fallacies.

After Macron and Le Pen emerged as the frontrunners in the upcoming runoff, their former opponents united in opposition to Le Pen and extremism, but as the New York Times reports, her National Front party has grown in influence — much like relatively extreme viewpoints of both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and now-President Trump surged unexpectedly in 2016. Defeated center-right Républicains party candidate François Fillon said, “Extremism can only bring unhappiness and division. There is no choice but to vote against the far right.”

Bob Murray, a national security fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told us that bots coordinate fake news and propaganda by drumming up noise on social media and forcing a topic to trend, which then causes the news media to respond. It results in a chain reaction of disinformation bouncing between bot accounts, Kremlin-backed news agencies like Sputnik and RT that spread propaganda, then finding its way to what intelligence experts call “white” and “gray” sites, or English-language conspiratorial web sites like InfoWars or Zero Hedge — then, sometimes, to the mainstream news.

These web sites, Murray said, may not even be aware they are sharing the Kremlin’s propaganda or disinformation, but have a general disregard for the truth and are reliable tools for such purposes.

White sites are in the context of fake news, sites that don’t have an agenda of pushing fake news but are incidental messangers — like Breitbart will pick up news stories that aren’t validated, that they haven’t done due diligence [reporting] on, so they end up being propagators of fake news.

Gray sites are sites that carry a mix of real news of fake news and they have some propensity to deliberately push fake news as part of the entertainment value of the site — like InfoWars is something that will push news for a political agenda if not for entertainment and where truthfulness is secondary to throwing red meat to the base.

According to McClatchy, FBI investigators are reviewing the roles that far-right web sites in the U.S. played in facilitating Russia’s propaganda campaign:

Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.

The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.

Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.

Murray stressed that while far-right politicians appear to have benefited from Russian hacking efforts in 2016 and possibly 2017 elections, the Kremlin doesn’t favor either political agenda. Instead, its primary goal is destabilization:

The use of the sites certainly is apolitical — it’s politically agnostic, it’s a tool. The Russians are not interested in one party or the other, it’s more about the delegitimization of democratic institutions and Western multinational institutions. I’m sure they have contingency plans regardless of who wins.

Murray called the global push that played out in the United States and seems to be repeating in France “scary” — perhaps the dark logical conclusion of what has become an unavoidably technology-heavy society.

http://www.snopes.com/2017/04/24/fake-news-french-elections/

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Russian Hackers Who Targeted Clinton Appear to Attack France’s Macron

The campaign of the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has been targeted by what appear to be the same Russian operatives responsible for hacks of Democratic campaign officials before last year’s American presidential election, a cybersecurity firm warns in a new report.

The report has heightened concerns that Russia may turn its playbook on France in an effort to harm Mr. Macron’s candidacy and bolster that of Mr. Macron’s rival, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen, in the final weeks of the French presidential campaign.

Security researchers at the cybersecurity firm, Trend Micro, said that on March 15 they spotted a hacking group they believe to be a Russian intelligence unit turn its weapons on Mr. Macron’s campaign — sending emails to campaign officials and others with links to fake websites designed to bait them into turning over passwords.

The group began registering several decoy internet addresses last month and as recently as April 15, naming one onedrive-en-marche.fr and another mail-en-marche.fr to mimic the name of Mr. Macron’s political party, En Marche.

Those websites were registered to a block of web addresses that Trend Micro’s researchers say belong to the Russian intelligence unit they refer to as Pawn Storm, but is alternatively known as Fancy Bear, APT 28 or the Sofacy Group. American and European intelligence agencies and American private security researchers determined that the group was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee last year.

On Tuesday, Trend Micro’s researchers plan to release their report detailing cyberattacks in recent weeks against Mr. Macron’s campaign — as well as members of Germany’s Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung, a political foundation linked to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political party — in what appears to be the latest Russian effort to influence political outcomes in the West.

The Kremlin scoffed at the report. Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, said Monday in Moscow that “this all recalls the accusations that came from Washington and which are still suspended in thin air.” In remarks to Russian news media, he added that Russia had “never interfered” in foreign elections.

But the report’s findings gave some credence to the “strong suspicions” voiced weeks before Sunday’s voting by Mr. Macron’s digital director, Mounir Mahjoubi, that Moscow was the source of what he said had been a barrage of “highly sophisticated” efforts to gain access to the campaign’s email accounts.

Source:https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/world/europe/macron-russian-hacking.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Feurope&_r=0

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Taiwan’s ‘Hacker Minister’ Reshaping Digital Democracy

April 24, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — Taiwan’s “digital minister” Audrey Tang, a computer prodigy and entrepreneur who taught herself programming at age 8, says she’s a “civic hacker,” who like a locksmith uses specialized skills to help rather than harm.

Appointed by leaders hoping to better connect with young voters who helped sweep independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen into office last year, 35-year-old Tang is using her expertise to more directly involve the public in policymaking, and to counter “fake news.”

“Just by getting people to listen to the ideas that they don’t like, basically, develops their immune systems,” Tang said in an interview with The Associated Press while visiting Seoul for the annual Codegate international hacking competition.

“If people have already considered carefully even the position of people they don’t agree with, they already have some kind of inoculation in their mind, so that they will not fall victim to rumors,” she said.

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Keeping the public engaged is crucial given Taiwan’s status as a self-ruled democracy of 23 million people that separated from the Chinese mainland amid civil war in 1949.

Communist-ruled Beijing insists the two sides are part of a single Chinese nation. Public opinion on the issue is divided.

One of Tang’s initiatives is an artificial intelligence-powered system called Pol.is that aggregates and shares public views on policy issues to help determine the exact degree of support for a particular position. The government can use that data, for example, in negotiations over regulating Uber and other taxi services, Tang says.

The approach reflects an effort to encourage deep thinking and listening on a mass scale, unlike the fragmented and “half-baked” ideas often found in social media posts, said Ming-Yeh Rawnsley, a research associate at Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS University of London.

“It is important that Taiwanese government is thinking about practicing deliberative democracy,” said Rawnsley. “While the explosion of social media platforms creates many exciting opportunities for public expression and mass participation, it also leads to a phenomenon where everyone wants to talk, but few care to listen.”

Image result for Audrey Tang, computers, taiwan, photos

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s new digital minster, speaks during the Codegate 2017 International Hacking Competition and Global IT and Security Conference on April 12, 2017. (Yonhap)

Tang’s digital-friendly stance includes allowing top-level computer game players in Taiwan to serve an alternative form of the island’s compulsory military service. That gives professional e-sports “League of Legend” players the same opportunities an Olympics medalist would get.

Next year, she plans to introduce classes on “information technology and media literacy” for all school years to help students learn to distinguish rumors and falsehoods from facts.

“The idea is not about spotting ‘fake news’ but about being able to make decisions … so that people don’t get swayed in one way or another based on rumors,” Tang said.

Taiwanese are keen on online forums like Twitter, whose 140-character limit for posts favors writing in Chinese ideograms that often can say more with fewer characters than in English.

Tang objects to the term “fake news,” saying it’s unfair to journalists. But she says she finds U.S. President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic use of Twitter “refreshing.”

Trump’s short declarations, though often surprising, leave little leeway for misinterpretation, she contends.

“If I make all my messages self-contained and short, then there’s no danger of being taken out of context. That’s the basic thing I’ve learned,” Tang said. “@realDonaldTrump uses Twitter … the way it is meant to be (used),” she said.

Tang is Taiwan’s first transgender government minister, a rarity especially in East Asia, where outspoken conservative groups often publicly condemn sexual minorities.

Not so in Taiwan, she says.

“I would say I’m just post-gender or post-genre, meaning that I don’t think there should be things that only one gender should do,” said Tang, who early on showed she has a mind of her own.

Seeking ways to streamline math calculations, she taught herself computer programming while only 8. She dropped out of school by the time she was 14. By the time she was 20 she had already started a software company in Silicon Valley.

A dry wit, she quips that sometimes people mistake her height, 180 centimeters, for her apparently genius-level IQ.

Tang’s involvement in politics took off during Taiwan’s Sunflower movement of 2014, when she became well known for helping officials interact with citizens using the internet during the protests against a trade agreement with Beijing.

Given the ever-present risk of cyberattacks, as digital minister one of the first things Tang did after joining the Cabinet was to make government information systems more secure and then rigorously test them for loopholes.

“The utmost importance is to get people to still see the internet as a secure place … so that people can still form communities where it is still possible to talk with strangers, to learn from strangers,” she said. “Basically, if we don’t do our job right on security on the internet, it becomes a fragmenting force instead of a community force.”

The risk is that the online world would become a place where people live “essentially in their own realities, and that is as undemocratic and as non-humane as we can imagine,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed.

Qatar Pays Ransomes To Gain Release of 26 Hostages, Some From Royal Family, in Caper Apparently Involving Syrian Refugee Releases

April 22, 2017

AFP and the Associated Press

© HO, Iraqi Interior Ministry, AFP | Image grab from a handout video released by the Iraqi Interior Ministry on April 21, 2017, shows released Qatari hunters boarding a plane at Baghdad airport.

Qatar has secured the release of 26 hostages after nearly a year and a half in captivity, including members of its ruling family, in what became possibly the region’s most complex and sensitive hostage negotiation deal in recent years.

Several people with knowledge of the talks and a person involved in the negotiations said the hostage deal was linked to one of the largest population transfers in Syria‘s six-year-long civil war, and was delayed for several days due to an explosion one week ago that killed at least 130 people, most of them children and government supporters, waiting to be transferred.

The transfer of thousands of Syrian civilians was also tied to another deal involving 750 political prisoners to be released by the Syrian government.

The complexity of the talks highlights Qatar‘s role as an experienced and shrewd facilitator in hostage negotiations – this time involving members of the Gulf Arab state’s ruling family.

It also raised allegations that the tiny energy rich nation paid millions of dollars to an al-Qaida-linked group to facilitate the population transfer in Syria that led to the hostages’ release in Iraq on Friday.

Qatar is home to Centcom’s regional headquarters and is where the U.S. has its largest military base in the Middle East. It is also a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

The incident was sparked when the group was kidnapped Dec. 16, 2015 from a desert camp for falcon hunters in southern Iraq. They had legally entered Iraq to hunt inside Muthanna province, some 370 kilometers (230 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Shiite militias are active in that area and work closely with the neighboring Shiite power Iran.

A person involved in the negotiations told the AP that 11 of the captives were members of Qatar’s Al Thani ruling family. He also said Qatar paid tens of millions of dollars to Shiite groups, and to the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee and Ahrar al-Sham, which are involved in the population transfers underway in Syria. Both groups were part of an armed opposition alliance that swept through Syria’s Idlib province, seizing it from government control in 2015 and laying siege to two pro-government villages now being evacuated.

Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, the negotiator said the Qatari group was being held by Iraqi Shiite militia Kata’eb Hezbollah. The group officially denies it was behind the kidnapping and no other group has publicly claimed responsibility for the abduction.

He said Qatari officials were given assurances about the well-being of the hostages during negotiations.

Two Iraqi officials- a government and a security official – also confirmed details of the release to the AP.

The abduction of the Qatari group drew Iran, Qatar and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah into negotiations, resulting in millions of dollars in payments to Sunni and Shiite factions, according to Iraqi officials and a person involved in the negotiations. They say the talks took place in Beirut.

The negotiator said the ongoing evacuation and transfer of thousands of Syrians from four besieged areas was central to the release of the Qataris. The two pro-government villages, Foua and Kfarya, had been besieged by rebel fighters and under a steady barrage of rockets and mortars for years. The two opposition-held towns, Zabadani and Madaya, were under government siege for joining the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The opposition-run Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of on-the-ground activists, says the transfer included 800 armed men from both sides. Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the group, told the AP that the population swap in Syria was directly tied to the issue of the kidnapped Qataris.

Abdurrahman, citing information from negotiators he’d spoken with, said the Qataris first proposed bringing the fate of the hunting group into the talks about the besieged four areas in Syria.

The population exchange has been criticized by rights groups, which say it rewards siege tactics and amounts to forcible displacement along sectarian lines.

Iraqi Interior Ministry official Wahhab al-Taie told The Associated Press the hostages had been released into the custody of the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The group departed Friday afternoon on a private Qatari jet from Baghdad.

Qatar’s state TV showed the arrival of the group from Iraq as ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani waited to receive them on the tarmac. A short statement published on the state-run Qatar News Agency said the 26 Qatari citizens had arrived in the capital, Doha, after being kidnapped in Iraq while they were on a hunting trip.

Qataris on social media shared their elation at the release. With a population of around 2.6 million people, the crisis reverberated across the small country.

Their release was a priority of Qatar’s foreign policy for more than a year, said David Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The AP reported last week that a Qatari ruling family member paid $2 million, in an effort involving hackers, to secure the release of the hostages.

Weinberg, who has testified before Congress about Qatar’s role in hostage negotiations, said alleged enormous payments paid to a group with ties to al-Qaida creates incentive for future hostage taking. He said Qatar continues to “punch above its weight” in ways that concern some people in Washington.

“This is going to confront the new (Trump) administration in Washington with a serious question … Is the U.S. administration going to push Qatar to ensure that it does not pay ransom to terrorist organizations in the future,” he said.

Defense Secretary James Mattis is due to arrive in Qatar on Saturday as part of his first region-wide official visit since President Donald Trump took office.

Qatar says it does not support extremist groups in Syria or elsewhere, despite aggressive efforts to back Sunni rebel groups fighting to oust the Syrian government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.

The country’s ambitious foreign policy efforts haven’t always succeeded. Gulf neighbors withdrew their ambassadors in 2014 over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood group in Egypt, where the group was ousted.

Still, Qatar plays an important role by talking to groups that many governments want to distance themselves from, said Ayham Kamel of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

For example, Qatar’s capital city of Doha has hosted talks between the Taliban and Afghan government. Qatar has also secured the release of hostages in Syria’s civil war, including 13 Greek Orthodox nuns held by an al-Qaida affiliate there.

Kamel says the deal struck to release the Qatari nationals shows that Doha’s politics have become more nuanced.

(AP)

Think tank with ties to Putin reportedly had plans to sway election in Trump’s favor

April 20, 2017
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow  (Reuters)

A Moscow-based think tank controlled by a Russian official appointed by President Vladimir Putin reportedly hatched a plan to increase Donald Trump’s chances to win the presidency.

Reuters, citing three current and four former U.S. officials, reported Wednesday that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies provided a framework for top Russian officials on how to sway the U.S. election. Five officials told Reuters the institute is the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.

The report said the think tank produced two documents. The first was released to the upper reaches of the Russian government, the report said.

The document reportedly said the Kremlin should launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian-backed news that stressed the point that the smart choice for president would be a candidate with a softer approach to Moscow.

The classified document called for state-backed news outlets to get the message out, the report said.

The think tank’s opinion on the approach apparently shifted by October, when Hillary Clinton appeared to be gaining distance on Trump. The second document said it would be best to increase its message on voter fraud and to attack Clinton’s reputation.

These documents were acquired by U.S. intelligence officials and were the basis of what led U.S. officials to blame Russia for meddling, the report said. The sources declined to comment on how the documents were obtained. Reuters reported that U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them. The report was not independently confirmed by Fox News.

The think tank said in a statement to The Tass Russian News Agency that the report is incorrect.

“Unfortunately, the number of slanderous remarks against Russia has been growing recently but those making such remarks wrongly perceive the world,” the center said.

Putin has denied any interference in the U.S. election, and Trump said the Kremlin’s activities did not play a role in the election outcome. There is no evidence thus far that Trump or his associates knew about Russia’s effort during the campaign. The FBI and lawmakers are investigating.

Trump recently said that U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low,” and that “right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.”

The comment underscored long-standing difficulties that have plagued the two nations’ attempts at greater understanding since the days of their World War II alliance. The Cold War may be over, but from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, Washington and Moscow don’t see the world the same way.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Edmund DeMarche is a news editor for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @EDeMarche.

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/04/20/think-tank-with-ties-to-putin-reportedly-had-plans-to-sway-election-in-trumps-favor.html

UK Helped Fund North Korea Amid Sony Hack, Nuclear Weapons, ICBM Development

April 18, 2017

The Foreign Office handed over the taxpayers’ money after the 2014 hack on film studio Sony Pictures

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THE UK has handed Kim Jong-un £740,000 in aid – a chunk of which will help beleaguered North Korean journalists ‘connect to the web’.

Most of the taxpayers’ money was paid to the nuke-wielding crackpot country by the Foreign Office after the 2014 Sony Pictures hack.

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The aid is part of a project to help increase interaction with the unpredictable hermit state and international media organisations, reports the Mirror.

The project is also aiming to open up news reporting in the propaganda-infested communist country in which most of the population have little or no access to the internet.

Luddite North Korean journos will receive £22,650 from the British government while teachers in the totalitarian regime are getting £350,000 of taxpayers’ money.

Dictator Kim’s cash windfall totalling £740,000 was revealed by the Department for International Development who released the figures.

The rest of the money is made of aid for the ‘rural disabled’, funding for ‘entrepreneur workshops’ and a scheme which will help teach Korean officials understand ‘UK values’.

In 2014, the portly despot is alleged to have hacked film studio Sony Pictures after being angered by the comedy movie The Interview which centred on a fictional plot to kill the North Korean leader.

The hack was followed by terror threats against theatres screening the film resulting in the studio pulling the movie from general release.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “The projects we carry out in North Korea are part of our policy of critical engagement, and are used to promote British values and demonstrate to the North Korean people that engaging with the UK and the outside world is an opportunity rather than a threat.

“We conduct a range of small-scale project work, many of which help to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of society.”

https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2508939/britain-aid-north-korea-740000-kim-jong-un-internet-media/

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Kim Jong-un, North Korean leader 

In his pursuit of nuclear weapons, Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has put himself on a collision course with the US CREDIT: WONG MAYE-E/AP

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UK ‘gave millions in foreign aid’ to North Korean regime now threatening nuclear war

North Korea has received more than £4 million in foreign aid from the UK in just six years despite the country’s status as an international pariah, according to reports.

Tensions with the communist regime ruled by dictator Kim Jong-un have escalated after it said it would conduct weekly missile tests and warned that “all-out war” would result from US military action.

Meanwhile, Mike Pence, the US vice-president, told Pyongyang not to test Donald Trump’s resolve as fears of a military conflict continue to grow over North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Read the rest:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/18/uk-gave-4-million-foreign-aid-north-korea-past-six-years/

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US cyber‑attack ‘may have thwarted North Korean missile test’

April 16, 2017

Launch failed within seconds ● Intercontinental missile unveiled at Pyongyang parade ● Pence in South Korea as Washington piles pressure on China

A soldier salutes at a military show of strength staged by the North Korean government in central PyongyangDAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

A missile test by North Korea that failed seconds after launch may have been sabotaged by a US cyber-attack, a former foreign secretary has said.

The US said a ballistic missile “blew up immediately” after firing near the port of Sinpo on the east coast early today.

“It could have failed because the system is not competent enough to make it work, but there is a very strong belief that the US through cyber methods has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail,” Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign and defence secretary, told the BBC.

The test was described as a provocation by the US vice-president Mike Pence, who is on a visit to South Korea amid…

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Did US hackers sabotage North Korea’s missile test?

April 16, 2017
COMPUTER hackers working for the US security services could have been behind Kim Jong-un’s disastrous missile test failure, according to a former British foreign secretary.

PUBLISHED: 11:27, Sun, Apr 16, 2017 | UPDATED: 11:54, Sun, Apr 16, 2017

Hackers/Kim Jong-unGETTY/AFP

Was Kim Jong-un’s missile test sabotaged by a US cyber attack?

The US Pacific Co

The US Pacific Command said the North Korean missile “blew up almost immediately” on its test launch which came a a day after a grand military parade to show off what appeared to be new long-range ballistic missiles.

And former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said it was possible the missile’s operating system had been sabotaged by a US cyber attack.

Pence speaks in South Korea after North Korea failed missile launch

 

Sir Malcolm RifkindGETTY

Former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggested hackers may have sabotaged the missile test

There is a very strong belief that the US through cyber methods has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests

Sir Malcolm Rifkind

Sir Malcolm told the BBC: “It could have failed because the system is not competent enough to make it work.

“But there is a very strong belief that the US through cyber methods has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail.

“But don’t get too excited by that, they’ve also had quite a lot of successful tests.

“They are an advanced country when it comes to their nuclear weapons programme. That still remains a fact – a hard fact.”

MissilesGETTY

Kim Jong-un used a military parade to show off his latest missiles

The failed launch appeared to defuse some of the rising tensions in the region with US military officials saying the botched test of what was believed to be a medium-range missile had come as no surprise.

The official said: “It’s a failed test. It follows another failed test. So really no need to reinforce their failure. We don’t need to expend any resources against that.”

He said the missile’s flight lasted no more than four or five seconds before it crashed into the sea.

“It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. The good news is that after five seconds it fizzled out.”

MissilesGETTY

North Korea’s Day of Sun parade was seen as a show of defiance to the US

North Korea launched a ballistic missile from the same region earlier this month ahead of a summit between the US and China to discuss Pyongyang’s arms programme.

But that missile, which US officials said appeared to be a liquid-fuelled extended-range Scud, only flew about 40 miles – a fraction of its range – before spinning out of control.

Tensions had escalated sharply amid concern the North may conduct a sixth nuclear test or a ballistic missile test launch around Saturday’s 105th birth anniversary of founding father Kim Il Sung that it calls the “Day of the Sun”.

The White House has said President Donald Trump has put North Korea “on notice”.