Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 20 September 2016: FBI gathering evidence to indict Russian state-sponsored hackers, Australia plans significant private sector involvement in ensuring cybersecurity, sea ice in Arctic region at second-lowest level since records began

The weekly briefing, 20 September 2016: FBI gathering evidence to indict Russian state-sponsored hackers, Australia plans significant private sector involvement in ensuring cybersecurity, sea ice in Arctic region at second-lowest level since records began

by Kirsten Winterman, Erin Decker and Matthew Clarke

Briefing

Summary

Americas: FBI gathering evidence to indict Russian state-sponsored actors behind hacks and attempted breaches of networks and systems of several US political parties and figures; Brazil’s former speaker of lower house of parliament barred from politics for eight years amid accusations of perjury and corruption.

Europe: Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine announce unilateral ceasefire; eastern EU countries make it clear that United Kingdom will not be able to retain access to European single market without accepting free movement of people.

Asia and Oceania: Senior leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party sentenced to a five-month prison term in connection with sex scandal; Australia plans significant private sector involvement in ensuring cybersecurity.

Middle East and North Africa: Forces loyal to Tripoli-based government launch attack to take back control of areas seized by General Khalifa Haftar earlier in month; dozens of Syrian soldiers killed in US airstrike that threatens ceasefire.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Séléka rebels kill at least six people in attacks in northern Central African Republic; Somali general and several soldiers killed in al-Shabaab suicide car-bomb attack in Mogadishu.

Polar regions: Sea ice in Arctic region at second-lowest level since records began.

Americas

United States

The FBI reported on 15 September that it is attempting to gather enough evidence to indict some of the Russian state-sponsored actors that US intelligence agencies believe have been behind hacks and attempted breaches of the networks and systems of several US political parties and figures, including the US Democratic National Committee earlier this year and several US state voter registration databases in late August 2016. US officials attribute the increasing number of hacking incidents to Russia’s GRU military intelligence service and the FSB, its civilian intelligence agency, and believe the attacks may be part of a Russian attempt to disrupt and discredit the upcoming US presidential elections in November. Russia has denied that it has sponsored or encouraged any of the hacks. There is speculation that the US Department of Justice is launching the investigation due to pressure from Congress. The justice department is likely to continue its investigation despite the risks of increasing tensions with Moscow. It is likely that the hacks against US political targets will continue and possibly increase as the 8 November presidential election approaches.

Brazil

Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of Brazil’s lower house of parliament, was expelled from the ruling Brazilian Democratic Movement Party on 12 September and barred from politics for eight years amid accusations of perjury and corruption. He is accused of lying to a congressional ethics committee about his Swiss bank accounts, which he is believed to have been using to hold funds he received through corrupt channels. Although Cunha played a key role in the impeachment of Brazil’s erstwhile president, Dilma Rousseff, and is a close ally of the country’s current president, Michel Temer, his expulsion will likely be beneficial to the ruling party in the long run, as it will allow it to distance itself from future corruption scandals associated with Cunha.

Europe

Ukraine

Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine announced a unilateral ceasefire on 13 September. Although multiple ceasefires have been announced in the past that failed to hold, the latest declaration is significant, as it is the first time a ceasefire has been called unilaterally by the rebels. The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, confirmed on 14 September that the country’s authorities would agree to a seven-day ceasefire in the separatist’s strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk. Separatists in these two areas are widely believed to be supported and at least partially controlled by Moscow, and it is likely that Russia had some influence on the decision to call a ceasefire, which may have been timed to coincide with parliamentary elections in Russia on 18 September. If this is the case, then the ceasefire is unlikely to hold beyond the seven days already agreed, particularly as previous ceasefires have not lasted more than a few days.

United Kingdom

In an interview on 18 September, Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, told the Financial Times that Europe will make leaving the European Union ‘very painful’ for the United Kingdom. He also said that Britain would not be allowed to make EU workers ‘second-class citizens’ while maintaining access to the single market. Fico’s intervention came after Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Konrad Szymanski, said that his country would potentially veto any deal with the United Kingdom that was not balanced in terms of the four pillars of the EU, which includes the free movement of people between member states. It is increasingly unlikely that the United Kingdom will be able to negotiate a deal to maintain access to the European single market without agreeing to the free movement of people. This means the United Kingdom will likely have to choose between an ‘EU-lite’ option, in which both the single market and the free movement of people are retained, or a complete Brexit, in which all the economic, travel and other benefits of EU membership are lost. Despite the British prime minister’s repeated declaration that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, the UK government is likely to opt for the first option, which will lessen the damage caused by Brexit but anger many voters and Eurosceptic members of the ruling Conservative party.

Asia and Oceania

Cambodia

A senior leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was sentenced to a five-month prison term on 9 September in connection with a sex scandal. Kem Sokha claims that the charges against him are politically motivated, and has called for mass public demonstrations against the government’s harassment of the opposition. The government will likely continue to put pressure on the opposition ahead of local and general elections in the country in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and political instability and social unrest is likely in the near term. The charges against Sokha will likely prevent him from being able to participate in these elections.

Australia

Speaking at the SINET61 cybersecurity conference on 13 September, Alastair MacGibbon, the Australian prime minister’s special advisor on cybersecurity, stated that Australia’s new cybersecurity policy, announced in May, has two separate functions. MacGibbon said that the first function is to protect Australia; the second function is to grow Australia’s cybersecurity industry into a ‘small but powerful … industry that is global in its reach’. The Australian government has provided $Aus 30 million to facilitate this growth. The move comes after leaks in the United States and Europe have undermined confidence in those cybersecurity markets. Australia’s plan includes government cybersecurity agencies outsourcing work to the private sector, large businesses such as banks being encouraged to carry out drills to test their cyber defences and plans to combat terrorist groups that are using networks to radicalise individuals. It is likely that further initiatives and funding will be announced in the coming months as the five-year security review is debated. Furthermore, it is possible that these developments may eventually provide members of the Five Eyes network with powerful countermeasures to advanced Russian and Chinese cyber espionage and offensives.

Middle East and North Africa

Libya

On 18 September, forces loyal to the Tripoli-based government launched an attack in an effort to take back control of two oil ports seized by General Khalifa Haftar earlier in the month. The attack by the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) came a week after the UN-backed government encouraged those loyal to it to respond to Haftar’s takeover of a number of key oil terminals held by government supporters. It is unclear who currently controls the ports, though the majority of reports suggest that one area was briefly retaken by the PFG before later being seized once more by forces loyal to Haftar. Oil production is likely to resume in the areas controlled by Haftar’s forces. The conflict over the so-called ‘oil crescent’ has demonstrated the complicated dynamic between the government and the National Oil Corporation (NOC), which welcomed Haftar’s takeover of the area despite the fact that it is meant to be loyal to the Government of National Accord.

Syria

The recent US-Russia brokered ceasefire in Syria collapsed after the Syrian army declared the truce was over on 19 September. The failure of the ceasefire came after dozens of Syrian soldiers were killed in a US airstrike on 18 September. The US military said that it had been targeting Islamic State in eastern Syria and may have unintentionally hit Syrian troops. The airstrike weakened the week-long UN-negotiated ceasefire that began on 12 September, which was further undermined by government airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Aleppo on 18 September. Although the ceasefire was meant to provide safe passage for aid vehicles into besieged areas, around 20 trucks were unable to enter east Aleppo. Hours after the collapse of the ceasefire, a UN aid convoy close to the town of Urm al-Kubra outside Aleppo was hit by an airstrike. The United Nations reports that 18 of the 31 lorries were hit, resulting in the deaths of at least 12 aid workers and drivers. Washington holds Moscow responsible for the airstrike, whether it was Russian or Syrian warplanes that carried out the attack. The seven-day ceasefire came into force after extensive discussions between the United States and Russia, and it is hoped that the two counties will still agree to the joint targeting of militant groups as planned; however, the recent airstrikes have jeopardised this this arrangement.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Central African Republic

A number of people were killed on 16 September by Séléka rebels in the village of Ndomete, close to the market town of Kaga-Bandoro in northern Central African Republic (CAR). Initial reports by the presidential spokesperson stated that 26 people had been killed, but MINUSCA, the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, has only confirmed six deaths so far. MINUSCA has dispatched troops to the area and increased patrols to prevent further violence. The largely-Muslim Séléka is a loose coalition of militia groups from the north and east of CAR that seized the country’s capital, Bangui, in March 2013. After the coup, the coalition was dissolved, but many ex-Séléka fighters continued to act with violence and impunity, leading to the rise of Christian local protection militias called the Anti-balaka. These units, together with the presidential guard and remnants of the national army, forced the Séléka out of Bangui in December 2013. Some of the Séléka fighters have subsequently regrouped in the north of the country and begun calling for the region to secede from CAR. While the killings do not appear to be part of a wider attack by the Séléka, small-scale violence is likely to continue in the villages and towns outside the capital.

Somalia

A Somali general and several soldiers were killed on 18 September after their convoy was struck by a suicide car-bomb in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The attack took place as the convoy was travelling from a military hospital to the defence ministry. Al-Shabaab has claimed responsibility for the attack. Although, al-Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu in 2011 by African Union peacekeeping forces, attacks by the group are likely to continue, particularly around the upcoming elections scheduled to take place at the end of September and in October.

Polar regions

Arctic

Sea ice in the Arctic region is reported to be at the second-lowest level since records began. The current trends suggest that the Arctic will be relatively free of ice by 2030, which will threaten the local wildlife and result in warmer sea temperatures. Warmer waters would likely cause severe weather alterations, including more-intense storms, higher sea levels and further increases in temperatures, threatening food security among many other socio-economic risks. It is also likely that by the end of the century, the Northern Shipping Pass will remain open for up to eight months a year, cutting shipping times from 30 days to 18 days and decreasing reliance on high-risk shipping routes through the Middle East. As the impacts of climate change become more apparent, there is likely to be ever-increasing pressure on governments to implement the policies proposed at the COP21 Paris climate conference in 2015.

Prepared by Kirsten Winterman, Erin Decker and Matthew Clarke.

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