Shelling, air strikes as Philippine troops hunt pro-Daesh militants in marshland

A mosque with its dome blasted at the battle-scarred Marawi City in southern Philippines. Philippine troops are pushing on with a new offensive against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters after crushing an alliance of pro-Daesh militants in Marawi. (AP)
Updated 17 November 2017
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Shelling, air strikes as Philippine troops hunt pro-Daesh militants in marshland

MANILA: Philippine troops shelled positions held by a small group of pro-Daesh militants in southern marshland on Friday, as the military pushed on with a new offensive after the country’s biggest urban battle in decades.
The army estimated 2,000 villagers had been displaced by several days of operations in a region straddling two provinces on the island of Mindanao, as the army went after the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a small and splintered rebel group inspired by the Daesh.
The latest operation follows the end last month of what was the Philippines’ biggest battle since World War Two, in which troops took five months to crush an alliance of Daesh loyalists including BIFF fighters in Marawi City.
The occupation of the city by the militants and their dogged resistance spread alarm in the region about the rise of extremism and radical aspirations to create a Daesh caliphate.
Captain Nap Alcarioto, spokesman for the 6th Infantry Division, said troops were shelling BIFF gunmen in support of ground attacks in an area of marshland between the provinces of Maguindanao and Cotobato, about 170 kilometers from Marawi.
“We are still awaiting results of operations,” he said.
The army said it was fighting a BIFF faction led by Abu Toraypie, a man allied with the Maute group, the biggest militant group in an alliance that led the Marawi conflict.
Toraypie and some of his men had escaped from Marawi and the army was trying to prevent them from regrouping, the army said.
Military aircraft dropped bombs on another BIFF wing in a town close by.
The BIFF broke away from the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a decade ago after becoming disillusioned with a protracted process with the government to grant autonomy to what is the mainly Catholic country’s only predominantly Muslim region.
Separately, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla said Marawi was clear of militants who had been hiding in the ruins of the pummeled city, but unexploded munitions and booby traps had yet to be cleared.
“The last firefight we had was on November 5 when we killed nine terrorists,” he told a news conference, adding all top militant leaders had been killed, although that was subject to DNA confirmation.


Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

Updated 20 min 39 sec ago
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Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

  • The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election
  • The company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations

Microsoft said Tuesday it has uncovered new Russian hacking attempts targeting US political groups ahead of the midterm elections.
The company said that a hacking group tied to the Russian government created fake Internet domains that appeared to spoof two American conservative organizations: the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. Three other fake domains were designed to look as if they belonged to the US Senate.
Microsoft didn’t offer any further description of the fake sites.
The revelation came just weeks after a similar Microsoft discovery led Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is running for re-election, to reveal that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network.
The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election, which US intelligence officials have said were focused on helping to elect Republican Donald Trump to the presidency by hurting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
This time, more than helping one political party over another, “this activity is most fundamentally focused on disrupting democracy,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said in an interview this week.
Smith said there is no sign the hackers were successful in persuading anyone to click on the fake websites, which could have exposed a target victim to computer infiltration, hidden surveillance and data theft. Both conservative think tanks said they have tried to be vigilant about “spear-phishing” email attacks because their global pro-democracy work has frequently drawn the ire of authoritarian governments.
“We’re glad that our work is attracting the attention of bad actors,” said Hudson Institute spokesman David Tell. “It means we’re having an effect, presumably.”
The International Republican Institute is led by a board that includes six Republican senators, and one prominent Russia critic and Senate hopeful, Mitt Romney, who is running for a Utah seat this fall.
Microsoft calls the hacking group Strontium; others call it Fancy Bear or APT28. An indictment from US special counsel Robert Mueller has tied it to Russian’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU, and to the 2016 email hacking of both the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
“We have no doubt in our minds” who is responsible, Smith said.
Microsoft has waged a legal battle with Strontium since suing it in a Virginia federal court in summer 2016. The company obtained court approval last year allowing it to seize certain fake domains created by the group. It has so far used the courts to shut down 84 fake websites created by the group, including the most recent six announced Tuesday.
Microsoft has argued in court that by setting up fake but realistic-looking domains, the hackers were misusing Microsoft trademarks and services to hack into targeted computer networks, install malware and steal sensitive emails and other data.
Smith also announced Tuesday that the company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations, at least so long as they’re already using Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity software. Facebook and Google have also promoted similar tools to combat campaign interference.