London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company

London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company
School of Oriental & African Studies, London. (Wikimedia Commons)
Short Url
Updated 13 July 2021

London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company

London university targeted by Iranian hackers: Cybersecurity company
  • They impersonated academics at School of Oriental and African Studies to harvest info
  • Expert: ‘Iran has always been very focused on (compromising) academics, scientists, professors, diplomats’

LONDON: A cybersecurity company has accused Iranian hackers of impersonating academics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to target Middle East experts.

Proofpoint said the intrusions were launched by the Charming Kitten group, which is also known as Phosphorus and APT35. 

The outfit is believed to regularly conduct hacking attempts for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s asymmetric warfare force. 

The move comes amid heightened concern in Britain over cyberattacks from hostile states. Lindy Cameron, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), recently warned that Tehran is seeking to use cyber strategies to “sabotage and steal” from UK institutions. 

NCSC reports have detailed the specific risk from Iranian cyberespionage on UK universities. Its warnings were highlighted following Tehran’s efforts in 2018 to gather personal details from university staff by duping them with phony websites.

The NCSC said it is aware of this latest attack by the Iranian outfit. The attack saw hackers impersonating SOAS academics in fake emails, asking professors, journalists and other Middle East experts to attend conferences and discussions. 

After conversing and gaining their trust, the Iranian hacking group sent the experts to a spoof web page that they had added to an independent radio station based at SOAS. 

The page invited the experts to submit their personal details, including a password, to access the fake events.

Details harvested by the cyber operation were then used to access other sites, such as the experts’ email accounts. 

Proofpoint said the Iranian group may have also used mobile numbers gathered at the site to infect phones with malware.

It said it knew of around a dozen experts who were targeted, most of them based in Britain and the US.

The operation proved that state-sponsored hackers “are really back in the seat,” said Sherrod DeGrippo, Proofpoint’s senior director of threat research.

“Iran has always been very focused on (compromising) academics, scientists, professors and diplomats. This just shows that they’re continuing that focus, most likely because it’s been paying off.” 

Proofpoint, in a report released on Tuesday, said the group is gathering information regarding geopolitics and foreign policy, especially on Iranian dissidents’ behavior.

SOAS said no personal information from its systems had been breached during the cyberattack.

“Once we became aware of the dummy site … we immediately remedied and reported the breach in the normal way,” it added. SOAS said it had “taken steps to further improve protection of (its) peripheral systems.”


Coercion and threats will not work on the Taliban, says Pakistani envoy

Coercion and threats will not work on the Taliban, says Pakistani envoy
Updated 11 min 40 sec ago

Coercion and threats will not work on the Taliban, says Pakistani envoy

Coercion and threats will not work on the Taliban, says Pakistani envoy
  • In an exclusive interview, Munir Akram says we must engage with Afghanistan’s new leaders and convince them of the benefits of an open society
  • He warns that stoking a “climate of fear” will only help to fuel a refugee crisis on a scale the international community is desperate to avoid

NEW YORK: As nations scramble to find ways to deal with the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, a leading Pakistani diplomat on Monday warned that threats and coercion do not sit well with the Afghan mentality and are not an effective strategy.
To get the country “back to normality,” Munir Akram, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, called for engagement with the Taliban in an effort to show them the “benefits of modernity, technology, education and the values of an open society.”
The situation in Afghanistan is likely to dominate high-level discussions during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, which began on Sept. 14 and continues until the end of the month.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Arab News ahead of this week’s annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders, Akram urged the international community to avoid “an attitude of coercion and threats, of attempting to leverage money in order to get a certain conduct.”
Instead he called for a better understanding of the complexities of Afghanistan, its culture, and the beliefs and character of its people.
Akram’s US counterpart, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was asked recently how US authorities intend to champion the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan now that American troops have withdrawn from the country and leverage has therefore been lost.
“I would argue the opposite,” she said. “We are one of the largest contributors to humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and that gives us tremendous leverage.”
Understanding the reality of the situation in Afghanistan is increasingly important as the world witnesses the fallout from the crisis affecting not only neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, but also Europe and even the US.
Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees for more than 40 years, since the Soviet invasion drove millions to flee across the border. The close relationship between the two countries goes back hundreds of years, during which marriages and migrations created “a natural affinity” between two peoples who share similar ethnic and tribal identities.
“Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state,” said Akram. “Unless there is peace within all the sections of Afghanistan there will continue to be some form of conflict. And if there is a conflict or a humanitarian crisis, there’s likely to be more outflows of refugees (engulfing) not only Pakistan and Iran as neighboring countries but also Europe and maybe even the US.
“It is not very clear whether they will be welcomed. It has been said that (other countries) are willing to take many of those Afghan people who worked with US and NATO in the past 20 years, but what about the rest of the Afghan people? People who really need assistance, really are destitute, really are hungry and poor? We must not forget them.”
Akram’s road map for responding to the challenges in Afghanistan includes an immediate relief effort to address the severe humanitarian crisis in the country. Levels of poverty and hunger have risen since the Taliban took over last month, and foreign aid has dwindled, raising fears of a mass exodus. According to the UN, 18 million Afghans, half of the population, are food insecure.
During a UN conference last week, organized to galvanize an international aid effort, donors pledged more than $1.1 billion to Afghanistan.
Akram described this as “a positive” and added: “I hope that those pledges will be fulfilled as quickly as possible.”
Any lasting peace in Afghanistan will also require the formation of an inclusive government in Kabul. However the post-takeover authority excludes women and minorities, fueling fears of a return to the hard-line Taliban attitudes and practices of the past.
Last Friday, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for Taliban leaders to establish an inclusive government that guarantees the “full, equal and meaningful participation of women” and upholds human rights.
Akram believes that the current interim government is only “a first step,” talks are continuing among Afghans, and the Taliban’s desire to establish an inclusive government “is still there.” He also cautioned against failing to take into account what he called “ground realities.”
“The Taliban have fought a war for 20 years and they have been successful in that war, therefore they will wish to have adequate representation,” he said. “But this should also include other groups so that there is peace throughout Afghanistan.”
Deborah Lyons, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special representative for Afghanistan, has warned of the deteriorating humanitarian situation. She called for a “modus vivendi,” or compromise agreement, to prevent a total breakdown by allowing money to continue to flow into the country.
Some members of the new government are on the Security Council’s sanctions list, and therefore subject to economic, trading and diplomatic restrictions.
Akram said the Taliban expect the Security Council to begin the process of lifting these sanctions. This was part of the agreement the group reached with Washington in February, in return for which it pledged not to attack US or NATO forces during their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the weeks since the Taliban took over, there have been increasing reports from Kabul of grave human rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, the new authorities have raided the homes of journalists and activists, apparently searching for individuals who criticized them. In addition, restrictions have been imposed on the education of girls and the right of women to work.
Akram acknowledged these concerns but warned of the danger of what he called the “fake news” that is circulating. In particular he highlighted reports of a crackdown on a demonstration by Afghan women, saying that the very fact such a protest was allowed to go ahead reveals a change of behavior by the Taliban.
The envoy said he understands why some Afghans fear for their personal safety, and that Pakistani authorities have arranged for 12,000 Afghans and foreign nationals who felt threatened to leave country.
But he denounced what he described as attempts to create “a climate of fear” that might push Afghans to flee their country at a time when it needs them to “stay and build.”
“Creating a climate of fear will (lead to) the very results that we fear, which is an outflow of refugees,” he added.
Another concern among many people is that Afghanistan might once again become a haven for terrorists. Akram responded to this fear by considering the lessons he believes have been learned in the past 20 years.
“What we needed to do against Al-Qaeda was to use a pick to find them and extract them from where they were,” he said. “Instead, we used a hammer. We went in and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.
“When you bomb people and kill their children, you recruit people into terrorism. And that is what has happened.”
As a result, he added, the threat of terrorism has spread and become much more complex.
“It is no longer in Afghanistan alone; it is in Yemen, Syria, the Western Sahara and all over the world,” said Akram.
“At the same time, because of the equation of terrorists with Muslims, Islamophobia rose and today you have terrorist organizations that target Muslims. So we have to learn from those mistakes.”
Taking all of this into account, Akram urged the international community to adopt a comprehensive, coordinated strategy and work with the Taliban in an effort to address all forms of terrorism.
“If we adopt competitive strategies — ‘I can deal only with my terrorist threat but not yours’ — I think we will lose,” he added.


Indonesia mulls reopening Bali for foreign tourists, but with caution

Indonesia mulls reopening Bali for foreign tourists, but with caution
Updated 21 September 2021

Indonesia mulls reopening Bali for foreign tourists, but with caution

Indonesia mulls reopening Bali for foreign tourists, but with caution
  • ‘Don’t want to let our guard down,’ officials say amid measures to curb new variants of virus from entering archipelago

JAKARTA: Indonesia is looking to welcome back foreign tourists to its resort island of Bali in October after a 98 percent drop in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country since its worst peak in July, officials said.

Last week, authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions on the tourist island, but international visitors will still face stricter health protocols on arrival to curb the spread of new variants.

Some measures include providing vaccination certificates, undergoing an eight-day quarantine and taking three PCR tests before entering the island.

“We are preparing Bali for (hosting) the G20, so we will have the trial by reopening Bali for foreigners,” Sandiaga Uno, the tourism and creative economy minister, told a press briefing on Monday.

“We don’t want to let our guard down; that would enable other new variants to enter Indonesia like the delta,” he said.

Officials said that some of the countries to be welcomed back could include France, Ukraine, Russia, Austria, Poland, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan.

The government assesses the outbreak situation every week, and Uno said that authorities were approaching the reopening very carefully to avoid a third wave of the pandemic after the second wave — triggered by the highly contagious delta variant — ravaged Indonesia, especially its most populated island of Java and Bali, in July and August.

Indonesia is set to take over the G20 chairmanship in 2022 from this year’s host, Italy.

It is a year earlier than the initial schedule, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, after India — which was set to hold the 2022 presidency — agreed to swap the schedule with Indonesia for 2023.

One of the optional locations in Bali to host the G20 main events would be in Nusa Dua, Uno said, responding to a question from Arab News.

Bali’s Nusa Dua resort cluster, where numerous luxury hotels are located, has hosted other international summits for Indonesia in the past as well.

However, Uno said that the government remained cautious and would reopen Bali and other tourist destinations in stages based on how the situation developed.

Bali is heavily reliant on tourism for its economy, and its regional GDP severely contracted during the pandemic last year following Indonesia’s suspension of visa-free travel for foreign tourists.

In neighboring Lombok Island, adjacent to Bali’s east, its main tourist destinations have also become sleepy towns due to the absence of international visitors.

Some resort hotels on Lombok’s picturesque Senggigi Beach have been shut for months, with very few open as quarantine facilities or those providing heavily discounted prices for domestic tourists.

Meanwhile, Senaru village in the northern part of Lombok, where one of the tracks to hike up Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, Mount Rinjani, starts, is also empty with homestays that were earlier bustling with tourists.

“I could hike up to the peak of Rinjani two or three times a week with guests before the pandemic,” said a village native and mountain guide, Surya, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

On Monday, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, a senior minister for investment affairs handling the pandemic in Java and Bali, said that the pandemic’s severity status in all major cities on the two islands had been lowered to level two and three, from the most severe level of four.

“The daily number of new cases has dropped 98 percent from its worst in mid-July,” he said.

The downgrade in outbreak severity level means that some restrictions have been eased, with malls, restaurants, tourism destinations, and public places can welcome customers again with a limited capacity.

In a press briefing on Friday, Pandjaitan said given the current trend, including the case reproduction rate in Java and Bali that lowered on Friday to below 1 at 0.98 and is the lowest since the pandemic hit Indonesia in March 2020, the government is “very confident” that they can reopen Bali for foreign visitors in October.

International arrivals to Indonesia currently have to undergo an eight-day quarantine in Jakarta and Manado, North Sulawesi, where the airports are open for international flights, while the other international airports, including Bali, are still closed for international flights.

“We will review in October to see if it can be reduced to five days,” Pandjaitan said.


Aid reaches Mozambique’s insurgent-hit Palma after 6 month hiatus

Aid reaches Mozambique’s insurgent-hit Palma after 6 month hiatus
Updated 20 September 2021

Aid reaches Mozambique’s insurgent-hit Palma after 6 month hiatus

Aid reaches Mozambique’s insurgent-hit Palma after 6 month hiatus
  • Palma — the operational hub of a multi-billion-dollar gas project — had been off bounds since it was attacked by Daesh-linked militants
  • Locally referred to as Al-Shabab, Mozambique’s insurgents have been troubling the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since 2017

MAPUTO: Aid has reached Mozambique’s northern coastal town of Palma for the first time since it was overrun by extremists in March, the United Nations said on Monday, even as beheadings were reported in another area.

Palma — the operational hub of a multi-billion-dollar gas project of France’s TotalEnergies — had been off bounds since it was attacked by Daesh-linked militants earlier this year.

Dozens of people were killed, some beheaded, and thousands fled through surrounding forests, joining hundreds of thousands already displaced by the violence.

Humanitarian access to the town remained difficult as local troops worked alongside soldiers sent by several other African countries to stem the insurgency.

“For the first time since March, humanitarian aid reached people in Palma,” tweeted the UN’s Word Food Programme (WFP) in Mozambique, adding that 2,150 families had received emergency food, hygiene and shelter kits.

Many of those displaced from Palma had sought refuge in the nearby village of Quitunda, close to the gas project, where rights groups say they were trapped by troops and ongoing fighting.

WFP’s announcement was made days after suspected militants beheaded five civilians in the village of Namaluco, around 150 kilometers (about 90 miles) south of Palma, military and local sources told AFP.

The victims were reportedly brewing a traditional alcoholic beverage when they were murdered.

Locally referred to as Al-Shabab, Mozambique’s insurgents have been troubling the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since 2017 in a bid to establish a caliphate.

The goup grew bolder last year, escalating attacks that culminated with the raid on Palma on March 24, which forced Total to evacuate its staff and suspend operations.

But they have lost ground since several African countries deployed troops to help overwhelmed local forces.

They suffered a major defeat in August, when Mozambican troops backed by Rwandan soldiers drove them out of their de-facto headquarters in Mocimboa da Praia.


US easing virus restrictions for foreign flights to America

US easing virus restrictions for foreign flights to America
Updated 20 September 2021

US easing virus restrictions for foreign flights to America

US easing virus restrictions for foreign flights to America
  • Changes, to take effect in November, will allow those who’ve been separated by travel restrictions for 18 months to plan for long-awaited reunifications
  • The new policy will replace a patchwork of travel bans

WASHINGTON: The US said Monday it will ease airline restrictions this fall on travel to the country for people who have vaccination proof and a negative COVID-19 test.
This will replace a hodgepodge of rules that had kept out many non-citizens and irritated allies in Europe and beyond where virus cases are far lower.
The changes, to take effect in November, will allow families and others who have been separated by the travel restrictions for 18 months to plan for long-awaited reunifications and allow foreigners with work permits to get back to their jobs in the US
Airlines, business groups and travelers cheered.
“It’s a happy day. Big Apple, here I come!” said French entrepreneur Stephane Le Breton, 45, finally able to book a trip to New York City that had been put on hold over the virus restrictions.
The new policy will replace a patchwork of travel bans first instituted by President Donald Trump last year and tightened by President Joe Biden that restrict travel by non-citizens who have in the prior 14 days been in the United Kingdom, European Union, China, India, Iran, Republic of Ireland, Brazil or South Africa.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients announced the new policies, which still will require all foreign travelers flying to the US to demonstrate proof of vaccination before boarding, as well as proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of flight. Biden will also tighten testing rules for unvaccinated American citizens, who will need to be tested within a day before returning to the US, as well as after they arrive home.
The tougher rules for unvaccinated Americans come as the White House has moved to impose sweeping vaccination-or-testing requirements affecting as many as 100 million people in an effort to encourage holdouts to get shots.
Fully vaccinated passengers will not be required to quarantine, Zients said.
There will be no immediate change to US land border policies, which restrict much cross-border travel with Mexico and Canada.
The travel bans had become the source of growing geopolitical frustration, particularly among allies in the UK and EU. The easing comes ahead of Biden meeting with some European leaders on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly this week.
“This is based on individuals rather than a country-based approach, so it’s a stronger system,” Zients said.
The EU and UK had previously moved to allow vaccinated US travelers in without quarantines, in an effort to boost business and tourism. But the EU recommended last month that some travel restrictions be reimposed on US travelers to the bloc because of the rampant spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus in America.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will require airlines to collect contact information from international travelers to facilitate tracing, Zients said.
It was not immediately clear which vaccines would be acceptable under the US system and whether those unapproved in the US could be used. Zients said that decision would be up to the CDC.
Monday’s announcement was met with applause by the air travel industry, which has lost significant revenue from declines in international travel.
Delta Air Lines spokesman Morgan Durrant said, “Science tells us that vaccinations coupled with testing is the safest way to re-open travel, and we are optimistic this important decision will allow for the continued economic recovery both in the US and abroad and the reunification of families who have been separated for more than 18 months.”
Worldwide, air travel is still down more than half from pre-pandemic levels, and the decline is much sharper for cross-border flying. By July, domestic travel had recovered to 84 percent of 2019 numbers, but international travel was just 26 percent of the same month two years ago, according to figures this month from the airline industry’s main global trade group, the International Air Transport Association.
The numbers are similar but not quite as stark for the US, where international travel in August was 46 percent of that in August 2019, according to Airlines for America. Arrivals by non-US citizens were only 36 percent of the 2019 level.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he was “delighted” by the news. He said: “It’s a fantastic boost for business and trade, and great that family and friends on both sides of the pond can be reunited once again.”
Airlines hailed the US decision as a lifeline for the struggling industry. Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry body Airlines UK said it was “a major breakthrough.”
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said it was “a major milestone. ... The UK will now be able to strengthen ties with our most important economic partner, the US, boosting trade and tourism as well as reuniting friends, families and business colleagues.”
The changes also drew praise from business groups, who have been contending with labor shortages as the economy bounces back with unexpected strength from last year’s coronavirus recession. US employers have been posting job openings — a record 10.9 million in July — faster than applicants can fill them.
Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs for the U..S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement, “Allowing vaccinated foreign nationals to travel freely to the United States will help foster a robust and durable recovery for the American economy.”


Forfeited EGuinea VP assets to be used by UN, NGO for health care

Forfeited EGuinea VP assets to be used by UN, NGO for health care
Updated 20 September 2021

Forfeited EGuinea VP assets to be used by UN, NGO for health care

Forfeited EGuinea VP assets to be used by UN, NGO for health care
  • The US alleged that Obiang, the son of the leader of Equatorial Guinea, had amassed more than $300 million worth of assets through corruption and money laundering
  • Obiang was forced to sell a Malibu, California, mansion that he purchased for $30 million, a Ferrari automobile and various items of Michael Jackson memorabilia

WASHINGTON: Some $26 million in assets forfeited by the son of the leader of Equatorial Guinea are to be used by the United Nations and an NGO to fund health care in the African nation, the US Justice Department said Monday.
The United Nations will receive $19.25 million to purchase and distribute Covid-19 vaccines and Medical Care Development International (MCDI) will receive $6.35 million for medicines and medical supplies to be sent to Equatorial Guinea, it said.
The funds stem from a civil forfeiture settlement involving Vice President Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, whose father has ruled the oil-rich but poverty-stricken country since 1979, the Justice Department said in a statement.
In the civil forfeiture case, the United States alleged that Obiang had amassed more than $300 million worth of assets through corruption and money laundering.
Under a 2014 settlement agreement, Obiang was forced to sell a Malibu, California, mansion that he purchased for $30 million, a Ferrari automobile and various items of Michael Jackson memorabilia, according to the Justice Department.
“As provided in the agreement, $10.3 million of these settlement funds were to be forfeited to the United States and the remaining settlement funds would be distributed to a charity or other organization for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea,” the department said.
“Wherever possible, kleptocrats will not be allowed to retain the benefits of corruption,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said.
A French court recently upheld Obiang’s conviction in France for accumulating luxury properties with illegally obtained funds, handing out a suspended three-year prison sentence and a 30 million euro ($35 million) fine.
Despite Equatorial Guinea’s oil riches, most of the central African country’s 1.4 million people live below the poverty line.