Monthly Risk Spotlight: July 2021

AMERICAS

Crackdown in Nicaragua
In Nicaragua, a crackdown on political dissent has seen over 20 critics of the Ortega government, including at least five people considering runs for President, arrested since June 2. The crackdown comes ahead of the November presidential and legislative elections in which current President Daniel Ortega intends to run for reelection. The arrests follow a trend of anti-democratic tendencies by the Ortega government which in the past two years has begun implementing laws to facilitate the targeting and suppression of government critics.

Examples of new such measures include a law allowing for the arrest of those criticizing the government with “fake news;” a decision by the electoral authority deeming ineligible for office those associated with the National Coalition parties (main opposition coalition) or who participated in the 2018 protests; and an adjustment allowing authorities to detain suspects under investigation for up to 90 days rather than 48 hours.

These measures and the recent arrests come in the context of significant anti-government protests in 2018. Led largely by students, the protests were initially sparked by poor handling of a nature reserve fire and government reform of the Nicaraguan “Institute of Social Security” which resulted in decreased pensions and increases in required individual contribution. Initial protests were met with violent crackdowns by pro-Sandinista paramilitaries, leading to an expansion of the protests nationwide. Protests were sustained for months, and demands were made for Ortega to step down. The movement was ultimately quelled through sustained violence with the government using live fire and “military force” to disperse crowds and target leaders in a crackdown that ultimately killed over 300 protesters.

Unrest has largely subsided since 2019, but the memory clearly remains fresh for the Ortega government which appears to be taking proactive action to quell any resistance prior to the upcoming elections. In response to the most recent crackdown efforts, 59 countries have signed a UN Human Rights Council statement condemning the human rights violations and the arbitrary detention of opposition leaders. The U.S., Canada, Switzerland, and the EU froze assets of four individuals in the Ortega administration and the latter three imposed travel bans on senior Ortega government officials, judicial leaders, and senior police.

While international pressure can at times be effective for shaping country behavior, crackdown efforts by the Ortega government driven by self-preservation are unlikely to change fundamentally in response to sanctions. The government has calculated that survival requires it to stay well ahead of the curve identifying and quelling potential challengers before a movement like that seen in 2018 can form again. This has resulted in conditions that make anything resembling a democratic election this coming November increasingly unlikely. Though opposition leaders may seem the clearest threat to Ortega’s reelection aspiration, it bears keeping in mind that an election seen by the public as in no way democratic has its own potential to create a backlash. Close observation of whether the government radicalizes or moderates its efforts over the next four months should be telling for understanding Nicaragua’s political future and the potential for renewed unrest.

MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

The Palestinian Authority is Losing its Grip
Tensions in Israel and the Palestinian Territories have been extremely high over the last few months. Forced evictions, violent protests, and missile exchanges have all citizens on edge. A ceasefire in May between Hamas and Israel is loosely holding but many Palestinians are left wondering what their representatives are doing.

In 1994, negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel led to the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinian Authority is a body that administers a limited form of Palestinian self-governance in much of the West Bank territory. Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist organization, violently took control of the territory of Gaza in 2007 and has since exercised de facto control there.

The Palestinian Authority is growing increasingly autocratic and unpopular. In April 2021, President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the first elections in 15 years. At the time, it looked like his Fatah party would lose. While Hamas grew increasingly vocal for the Palestinian cause during the Gaza war in May 2021, the Palestinian Authority members remained largely silent. A recent poll shows that only 14% of Palestinians support Fatah’s leadership. While they continue to lose Palestinian confidence, Hamas is gaining more and more.

Palestinians are often subjected to surveillance and oppression by Israeli forces but more recently, the Palestinian Authority has followed suit. Nizar Banat, a staunch critic of the Palestinian Authority was arrested by security forces at his home in the West Bank in late June. According to his family, he was severely beaten with mental clubs and rifle butts in front of his wife and young children. Banat died three hours later while in custody. The Palestinian Authority Justice Minister has admitted that Banat was subjected to physical violence while in custody and assures Palestinians that his death in custody is an exceptional case. His death has further exacerbated local discontent with the Palestinian Authority.

Security forces have been quick to quell protests over his death with violence. There has been an increasing number of reports on female journalists being attacked by Palestinian Authority security forces while they cover Nizar Banat protests. Many sustained injuries and had cellphones confiscated. Reporters for the New York Times saw plain-clothed Fatah party members charge at protestors, throw stones at them, beat them with clubs and fists, and grab cellphones from people suspected of documenting the events.

The Palestinian Authority is unable to obtain any weapons without security coordination with Israel. The Israeli newspaper Ynet reports that the most recent request came days after the latest round of protests began. The Palestinian Authority was attempting to buy tear gas canisters, stun grenades, and other nonlethal munitions from Israel. Palestinians are losing confidence in the Palestinian Authority (if they have not already). Mahmoud Abbas and the rest of the Palestinian Authority face an uphill battle winning over the Palestinians they promised to advocate for, while at the same time pleasing the Israeli government. It just may be that their autocratic ways are pushing Palestinian support and confidence right into the hands of Hamas.

ASIA-PACIFIC

Xi Jinping Touts Aggressive Chinese Policies on the CCP’s 100th Anniversary
On Thursday 1 July, celebrations were held across China commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In Beijing, the largest of the centenary celebrations were held in Tiananmen Square, ironically the same location where mass protests against the CCP were violently suppressed more than thirty years prior. For the centenary celebrations, however, memories of the 1989 massacre were replaced by patriotic fervor as thousands of flag waving revelers gathered to watch reenactments depicting the rise of the CCP and plays hyping the country’s success in containing the COVID-19 Pandemic. At one point, Chinese military aircraft even flew over the festivities forming the number 100 to symbolize the 100th anniversary. The highlight of the centenary from a foreign policy perspective, however, was the speech given by Chinese President and General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping.

Xi’s statements during his address on the 100th anniversary did not necessarily surprise the international community as he made no comments indicating any radical changes in China’s policies. As expected, his speech made clear the CCP’s commitment towards projecting China as a rising world power despite Xi and the CCP’s perceived encroachment on China by other countries, namely the United States. Specifically, Xi in his speech stated that the CCP will “never allow anyone to bully, oppress, or subjugate China”. Also bluntly stating that “anyone who dares to do that will have their heads bashed bloody”, harsh phrasing directed towards China’s perceived adversaries. Xi repeated the CCP’s policy that Taiwan is a part of China and reiterated his commitment to reunite the island nation with the mainland by aggressive means, if necessary. Concerning the semi-autonomous regions of Hong Kong and Macao, Xi stated that both regions still maintain the high level of autonomy that was agreed to when they were returned to China by the British and Portuguese; however, Xi stated that the peoples of either region must “accurately” maintain the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principles, leaving room for interpretation as to how “accurately” could be defined.

Ultimately, Xi’s centenary speech continued to propagate the assertion that China and the CCP are establishing a new Sinocentric global system, an eventuality that many in the international community are predicting may come to fruition considering the upward trajectory of China’s economy and global influence. It was not long ago that many western theorists predicted China could never possibly rise to become a hegemon until it had liberalized its economy and adopted democratic institutions. This assertion may have been believable decades ago but given China’s rising power, it does not bear much weight in today’s world. Xi’s centenary speech promoting the CCP’s aggressive policies makes this abundantly clear.

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

Democracy Demands in Eswatini
Public anger towards King Mswati and Africa’s last absolute monarch has grown over the years. King Mswati III has ruled Eswatini for more than 30 years after being crowned at the age of 18. He holds complete authority and is consulted on all matters that pertain to running the state. The royal family, including the King’s 15 wives, is accused of living extravagantly while poverty is increasing throughout the country. The people of Eswatini are now demanding democracy and the King has since issued a strong clampdown.

Protests first started in May following the death of a 25-year-old law student at the hands of police. In response, authorities banned protests altogether advising the public that the police would have zero tolerance towards those that defied the ban. The government also suspended schools and imposed a nightly curfew from 6:00 pm to 5:00 am in attempts to stop the demonstrations and has partially blocked the internet, making communications difficult.

Protestors demand democratic reforms including lifting the ban on opposition parties that have been illegal since 1973. Many citizens believe the king has failed to implement sufficient modern reforms and has used public funds to fund his lavish lifestyle.

Since May, 20 people have been killed in protests, although the number may be higher, and some 200 people have been hospitalized for injuries. These injuries include gunshot wounds sustained from live ammunition fired by police and security forces. There are also reports of opponents being jailed, beaten, and tortured. Eswatini has a history of popular protests, but the situation never previously escalated to the current extent.

Some on social media alleged that King Mswati fled the country to shelter in South Africa although Prime Minister Themba Masuka released a statement denying the allegations. Opposition leaders have gone into hiding as the monarchy tries to contain all pro-democracy protests. King Mswati has called in the military to quell any unrest although the Minister of Commerce, Trad, and Industry says, “the army was brought in to help protect and preserve.” Amnesty International has warned that Eswatini’s government has launched a “full-frontal assault on human rights.”

Representatives from the South African Development Community (SADC) arrived on 4 July to seek talks with civil society and the government. They will return to the country on a second mission to facilitate further peace talks on the ground. Although the situation seems to have subsided, for now, King Mswati’s violent reaction shows that he is increasingly insecure and willing to do whatever it takes to remain in power.

EUROPE

Russia Hackers
On 2 July, possibly the largest ransomware attack in history compromised hundreds of businesses around the world. While the primary target was Kaseya, a Miami-based software firm that provides services to thousands of corporations worldwide, the malicious code managed to trickle down to Kaseya-supported security and technology service providers that support millions of businesses. Two days later on a dark web forum, a Russian-based cybercriminal organization known as REvil claimed responsibility for the attack. REvil was also responsible for the attack on the meat processor company JBS in May. The latest REvil cyberattack came less than two months after the 14 May attack on the Colonial Pipeline Company, which led to widespread fuel shortages across the east coast of the United States.

These ransomware attacks have brought international attention to an emerging threat: cybercriminals that operate with impunity within a nation that uses the attacks to their advantage. Russian cybercrime can be tracked as far back as the 90’s when highly skilled engineers and programmers found themselves in a vacuum after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Since then, the situation has evolved to a point where Russians have easy access to an education in computer science, but fewer opportunities to turn the education into a high-paying salary. The easiest course of action is to turn to cybercrime, which in Russia offers a low-risk high-reward scenario to those who follow the rules.

Cybersecurity analysts have assessed that Russian hackers have a rule: do not touch the .ru domain. To avoid prosecution, most ransomware groups avoid targeting companies or institutions in Russia or within the territory of the former Soviet Union. In the DarkSide Ransomware Attack, for example, the malware was programmed to scan for languages installed on target workstations; if Russian was detected, the code would delete itself from the workstation. Although Russian law enforcement sometimes enact crackdowns on domestic cybercriminals, they typically ignore hackers that infiltrate foreign networks.

Another reason Russian cybercriminals feel relatively safe is that the Russian state often views hackers as a resource. In 2014, American prosecutors requested that Russia arrest a hacker named Evgeniy Bogachev, who was accused of stealing millions of dollars from bank accounts around the world. Instead, Russia utilized the access Bogachev had gained through the network infiltration to collect intelligence on U.S. government employees.

The greatest threat of ransomware attacks is their effectiveness. Businesses have been paying ransoms to cybercriminals for years. For most organizations it is easier and cheaper to pay the ransom than to take the time and effort to completely rebuild a system from scratch.  In some cases, such as the Colonial Pipeline attack, millions of people are affected if the ransom is not paid. The payments in turn encourage the ransomware groups to continue attacks. While the F.B.I. and other law enforcement agencies have displayed the ability to track cryptocurrency payments, and in some cases even recovered ransom payments, Russian hackers will continue to attack Western targets if their home country provides them a safe haven.

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