Monthly Risk Spotlight: May 2020

AMERICAS

A Failed Coup Attempt in Venezuela Casts Light on the Weaknesses of the Venezuelan Opposition
In early May 2020, with the world focused on the current pandemic, a group of some 60 Venezuelan exiles and at least two former American soldiers attempted a raid in Venezuela to topple President Nicolas Maduro. The raid failed spectacularly, resulting in eight Venezuelans on the team killed and thirteen other raiders captured, including the two Americans. The effort has boggled the minds of analysts all over the world, many of whom now refer to the incident as “Stupid Bay of Pigs.” The incident highlights the current state of the Venezuelan opposition movement, and harkens back to past eras when U.S. citizens would attempt, with or without the support of the U.S. government, to use military force to bring about political change in Latin America.

The plan was seemingly hatched by the founder of a small private security company operating out of Florida, who worked with an exiled former high-ranking member of the Venezuelan military to recruit and train some 300 Venezuelans for the mission. Many of the men were former members of the Venezuelan armed forces who had fled to Colombia and supposedly believed that the mission had the backing of the U.S. government. It appears that several former U.S. servicemen aided in the training process. The effort, which commenced in earnest in the fall of 2019, was beset by difficulties from the onset. Early on, it became widely suspected that the private military force was infiltrated by assets of the Venezuelan intelligence services. In the spring of 2020, the Colombian military intercepted a large quantity of weapons destined for the group. The former Venezuelan officer who helped organize the mission was later indicted by U.S. authorities on drug trafficking charges.

It seems the spark for the failed attempt on the 1st of May was an Associated Press (AP) article detailing the efforts of the rebels and their U.S. organizer, who apparently ordered the operation later that very same day. The 60 men set out in two fishing boats, attempting to land in a small coastal town near Caracas. Maduro’s forces were likely to have been alerted by informants, the AP article, or live tweets and YouTube videos from the group’s organizer (who remained behind in Florida, supposedly due to standing travel restrictions). The first group to arrive was immediately drawn into a firefight which lasted about 45 minutes. The second boat attempted to flee towards neighboring Dutch Caribbean islands, but ended up disembarking its occupants somewhere along the Venezuelan coast. Of the 60 reported members of the expedition, 8 were killed and at least 13 captured.

The raid has highlighted the relative weakness of the Venezuelan opposition led by Juan Guaido. Guaido was in the least aware of the effort, as his name appeared on some form of memorandum of understanding with the group’s leaders, and an audio recording of a phone conversation between him and one of the leaders, released by the Maduro government. The failed raid is the latest in a series of half-hearted armed efforts to ouster Maduro, including last year’s failed uprising launched by Guaido and earlier armed attacks led by the late Venezuelan rebel Oscar Perez. It also serves to bolster Maduro’s position by providing him with the evidence he needs to rally support both inside Venezuela and from his remaining allies by arguing that he faces imminent armed threats from inside and outside of the country. Moreover, it provides him with a significant propaganda win, as he can point toward the involvement of former U.S. servicemen as evidence that it was a U.S. government-sanctioned coup attempt however thin the actual evidence may be.

MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

Economic Insecurity in Lebanon Expected to Drive Further Unrest
The combination of volatile oil prices, regional geopolitical tensions, social unrest, and limited healthcare capacity has been exacerbated by the impact of the current global pandemic in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, carrying worrisome implications for the region. There is growing concern particularly in Lebanon, a country already hampered by deep political division, social unrest, and economic insecurity prior to the pandemic.

Lebanon is currently undergoing an energy crisis, a refugee crisis, and a budget crisis, among others. Proposed cuts to pensions and retirement benefits has particularly angered retired Lebanese military personnel, reflected by protest activity seen throughout the past year. A wave of social unrest episodes erupted across Lebanon in October 2019, after Information Minister Jama Jarrah announced a 20% daily tax on messages via WhatsApp, the mobile phone messenger application. The mass protests forced the government to revoke the tax proposal. Despite the stepping down of key government officials, protests against taxes, corruption, and economic insecurity have continued with more frequent violence targeting banks and state-owned enterprises.

The economic crisis in Lebanon has been compounded by strict lockdown measures aimed at containing the pandemic. In 2019, the World Bank projected that 45% of people in Lebanon would be below the poverty line in 2020. With inflation raging and the government’s recent decision to default on its debt, the Lebanese government now believes that up to 75% of people are in need of aid.

Worsening economic conditions in Lebanon have been reflected in protests which have grown increasingly violent in recent weeks. Protesters are increasingly wielding Molotov cocktails and targeting the country’s banks, smashing windows and lighting them on fire. In turn, security forces are increasingly employing batons, tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. In Beirut, the Riad al-Solh Square, the Central Bank of Lebanon, and Martyrs Square have been common protest sites in particular.

While lockdowns and social distancing measures across the MENA region are expected to continue, some governments including Lebanon are loosening restrictions to allow more civilian movement for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Despite the easing of restrictions, many business owners will not reopen, claiming they will be losing more money operating under such restrictions and a suffering economy.

Protests in the country are expected to continue in the coming months and could grow increasingly violent as the economy continues to deteriorate. The value of the Lebanese pound (LPB), Lebanon’s currency, continues to decline, driving up the price of food. The Lebanese pound recently saw its biggest daily fall against the U.S. dollar inflating to more than 4,000 LPB to the dollar on the black market. This is expected to further exacerbate political divisions, while spurring further unrest.

ASIA-PACIFIC  

Renewed Protests in Hong Kong
Throughout the latter half of 2019, Hong Kong saw intense and sustained anti-government protests. Demonstrations were at first driven by ambivalence towards a proposed anti-extradition bill that would have allowed for, in limited cases, extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. As demonstrations dragged on, protests soon morphed into a wider movement against police brutality and the perceived encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy by the mainland Chinese government. Such protests reached their peak in mid-November 2019 when student activists and police clashed across Hong Kong’s largest universities. As the university protests began to dissipate and the 2019 elections were held, resulting in an overwhelming win for the pro-democracy movement, hope arose that the worst of the protests was over. However, continued anti-government sentiment fomenting across Hong Kong indicates protests might continue through the summer of 2020.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, civil unrest throughout Hong Kong remained relatively calm in comparison. After seeing their extradition bill withdrawn from the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing politicians refrained from introducing new legislation that could have been perceived as controversial. That was until early 2020 when pro-Beijing legislators and officials in mainland China began calling for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to reconsider a 2003 national security law that had been previously shelved due to a lack of popular support. The renewed national security law would make it illegal to disrespect the Chinese flag and national anthem, amongst other restrictions. In response to the introduction of these measures, clashes broke out between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing politicians in the Legislative Council. Similarly to when Hong Kong’s government tried to adopt the extradition bill in mid-2019, the current push for the adoption of the national security law has already led to demonstrations in Hong Kong; albeit, as of now on a lesser scale than those which occurred previously.

Protests over the reintroduction of the new national security legislation began early in March 2020. The protests primarily occurred across Hong Kong’s shopping malls and only involved hundreds of protesters rather than the hundreds of thousands seen at the height of the 2019 protests. The scale and intensity of protests could possibly grow leading into the summer of 2020. This will particularly be the case if the Legislative Council moves forward with enacting the revamped national security law. Mass protests are also likely to occur on the anniversary of previous protests or notable moments from the protests. Particularly, the 9th of June is likely to be a day on which large crowds of demonstrators gather as this day marks the anniversary of one of Hong Kong’s largest 2019 anti-extradition protests. While it is difficult to discern if Hong Kong will see the same scale of protests in 2020 as were seen in 2019, there is evidence that the pro-democracy movement is far from finished.

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA 

A Mysterious Plane Crash in Somalia Heightens Tensions in the Horn of Africa
On the 4th of May, a Kenyan African Express Airways registered aircraft carrying much needed humanitarian relief supplies to Somalia crashed in the town of Bardale, located in the southwest of Somalia. The incident resulted in the death of all crew members, made up of four Somali nationals and two Kenyans. The cause of the crash was ambiguous for several days, but speculation that the aircraft was shot down was high. A Somali official, claiming having witnessed the incident, stated the aircraft appeared to have been hit by a projectile propelled from the ground. Both governments of Somalia and Ethiopia were quick to deny any involvement in the incident. The Somali Islamic militant group, al-Shabaab, was thus the leading suspect due to the group’s longstanding presence in and near the Bardale zone. However, the group’s ability to conduct this attack was questioned, as Bardale and its airspace is currently secured by African Union troops, composed of Ethiopian and Somali soldiers, undergoing a regional peacekeeping mission in Somalia since 2007. Soon after, the Kenyan, Somali, and Ethiopian governments launched a joint investigation to uncover the facts. In light of the situation, the Kenyan Foreign Ministry warned all Kenyan aircrafts traveling in the region to practice extreme vigilance.

The first report on the crash was leaked several days later on Twitter. The report by the African Union force commander stated that Ethiopian troops not part of the peacekeeping mission were responsible for the incident, although the Ethiopian government initially denied any involvement. Many elements surrounding the crash remain blurred, but the facts suggest there is reason to suspect foul play. The justification provided by the Ethiopian troops is that they flagged the journey of the aircraft as unusual and feared a potential suicide attack was underway. In order to prevent a disastrous attack, they brought the aircraft down. The aircraft was reported arriving from the west instead of the east as other aircrafts following a similar journey normally do. As of the writing of this piece, no explanation has been given in regard to why non-peacekeeping affiliated Ethiopian troops were operating on Somalian territory and whether they had the authority to make such calls. As the investigation continues, tensions between Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia run high. The three countries in the horn of Africa already have with one another a long relationship of mixed cooperation and mistrust due to years of cross-border conflicts. This incident may be a result of these tense relations, simple miscommunication between involved parties may have led to the misidentification of a threat. Additionally, the incident could also lead to greater rifts between the countries, potentially leading to further instability in the region.

EUROPE/ CENTRAL ASIA 

New evidence from the 2015 mass Cyberattack in the German Parliament Points to Russia
In May 2015, several computers of the German parliament were discovered to have been hacked and a considerable amount of sensitive data was feared to have been stolen. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was amongst the main targets of the cyberattack. Although an investigation was conducted, little information derived from it. It remained unclear until May 2020, five years later, what information was accessed and who was behind the hack. Recent developments indicate what German experts already speculated; the hack was conducted by Russian operatives.

The German magazine, Spiegel, reported that the German experts uncovered that two inboxes in Chancellor Merkel’s office were hacked, including her personal account, and traced hacker access to all emails between 2012 and 2015. The Russian intelligence service (GRU) is said to be directly implicated. Russia has repeatedly denied any implication in the incident. Merkel confirmed the reports and stated that in fact, hard evidence demonstrated that Russia was behind the attack, an act she denounced as outrageous. Despite that, Merkel does not appear willing to take fervent action against Russia at this time, as she emphasized the need to improve diplomatic relations with the country. Germany and Russia are key partners, but relations are tense. Among a series of previous incidents, tensions between the two countries increased late 2019, in the aftermath of the murder of a former commander of Chechen separatists by a GRU operative in a Berlin park. Germany’s response was expelling two Russian diplomats stationed at the Russian Embassy in Berlin. Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, denounced the accusation and expulsion, and warned that Russia would be forced to respond proportionally. While Russia has proven to be an unreliable partner, Germany’s strategic interests require maintaining the status quo; make of Russia nor a foe, nor a friend.

In relation to the 2015 hack, Germany issued in early May 2020 an arrest warrant for a young Russian GRU operative, Dmitry Sergeyevich Badin. He is linked to a hacker group by the name ATP28 comprised of members from several cybersecurity firms such as Fancy Bear, Sofacy, Strontium, etc. An arrest warrant was also issued for Badin by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in the United States, where he faces the following charges: Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against the United States; False Registration of a Domain Name; Aggravated Identity Theft; Conspiracy to Commit Money Laundering; Conspiracy to Commit Computer Fraud; and Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud. The young operative along with other ATP28 hackers are believed to be responsible for the infamous cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 US election. An incident in which Russia has also denied all allegations of direct involvement.

The evolving compilation of Russian unlawful activities and underhanded behavior in and towards Germany could lead the latter to its breaking point. Germany’s and Russia’s selective partnership has long served both countries. That said, the consequences of this partnership may possibly outweigh the gains. It remains to be seen if measures will be taken by the German government against Moscow in light of recent developments.

For over 20 years, On Call International has provided fully-customized travel risk management and global assistance services protecting millions of travelers, their families, and their organizations. Contact us today and watch our video to learn more. You can also stay in touch with On Call’s in-house risk management, travel health and security experts by signing up for our quarterly Travel Risk Management (TRM) newsletter.

*The information provided to you within this report has been compiled from a multitude of available sources and is based on current news and analysis at the time of writing.  The security team at On Call International, LLC has provided this analysis, supporting advice and recommendations in good faith to assist you in mitigating risks that could arise.  However, no implied or express warranty against risk, changes in circumstance, or other fluid and unforeseen events can be provided.  By reading this report, you will agree that any reliance you place on this information is therefore strictly at your own risk and that you will not hold On Call International, LLC or the authors responsible for any inaccuracies, errors or oversights here-in.  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise without the prior permission of On Call International, LLC.