The massive cyberattack that crippled public transportation, the central bank, government offices, the state power distributor, and public firms in Ukraine on June 27 serves as a potent reminder of the havoc that can be unleashed by low-level actors, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

“This is another reminder that low-capability actors can have a profound impact on critical infrastructure like media, finance, energy, and others,” said Beau Woods, deputy director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Besides Ukraine, which appears to have been hit particularly hard, symptoms of the attack were also reported from the United Kingdom, Russian oil producer Rosneft, and the Danish shipping company Maersk.

“Despite early indications, it’s unclear whether this attack was targeted against Ukraine or just happened to hit the news cycle there first,” said Woods.

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The combined efforts of a host of international and regional state and non-state actors against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have reduced the so-called caliphate’s control of Mosul to one district and surrounded its fighters in Raqqa, resulting in more of ISIS’ militants fleeing Iraq and Syria and fewer foreign fighters joining it. Despite the fact that ISIS now faces a stark new operational reality with less territory under its control and having suffered major symbolic and tactical losses, it is premature to conclude that the struggle against ISIS is over because many of the factors that contributed to its rise remain. 

The extent to which ISIS’ loss of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria will damage its ideological influence remains to be seen. On one hand, ISIS’ ability to portray itself as a “winning” and “invincible” force in the Muslim world was a prominent theme of its sophisticated social media campaigns. Today, jihadists around the world must now view ISIS as somewhat less than “invincible.” Yet changes in the US military’s war on ISIS, with US President Donald Trump transferring more authority over such operations to the Pentagon, have increased civilian deaths. This serves ISIS’ political objectives by fueling narratives about Western militaries, much like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Russian backers, deliberately targeting Sunni Muslim civilians.

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An official response to ISIS’ deadly twin attacks in Tehran on June 7, Iran’s medium-range missile strikes were a clear message not only to many in the region, but to Washington as well, that the Islamic Republic will not hesitate to respond decisively to forces hostile toward Iran.

Iran’s strikes against Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor governorate on June 18 marked the Islamic Republic’s first missile strikes in a foreign country since Tehran attacked the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a militant political organization, in Diyala, Iraq, with ballistic missiles in 2001.

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Former US officials criticize Trump’s decision to quit Paris climate deal

While US President Donald J. Trump predicated his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord on the protection and restoration of US coal jobs, clean energy technology is not only the most effective, but an essential path toward improving the economy and fighting climate change, according to former US energy and environment officials.

“We’re not going back from a low-carbon future,” Ernest Moniz, who served as US secretary of energy under former US President Barack Obama, said at the Atlantic Council’s Tipping Points conference on June 21-22, hosted by the Millennium Leadership Program. “The clean energy global economy is going to be a multi-trillion-dollar economy,” he added.

“We have shown that you can have a clean and green environment, make environmental progress, and have our economy grow,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the administration of former US President George W. Bush.

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Donald J. Trump and Mohammed bin Salman have a similar outlook when it comes to Iran. Both see the Islamic Republic as a threat that needs to be contained. What then does the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, to the role of crown prince of Saudi Arabia mean for the Sunni kingdom’s relationship with Shi’ite Iran?

“Nothing good,” said F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

“I do see the likelihood of an American-Iranian confrontation, whether it is in Syria, whether it is on the water in the Gulf, whether it is in Iraq after the campaign in Mosul is concluded,” said Gause. The US administration, including President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, “came into office with a view that Iran was the major issue in the region,” he noted.

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True national reconciliation and inclusiveness are necessary ingredients for ending the cycle of statelessness and radicalization that has created a fertile ground for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to flourish in Libya, according to a new Atlantic Council report.

“People who fought in Syria, we call that the undergrad for jihad, they went to Libya to get their post-grad degree in jihad,” said Jason Pack, founder of Eye on ISIS in Libya and executive director of the US-Libya Business Association.

“By coming from what they gathered in Syria to their post-grad in Derna and Sirte they founded their own brigades,” said Pack referring to mostly Tunisian jihadis who initially trained in Syria where a civil war has raged for the past six years. “The porosity of the Tunisian-Libyan border has been a real plague for Libya, and it has been a plague for Tunisia,” he added, pointing to high-profile terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015 at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and on British holidaymakers in Sousse.

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Using fake social media accounts to attract real users

Social media “bots” have repeatedly made headlines over the past year, accused of driving traffic and distorting debate on social media platforms, especially Twitter, in the US, French, and UK elections. But what are bots, and how do they work?

In social media terms, a bot is an automated account set up to make posts without human intervention. Such bots can play a range of roles, including sharing poetry, spreading news or attempting satire; many accounts make explicit that they are bots.

One sort of bot is created to have a political effect. Political bots typically do not acknowledge that they are automated. Instead, they masquerade as human users, often with a made-up screen name and stolen photo. They artificially amplify political messages, for example by automatically retweeting posts from a set of accounts, liking any tweet which includes certain words, or following a specific set of users.

The effect is to make a user, message, or policy appear more popular and influential than it actually is.

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Disinformation has become a hot topic since Russia’s interference in the US presidential elections in 2016. As seventeen US intelligence agencies agreed in December of last year: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” This influence operation aimed to undermine faith in democracy and the credibility of the Western institutions.

Cyberattacks played a key, but relatively small part in this operation. Kremlin-backed hackers used targeted phishing e-mails to steal troves of documents and communications between Democratic Party operatives, but the bigger, and more sophisticated, part came later. Rather than using the stolen information for intelligence gathering—a normal and expected technique in the world of spycraft—the data instead appeared on WikiLeaks and other sites beginning in July 2016. It was at this point that an intelligence-gathering operation turned into an influence operation.

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Three-and-a-half years ago, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and launched its campaign to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Russian aggression prompted the biggest increase in NATO’s collective defense capabilities since the Cold War—including the historic deployment in June of four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic States and Poland.

But deterring military aggression is only half the battle. Russia has also engaged in political aggression against our societies, using cyberattacks, disinformation, propaganda, and influence operations (what the Soviets called “active measures”) to affect the outcome of elections and to undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.

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French President Emmanuel Macron would like to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to seek mutually acceptable solutions to crises that have bedeviled ties between the West and Russia over the past few years, France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, said in an Atlantic Council phone briefing on June 19.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia “is not an existential threat” to Europe, said Araud.

“Russia has done things that we don’t accept, but at the same time Russia has its own legitimate interests, so let’s talk with the Russians to see whether we reach compromise deals which are mutually acceptable,” he said.

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