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Yemeni soldiers in Sanaa, Yemen. Photo: Mohammed Hamoud via Getty Images

The conflict tearing Yemen apart is a human catastrophe and a geopolitical mess. It's also providing a look at how today's shooting wars spill over into digital conflict, even in the poorer corners of the world, as two presentations at Wednesday's CyberwarCon in Washington, D.C., elucidated.

The backdrop: Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, currently control the capital city of Sanaa — and with it the main internet service in the country, YemenNet. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government, backed by the Saudis, control much of the rest of the country, save for a few territories controlled by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Hadi government launched its own internet service in its territory, AdenNet.

By gaining control of YemenNet, the Houthis gained control of the “.ye” domain — the Yemeni equivalent of “.com.” At the conference, threat intelligence firm Recorded Future noted that the Houthis used that control to take over national websites and declare themselves the official government.

  • It had already been reported that the Houthis disrupted access to social media networks and to any website showing troop positions. They also cut as much as 80% of the incoming submarine cables providing internet to disrupt international communications.
  • New from Recorded Future's findings: It appears that the Houthis have installed cryptocurrency mining operations on the internet infrastructure in order to fund the regime.

The Hadi government built its AdenNet using Huawei routers. The Chinese telecommunications firm’s presence reflects China’s practice of using infrastructure assistance to secure valuable alliances (the Belt and Road initiative). Yemen is currently a war zone, but some day it will return to being a nation that controls important shipping lanes.

  • Accepting China's infrastructure aid comes at a cost. Huawei is believed by most Western countries to sabotage its own equipment to facilitate Chinese spying.

The influence campaign: The Houthi government is also running social media influence campaigns to pressure the West and Saudi Arabia to stop bombing Yemen, Johns Hopkins student Dan O’Keefe reported at CyberwarCon.

  • The campaigns use a "Twitter board" — essentially a massive collection of prewritten tweets focusing on a topic of the day.
  • Citizens, including those directed to the boards from government websites, select tweets and post them rapid-fire to try to make issues trend.
  • The campaigns suggest a maximum posting rate so the accounts don't get flagged as bots.

Though many big players are involved in bringing weapons to the region — with Saudi Arabia and Iran, both liberal users of surveillance technology, among them — it doesn't appear that there is a proxy war of surveillance tech underway in Yemen, yet.

  • Recorded Future notes that the level of devastation in the conflict reduces surveillance's payoff: The humanitarian crisis limits the amount of tech being used in Yemen and makes guns a more "useful" export.

Go deeper

China's crypto throwdown

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

China's latest move to ban cryptocurrency shows how tough it will be for the technology to deliver on its backers' vision of disruptive, decentralized change.

The big picture: Control of the currency is a foundation of sovereignty, and governments don't plan on losing that control even as money inevitably turns digital.

D.C. homicides fueled by rundown properties

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Angela Washington was the last line of defense for residents at the Oak Hill Apartments in Southeast besieged by gun violence. Then, on the evening of Sept. 21, the 41-year-old special police officer was shot to death.

Why it matters: The District’s spike in gun violence is being linked partly to rundown properties that city officials and residents say have become magnets for criminal activity.

Biden's reengineer-America moment

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Senate's bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and President Biden's $3.5 trillion spending package could live or die this week — and take Democrats' fortunes with them. But all the minute-by-minute political drama obscures how much America could change if even a fraction of it passes.

The big picture: Anything short of total failure could have a transformative impact on day-to-day life — from how we move around to our access to the internet, paid family leave and child care, health care and college.