Nov 29, 2018

How Yemen's civil war went cyber

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

Biden says he's starting VP search this month

Joe Biden. Photo: Scott Olson / Staff

Joe Biden said he's spoken to Sen. Bernie Sanders and former President Barack Obama about selecting a running mate — and that he wants to build "a bench of younger, really qualified people" who can lead the nation over the course of the next four presidential cycles.

Driving the news: Biden spoke about the state of the 2020 race during a virtual fundraiser on Friday night that was opened to pooled coverage.

Trump ousting intelligence community inspector general

Michael Atkinson, inspector general of the intelligence community. Photo: Bill Clark / Getty Images

President Trump notified key lawmakers on Friday that he’s firing Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community's inspector general, who first alerted Congress last September of an "urgent" complaint from an official involving Trump's correspondence with the Ukrainian president.

Why it matters: The move, to take effect in 30 days, comes amid a broader initiative to purge the administration of officials seen as disloyal to the president.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Axios Visuals

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 1,097,909 — Total deaths: 59,131 — Total recoveries: 226,106Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 277,828 — Total deaths: 7,406 — Total recoveries: 9,772Map.
  3. Public health latest: The CDC is recommending Americans wear face coverings in public to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. The federal government will cover the costs of COVID-19 treatment for the uninsured, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said.
  4. 2020 latest: "I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting," President Trump said of the 2020 election, as more states hold primary elections by mail. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday that every county in the state opted to expand mail-in voting for the state's June 2 primary.
  5. Business updates: America's small business bailout is off to a bad start. The DOT is urging airlines to refund passengers due to canceled or rescheduled flights, but won't take action against airlines that provide vouchers or credits.
  6. Oil latest: The amount of gas American drivers are consuming dropped to levels not seen in more than 25 years, government data shows. Trump is calling on the Energy Department to find more places to store oil.
  7. Tech updates: Twitter will allow ads containing references to the coronavirus under certain use cases.
  8. U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt: Senators call for independent investigation into firing of Navy captain.
  9. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.