US State Court System, US, EU Universities Hit by Ransomware Outbreak

A global ransomware outbreak has scrambled servers belonging to the U.S. state of Florida’s Supreme Court and several universities in the United States and Central Europe, according to a Reuters analysis of ransom notes posted online to stricken servers.

Those organizations are among more than 3,800 victims of a fast-spreading digital extortion campaign that locked up thousands of servers in Europe over the weekend, according to figures tallied by Ransomwhere, a crowdsourced platform that tracks digital extortion attempts and online ransom payments and whose figures are drawn from internet scans.

Ransomware is among the internet’s most potent scourges. Although this extortion campaign was not sophisticated, it drew warnings from national cyber watchdogs in part because of the speed of its spread.

Ransomwhere did not name individual victims, but Reuters was able to identify some by looking up internet protocol address data tied to the affected servers via widely used internet scanning tools such as Shodan.

The extent of the disruption to the affected organizations, if any, was not clear.

Florida Supreme Court spokesperson Paul Flemming told Reuters that the affected infrastructure had been used to administer other elements of the Florida state court system, and that it was segregated from the Supreme Court’s main network.

“Florida Supreme Court’s network and data are secure,” he said, adding that the rest of the state court system’s integrity also was not affected.

A dozen universities contacted by Reuters, including the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Rice University in Houston, and institutions of higher learning in Hungary and Slovakia, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

Reuters also contacted the hackers via an account advertised on their ransom notes but only received a payment demand in return. They did not respond to additional questions.

Ransomwhere said the cybercriminals appear to have extorted only $88,000, a modest haul by the standard of multimillion-dollar ransoms regularly demanded by some hacking gangs.

One cybersecurity expert said the outbreak, thought to have exploited a 2-year-old vulnerability in VMWare software, was typical of automated attacks on servers and databases that have been carried out by hackers for years.

VMWare has urged customers to upgrade to the latest versions of its software.

“This is nothing unusual,” said Patrice Auffret, founder of French internet scanning company Onyphe. “The difference is the scale.”

Also uncommon is the highly visible nature of the outbreak, which began earlier this month. Because internet-facing servers were affected, researchers and tracking services like Ransomwhere or Onyphe could easily follow the criminals’ trail.

Digital safety officials in Italy said Monday that there was no evidence pointing to “aggression by a state or hostile state-like entity.”

Samuli Kononen, an information security specialist at the Finnish National Cyber Security Centre, said the attack was likely carried out by a criminal gang, although he added that it was not particularly sophisticated as many victims had managed to salvage their data without paying a ransom.

“More experienced ransomware groups usually don’t make that kind of mistake,” he said.

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Nigerians Vote Soon to Choose Next President, Lawmakers

Nigerians will vote on February 25 to choose their next president along with lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers. With 18 candidates vying for the job, experts at a panel discussion on Tuesday weighed in on the electoral dynamics and their implications for security, the economy and Nigeria’s foreign policy.

Among the main contenders are Bola Tinubu from the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Atiku Abubakar of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

But something is different this time, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Africa Security Initiative who convened Tuesday’s panel discussion. Besides representatives of the APC and the PDP, candidates include Peter Obi, the former governor of Anambra state who is representing the Labor Party and Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, former governor of Kanu and former federal minister of defense of the New Nigeria People’s Party.

“This election is more competitive than has been the case certainly generating a lot of excitement just in terms of the electoral dynamics,” Felbab-Brown said.

Each candidate has a vision for Africa’s biggest economy and most populous nation. Tinubu, 70, said he will create wealth for the country.

“We will turn Nigeria and it will be our El Dorado,” he said when he accepted the party nomination, Reuters reported.

Abubakar, 76, who lost to President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2019 elections, has a message of inclusion. Buhari is stepping down after two terms.

“Every part of this country will be given a sense of belonging, no part will be sidelined, no part will be marginalized,” he said.

For Obi, 61, it’s time to build a new Nigeria that’s more attractive to its people.

“Those who left … even the young people who are today leaving, they will come back, we want to bring them back,” he said. “Nigerians are prepared to come back if they can find that they have a country to go back to.”

Obi has generated buzz among young Nigerians, panelists said. Matthew Page, associate fellow at Chatham House and author of the book, Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, said the election is a test of strength for the country’s kleptocratic ruling class.

“I think we are all watching in light of Peter Obi’s candidacy to see if the country’s powerful ruling elites who, regardless of their party, maintain their grip on the political system in Nigeria now since 1999,” Page said. “Will they retrench decisively and maintain their hold on the system, or will they face a strong challenge from candidate that are enjoying the support of younger Nigerians?”

According to the electoral commission, 93 million people have registered to vote, and voters age 18-34 make up about 40% of that total, said Cynthia Mbamalu, director of programs for Yiaga Africa.

Page said on the economy, Nigeria must pursue economic and fiscal policies that unleash the country’s human and economic potential.

“Nigeria is pretty much trapped in a problematic cycle of high inflation, currency devaluation and manipulation, wasteful spending and irresponsible borrowing,” he said. “Now Nigeria’s debt to GDP ratio remains relatively low, at the same time its debt servicing costs are incredibly high. So, for example, in its 2023 budget, debt servicing costs would account for 30% of the government’s budget.”

Other issues Nigeria faces, the panelists said, include crime, corruption, climate change and the need for good governance.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.

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Arkansas Gov. Sanders to Offer Republican Response to State of the Union

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as White House press secretary under Donald Trump, will deliver the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union.

Huckabee Sanders, who describes herself as a conservative reformer, will speak from the state capital Little Rock after Biden’s remarks on Tuesday before a joint session of Congress.

It will be Biden’s first State of the Union since Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in November’s election.

Both addresses could serve as a primer for the 2024 presidential campaign season as Democrats and Republicans seek to shape public perceptions in front of a large television audience. The federal debt limit, social spending, the war in Ukraine and policing in minority communities are among the biggest topics driving political discourse.

U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, in a joint announcement last week, heralded Sanders as a rising figure in the party.

“Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the youngest governor in the nation and a powerful advocate for the popular, commonsense conservative principles that will put our country back on a better course,” McConnell said in the statement.

Huckabee Sanders, 40, served as then-President Trump’s second press secretary from mid-2017 to mid-2019. She is the daughter of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, also a Republican.

Elected last year, in January, she became the first woman to lead the state of Arkansas.

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UN Nuclear Chief Underscores Importance of Iran Talks

The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog on Tuesday underscored the urgency of resuscitating diplomatic efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program, saying the situation could quickly worsen if negotiations fail.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the diplomatic effort “is not at its best point,” but it wasn’t his place to declare whether the process was “dead or alive.” However, he said progress is not impossible.

“I hope to be able to re-set, restore, reinforce that indispensable dialogue,” he said during a discussion at the Chatham House think tank. “Without that, things are going to get worse.”

Iran began rebuilding its nuclear stockpile after former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned a 2015 agreement that limited the Islamic Republic’s atomic energy program. Talks on restoring the deal ended in August when Western countries presented the “final text” of a roadmap for progress, which Iran has yet to accept.

Grossi warned last month that Iran had enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons if it chose to do so. But diplomatic efforts aimed at once again limiting the country’s atomic program seem more unlikely than ever as Tehran provides arms for Russia’s war in Ukraine and as unrest shakes the Islamic Republic.

Grossi said the Middle East has a “unique set of problems” that will be aggravated if diplomatic efforts fail.

“I don’t see it in anybody’s interest that there will be proliferation there. I think we would be aggravating … the already fragile situation,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But we cannot really afford to fail.”

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Somali President Calls for Cease-Fire After Deadly Fighting

Somalia’s president has called for a cease-fire after clashes in a disputed town in the breakaway region of Somaliland left at least 13 people dead.

Both sides accuse the other of starting the fighting; Somaliland insisted it was defending itself from aggression.

“The reason for the confrontation is not due to animosity, but for political reasons,” Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said on Tuesday. “Therefore, we are sorry and not happy about what is happening there. … Respect the interest of the people, lay down arms, and stop the fighting. Start negotiating.”

Tensions have been building in Las Anod, the capital of the contested Sool region, since December. The region has been a point of conflict between Somaliland and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, both of which lay claim to the territory.

“The fighting in Las Anod was ignited by a series of killings in the town and the lack of arrests of the perpetrators,” said Mohamed Abdulle, a security analyst and the founder of Daludug Security Services in Somalia. “Somaliland authorities made no arrests to ease the situation. That angered the public.”

Somaliland has been governing the Sool region since capturing it from Puntland in 2008. However, the region has witnessed a series of battles between the two sides. Abdulle warns the fighting in the Sool region could impede the ongoing campaign by the federal government in central regions.

“It is possible these clashes could undermine operations against al-Shabab,” said Abdulle. “Immediately clashes started, al-Shabab attacked a strategic village and briefly held it. Also, Somaliland uses the term terrorism against the locals fighting its soldiers, so that could increase the insecurity.”

Abdiaziz Issack, a security analyst with the cultural and research organization known as the Hamad Bin Khalifa Civilization Center, told VOA that the conflict in the Sool region runs deep and cannot be solved without resolving the Somalia-Somaliland dispute.

“There is no single solution to the conflict in Las Anod and the Sool region at large,” he said. “However, it goes back to the dispute between Somalia and Somaliland. The two sides have to agree to a joint administration of the Sool region until the talks between Somalia and Somaliland are concluded.”

Clan elders, who had been meeting in Las Anod before the fresh fighting started, said in a communique that they reject the administration of Somaliland over the territory. They said that the region will be governed by the federal government in Mogadishu. Issack said that, while that stance acknowledges the authority of the federal government, President Mohamud will need to take a diplomatic path to avoid a dispute with Somaliland.

Issack said the federal government finds itself in a tight spot regarding the issue.

“While it might want to directly intervene, it guards against going into a collision with Somaliland,” said Issack. “Therefore, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will just have to continue encouraging dialogue and cease-fire building on the goodwill of his government with the administration in Somaliland.”

The fighting in Las Anod has once again ignited the long-running debate over regional autonomy in Somalia. In the past, politicians in the Sool and Sanaag regions have pushed for the formation of a federal member state referred to as Khatumo, but that initiative has not gained recognition from the federal government.

As tensions flare again, the federal government and the break-away region might need to directly engage with one other to avert more killings and to create room for the resumption of long-delayed talks between Somaliland and Somalia.

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Turkey, Syria Quakes Spark Dire Humanitarian Concerns

In response to deadly earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, the United States has mobilized search and rescue teams to support relief efforts. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias spoke with humanitarian workers about the challenges and how people can help.

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Dozens Killed in Eastern Somaliland Clashes

At least 38 people were killed, and more than 130 others injured following two days of fighting in Las Anod town, in eastern Somaliland.  

Health officials also reported Las Anod General Hospital, the town’s main medical center, was hit by suspected mortars. 

“We were hit by four incoming fires which destroyed some parts of our offices,” said Ahmed Mohamed Hassan, the hospital director.

Hassan said the hospital was targeted Monday and Tuesday and that some of the staffers and patients fled the facility to seek safety elsewhere. 

Hassan also said other hospitals recorded casualties, but he did not give additional figures because he was not in communication with those medical facilities. 

Somaliland declared its secession from Somalia in May 1991 but has not yet achieved international recognition. Despite the lack of recognition, Somaliland was widely praised by the international community for achieving stability and holding democratic elections. 

The clashes between Somaliland forces and local fighters comes after weeks of tension in the town following the killing of a local politician by masked gunmen. It was the latest in a series of assassinations in the town over many years, incidents which authorities blamed on al-Shabab fighters. 

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi accused the “enemy of Somaliland” of being behind the killings. 

This latest fighting also comes amid a dispute over the future status of territories in eastern Somaliland, where a significant number of the locals appear to support unity with Somalia. 

Mutual recrimination

Each side accused the other of starting the fighting. 

On Monday, local elders who have been meeting in the town issued a declaration stating they are not part of Somaliland. The declaration stated the territories are part of the federal republic of Somalia and “stand for the unity and integrity” of Somalia. 

The Somaliland government dismissed the declaration.  

In a statement, Somaliland said its forces are fighting “international terrorist groups that have been planning on creating insecurity, and instability” in Las Anod, and it warned that the violence in Las Anod is threatening the stability of the region. 

In the same statement, Somaliland said it is prepared to resolve the situation in Las Anod through dialogue and consensus.  

The elders in Las Anod said they are not terrorists and that they elected 45 members to govern the area. They urged Somaliland to withdraw its forces. 

Calls for dialogue

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud has called for the cessation of hostilities in Las Anod. He said in a speech the conflict in Las Anod requires a “political solution.”  

He said resolving the dispute will be part of the overall effort to gain the unity of Somalia. “Put down the weapons, cease the fire, start dialogue,” Mohamud said.

The federal government also said it welcomes the decision of the people of Las Anod to support solidarity with Somalia. 

Mohamud has urged respect for the wishes of the people. He said to continue to spill the blood of Somalis is “unacceptable.” 

Meanwhile, foreign diplomatic missions in Mogadishu, including the United Nations, the European Union, African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), and the United States, issued a brief statement calling for a peaceful settlement.

Separately, the U.N.’s deputy special envoy for Somalia, Adam Abdelmoula, said in a tweet the new clashes have displaced more than 80,000 people in Las Anod, and that international human rights law, where applicable, must be upheld.

Nuh Muse Birjeb contributed to this report.

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FBI, Partners Warn about Global Financial Sextortion Crisis

The FBI and the law enforcement agencies of four U.S. allies are sounding the alarm about a dramatic increase in so-called “sextortion” schemes targeting minors on gaming apps and other digital platforms, saying it has become a global crisis. 

Sextortion schemes, in which victims are coerced into sending explicit images and extorted for money, have victims of all ages but recent incidents suggest teenage boys are the primary targets.

On gaming sites and video chat applications, predators, often adults based in West Africa and posing as young girls, trick victims into sending them explicit videos or photos and then threaten to release the material unless they send money or gift cards. 

In a joint warning, the FBI and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, said they have seen an “explosion” in the number of such cases over the past year. The problem is happening around the world, they said.

“Financial sextortion has a far wider impact than just our country and our kids — it is a global crisis that demands everyone’s attention,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “The FBI is working hand-in-hand with our international partners to prevent children from becoming victims of this tragic crime. We all have a duty to support and empower victims to come forward and show them that there is life after images.”

The warning comes after the Department of Justice reported in December that more than 3,000 minors, primarily boys, had been targeted by financial sextortion in 2022, a sharp increase over previous years. More than a dozen victims committed suicide.

Predators typically target minors between the ages of 14 and 17 though victims as young as 10 have been identified, according to the Justice Department. 

“Even though financial sextortion is committed virtually, it can have serious impacts offline,” the FBI said in a statement.  “After the threats and aggression, victims may feel alone, ashamed, scared, and these feelings can lead to children resorting to self harm.”

Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said her center has received more than 10,000 sextortion-related reports in the past year.

“We understand how young victims of this crime can feel like there’s no way out, but we want them to know that they’re not alone,” DeLaune said in a statement, urging parents to talk to their children.  

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