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‘Mercenary’ hacker group widespread in Mideast, research finds

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Saudi diplomats, Sikh separatists, Indian executives among the targeted by hired hackers, cybersecurity research says.

Saudi diplomats, Sikh separatists and Indian business executives have been among those targeted by a group of hired hackers, according to research published on Wednesday by software firm BlackBerry Corp.

The report on the group, known publicly as Bahamut, the name assigned to the mythical sea monster of Arab lore, highlights how cybersecurity researchers are increasingly finding evidence of mercenaries online.

BlackBerry’s vice president of research, Eric Milam, said the diversity of Bahamut’s activities was such that he assumed it was working for a range of different clients.

“There’s too many different things going on across too many different ranges and too many different verticals that it would be a single state,” Milam said ahead of the report’s release.

In June, Reuters news agency reported on how an obscure Indian IT firm called BellTroX offered its hacking services to help clients spy on more than 10,000 email accounts over seven years, including targeting prominent American investors.

BlackBerry – which absorbed antivirus firm Cylance in 2019 – stitched together digital clues left by other researchers over the years to create a picture of a sophisticated group of hackers. BlackBerry also linked the group to mobile phone applications in the Apple and Google app stores. Those apps, which included a fitness tracker and password manager, may have helped the hackers track their targets, the report said.

Apple declined to comment on the record. Two of the apps flagged by BlackBerry are no longer in the Apple App Store, however. A Google spokesman said all the apps in the Google Play store mentioned in the report had been removed.

Milam declined to comment on who he thought might be behind Bahamut, but he said he hoped the report would help to sharpen the focus on hackers for hire. Taha Karim, the chief executive of Emirati cybersecurity company tephracore – who wasn’t involved in BlackBerry’s research but reviewed the report ahead of publication – said the findings were credible and “they found links that aren’t obvious.”

The targets

BlackBerry did not name any of Bahamut’s targets directly, but researchers have previously publicly identified Middle Eastern human rights activists, Pakistani military officials, and Gulf Arab businessmen as being in the group’s crosshairs. Reuters news was also able to identify new targets by cross-referencing data published in BlackBerry’s report with booby-trapped webpages preserved by urlscan.io, a cybersecurity tool.

One heavily targeted organisation included the New York-based Sikhs for Justice, a separatist group that is campaigning for an independent homeland for Sikhs in India. Its founder, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, said his campaign websites have been repeatedly hacked and his emails broken into.

Others pursued by the hackers included: The United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Defense, its Supreme Council for National Security, and Shaima Gargash, the UAE’s number-two diplomat in Washington.

In an email, Gargash said the embassy had no comment.

Saudi officials were also targeted by the hackers. Cached phishing pages preserved by services such as URLscan.io and reviewed by Reuters showed that the cyber spies targeted Mawthouq, the Saudi government’s email service, half a dozen Saudi government ministries, and the Saudi Center for International Strategic Partnerships, a Riyadh-based body aimed at helping coordinate the country’s foreign policy.

The Saudi embassy in Washington, DC did not respond to requests for comment.

The hackers pursued royals and business executives in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. In August 2019, they attempted to compromise an employee of major Indian energy conglomerate Reliance Industries around the time that the company was negotiating the sale of a stake in its oil-to-chemicals business to Saudi Aramco.

Reliance did not return repeated messages. Attempts to reach the hackers were unsuccessful.

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World

World trade recovering slowly, but outlook is uncertain: UN body

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Demand for home office equipment, medical supplies and textiles rose in the third quarter – but car and energy sales fell, UN trade body says.

The value of global trade is set to fall 7 to 9 percent in 2020 from the previous year, despite signs of a fragile rebound led by China in the third quarter, a United Nations report said on Wednesday.

No region was spared by an estimated 19 percent year-on-year plunge in world trade in the second quarter, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted economies, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said.

Global trade recovered somewhat in the third quarter when it was estimated at about 4.5 percent less than in the same period a year ago, the agency said in its latest update.

“Trade in home office equipment and medical supplies has increased in [the third quarter], while it further weakened in the automotive and energy sectors,” UNCTAD said. Growth in the textiles sector was also strong.

Its preliminary forecast for the fourth quarter is a 3-percent drop in global trade compared with the same period last year, but the report said that uncertainties persisted due to how the pandemic would evolve.

If the pandemic resurges in coming months, that could lead to a deteriorating environment for policymakers and a sudden increase in trade restrictions, it said.

China leads the way

China’s exports rebounded strongly in the third quarter after falling in the early months of the pandemic, and have posted year-on-year growth rates of nearly 10 percent, UNCTAD said.

“Overall, the level of Chinese exports for the first nine months of 2020 was comparable to that of 2019 over the same period,” it said.

Chinese demand for imported products recovered following a decline in the second quarter, contrary to other major economies, it said.

Earlier this month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) upgraded its forecast for trade in goods due to improvements from June and predicted a drop of 9.2 percent for 2020.

But it saw a more muted rebound in 2021, with further lockdowns from a second wave of COVID-19 infections posing clear risks.

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Many dead in stampede near Pakistan consulate in Afghanistan

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At least 15 Afghans killed and more than a dozen injured as thousands gathered to secure visas in Jalalabad city.

At least 15 Afghans have been killed and more than a dozen injured in a stampede near the Pakistani consulate in eastern Afghanistan.

The stampede occurred in an open ground where thousands of Afghans had gathered on Tuesday to secure visas from the consulate, officials said on Wednesday.

Sohrab Qaderi, a provincial council member in eastern Jalalabad city, where the incident occurred said of the 15 people dead, 11 were women and several senior citizens were wounded.

Two other provincial officials said more than 3,000 Afghans had congregated to collect tokens needed to apply for a visa to travel to Pakistan.

Officials in the Pakistan embassy were not immediately available for comment.

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India reportedly considers Taiwan trade talks, angering China

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Support is growing within India’s government to formally start talks on a trade deal with Taiwan as both democracies see relations with China deteriorate.

Taiwan has sought trade talks with India for several years, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been reluctant to move ahead because it would involve a messy fight with China once any pact is registered at the World Trade Organization, according to a senior Indian government official who asked not be named, citing rules for speaking with the media.

Yet over the past few months the hawks in India who want to start trade talks are getting the upper hand, the official said. A trade deal with Taiwan would help India’s goal of seeking greater investments in technology and electronics, the official said, adding that it’s unclear when a final decision would be made on whether to start talks.

Earlier this month, Modi’s government gave approval to firms including Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, Wistron Corp. and Pegatron Corp. as he looks to attract investment worth more than 10.5 trillion rupees ($143 billion) for smartphone production over five years.

Indian Commerce Ministry spokesman Yogesh Baweja didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment. Taiwan’s top trade negotiator, John Deng, didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

Any formal talks with India would amount to a big win for Taiwan, which has struggled to begin trade negotiations with most major economies due to pressure from China. Like most countries, India doesn’t formally recognize Taiwan, with the two governments maintaining unofficial diplomatic missions in the form of “representative offices.”

India and Taiwan in 2018 signed an updated bilateral investment agreement in a bid to further expand economic ties. Trade between them grew 18% to $7.2 billion in 2019, according to India’s Department of Commerce.

India “should remain committed to the One China principle and approach Taiwan-related issues prudently and properly,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. “There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. One China Principle is a universal consensus of the international community, India included.”

‘Country’ Spat

President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has raised its profile in India in recent weeks after China issued a statement telling Indian media outlets not to refer to Taiwan as a country when reporting on its Oct. 10 National Day celebrations. Twitter users in India lambasted China and its ambassador to New Delhi, Sun Weidong, while heaping praise on Taiwan and making the hashtag #TaiwanNationalDay go viral.

Indian public sentiment toward China has fallen in the wake of deadly border clashes between the two neighbors starting in May. Modi’s government has since banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok, while also speaking with Japan, Australia and the U.S. about creating alternative supply chains to diversify away from China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. India has seen more than 7.5 million infections and 115,000 deaths from Covid-19.

China’s Insistence That Taiwan Isn’t a Country Starts Backfiring

That displeasure with China, as well as Taiwan’s successful handling of the pandemic, is translating into a soft power opportunity for Tsai. Taiwan’s 24 million have seen fewer than 600 infections and only seven deaths.

“We have to think about the way for democracies, for like-minded countries, to work further together,” Taiwan foreign minister Joseph Wu said during an interview last week on the television network India Today. “We have traditional good relations with the United States, with Japan, and we want to develop closer ties with India as well.”

Tsai, who was voted into a second term in a January landslide, has sought to capitalize on the wave of interest in Taiwan among Indians online. On October 11, she thanked Indian Twitter users who had sent national day greetings. Two days later she went viral again, posting photos of her visiting the Taj Mahal.

On October 15, Tsai tweeted a photo of Indian food accompanied by a cup of masala chai, which some Twitter users saw as a possible reference to the so-called Milk Tea Alliance that has united activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and elsewhere against Chinese nationalism. All three tweets received more than 40,000 likes each and thousands of friendly messages from Indian accounts.

China’s Communist Party, which claims Taiwan as its territory despite having never ruled it, has pushed back against the Tsai administration’s overtures to India.

“We urge relevant Indian media to adhere to the correct position with regard to the significant core interests of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ji Rong, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in New Delhi, said in a statement on Friday. Indian media, Ji continued, “should not provide ‘Taiwan independence’ forces a platform, so as to avoid sending the wrong message.”

Sana Hashmi, a fellow at Taipei-based National Chengchi University and author of “China’s Approach Towards Territorial Disputes: Lessons and Prospects,” said it makes sense for India to align with Taiwan economically.

“Increasingly there seems to be an awareness not just among Indians but even in other nations about how China has dictated relationships in the region,” said Hashmi, who has penned op-eds in Taiwanese and Indian media encouraging closer ties between the two democracies. “And it’s not like China is going to give any concessions to India or Taiwan for toeing its line.”

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