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Security Brief: NORTHCOM Week of May 10, 2021

Week of 05/10/21 | Issue 11


Nina Smith and Alexandra Wong, NORTHCOM


Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, GRU[1]


Date: Monday, May 10, 2021

Location: Washington DC, US; Miami, Florida, US; Alexandria, Virginia, US; Russia; Europe

Parties involved: US Government, Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU)

The event: US government officials leaked to Politico that the US is investigating Russia’s GRU as a source of recent directed-energy attacks. These attacks target US government personnel and can result in a variety of symptoms including dizziness, loss of balance, headaches, ringing of the ears, and sometimes long-term brain damage. The victims have been attacked in the US including Miami, Northern Virginia, the White House, and in locations across Europe.[2] According to Politico’s sources, Russia is the primary suspect because it has a presence in all of the attack locations and is one of only a few countries to possess the technology necessary for directed-energy attacks.[3] This revelation comes after the Colonial pipeline hack which has been attributed to a Russia-based hacking group, DarkSide; however, President Biden has publicly stated that while the group was Russia-based, there is no evidence suggesting it is sponsored by the Russian Government.[4]

The implications:

  • US-Russia relations have been increasingly tense since the revelation that Russia interfered in the US 2016 presidential election cycle. If the US investigation confirms that GRU operations are behind the directed-energy attacks against US government employees, it will further damage the relationship between the two countries. The US will have to choose how to respond to an attack of this type, whether that is through counterattacks of the same time, diplomatic actions, economic sanctions, or the use of force.

  • The US will also have a difficult decision to make in regards to the amount of information from the investigation that it will share with the public. The current domestic divide in the US has deep roots in various conspiracy theory communities. For example, the successful attack on the Colonial pipeline has led to some posts on social media correlating the pipeline hack with the conspiracy that the voting machines in the 2020 election were hacked.[5] The claim is that if hackers can infiltrate an oil pipeline’s defenses, they can hack voting machines. Implicating the Russian government in high-tech attacks against US citizens has the potential to incite panic in the general public as well as inspiring more conspiracy theories online which could lead to more unrest. Also, confirming the attacks would make the US appear vulnerable, hurting its global image. The US will have to make careful calculations based on maintaining public trust, preserving its international image, and preventing widespread panic.


Israel[6]


Date: Saturday, May 15, 2021

Location: Major US and Canadian cities including Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York, Montréal, Winnipeg, among others

Parties involved: Pro-Palestinian protestors; pro-Israeli counterprotestors; local security forces

The event: Amid the worst violence in years between Israel and Hamas in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza territories, protests occurred in cities across North America to decry Israeli military violence. The protests marked Nakba Day, the 73rd anniversary of the 1948 displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians following Israel’s declaration of independence.[7] In Washington DC, a protest organized by chapters of the Palestinian Youth Movement and American Muslims for Palestine marched from the Washington Monument to the US Capitol.[8] Protesters in west Los Angeles shut down a major thoroughfare marching from the federal building to the Israeli consulate; a protest in Brooklyn, New York City shut down Interstate 278.[9] In Boston, protesters also demonstrated outside the Israeli consulate.[10] On the same day, US President Joe Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express concerns over civilian casualties and the bombing of a building in Gaza City that housed offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera.[11] Biden also spoke to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, stressing the need for Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.[12]

The implications:

  • The US has historically maintained strong relations with Israel and provided Israel with a $38 billion military aid package in 2016, the most military aid the US has provided to any country. Biden expressed pro-Israel views in response to the violence, stating that that “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”[13] This stance may cause tensions between the US and states that officially recognize Palestine, including countries from the Arab League.

  • The US and Biden’s pro-Israel stance may internally cause political division and spur further protests. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14th district) expressed pro-Palestinian views on Twitter; Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA 7th district) stated that “Our government should not fund state violence in any form, anywhere” on Twitter and expressed those views in Congress.[14] Varying opinions over the conflict may cause divisions between the more progressive and more established wings of the Democratic Party.

  • Although pro-Palestine and anti-Israel rhetoric is not necessarily anti-Semitic, it has the potential to become anti-Semitic and harm Jewish communities in North America. Precedent has been seen in Germany, where anti-Israel protesters attacked at least two synagogues.[15] Jewish communities and synagogues may be at risk if protests escalate.

[1] Spetsnaz gru 1999 by Aleksey Yermolov, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

[2] U.S. probing suspected directed-energy attack on government personnel in Miami, Politico, April 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/04/29/directed-energy-attack-probe-485086

[3] Russian spy unit suspected of directed-energy attacks on U.S. personnel, Politico, May 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/05/10/russia-gru-directed-energy-486640

[4] Biden says Colonial Pipeline hackers based in Russia, but not government-backed, The Hill, May 2021, https://thehill.com/policy/cybersecurity/553386-biden-says-colonial-pipeline-hackers-based-in-russia-but-not-government

[5] Fact check: Posts draw misleading comparison between Colonial Pipeline hack and unfounded election fraud claims, USA Today, May 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/05/13/fact-check-post-conflates-pipeline-hack-and-election-fraud-claims/5057152001/

[6] Israel by commensaFamily, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

[7] An annual day of Palestinian grievance comes amid the upheaval., New York Times, May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/15/world/middleeast/nakba-day.html

[8] In Washington, hundreds take place in pro-Palestinian protests., New York Times, May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/15/world/protests-israel-washington.html

[9] Protesters in major US cities decry airstrikes over Gaza, The Washington Post, May 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/protesters-in-major-us-cities-decry-airstrikes-over-gaza/2021/05/15/69acfcf4-b5dc-11eb-bc96-fdf55de43bef_story.html

[10] Ibid.

[11] Biden in call with Netanyahu raises concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza, Axios, May 2021, https://www.axios.com/biden-netanyahu-abbas-phone-call-israel-hamas-gaza-a9ff4155-d6b4-43b8-b73b-b5bf5a9226e1.html

[12] Readout of President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Call with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, The White House, May 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/15/readout-of-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-call-with-palestinian-authority-president-mahmoud-abbas/

[13] Biden: “Israel has a right to defend itself,” Axios, May 2021, https://www.axios.com/biden-israel-right-defend-itself-gaza-41510149-a7a3-4051-b926-c4a78bb639f4.html

[14] @RepPressley, Twitter, May 2021, https://twitter.com/RepPressley/status/1393008068070420500

[15] Jewish group condemns ‘pure antisemitism’ in German protests, Associated Press, May 2021, https://apnews.com/article/europe-middle-east-race-and-ethnicity-religion-71fb6b98fbf7701ee6be24e758ae9a93

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