The threat spectrum

Planet A

California has shifted its land-management policy, removing legal barriers to controlled burns and training civilians in indigenous burn-off methods to mitigate the state’s increasingly catastrophic bushfires.

By recognising the unique culture of land protection among indigenous peoples, environmental policies like these can position them as the last line of defence against climate change impacts. Indigenous people are poorly resourced compared with governments and are often the most vulnerable to extreme climate change impacts, despite their active resistance to the human activities that created the problem.

In Australia, successful initiatives by First Nations peoples in carbon trading and renewables demonstrate a growing recognition of indigenous land care practices, but these successes have not yet been translated into mainstream environmental legislation.

Last month, a rally held in Glasgow during COP26 highlighted widespread frustration among international indigenous communities about world leaders’ lack of action on climate change. Tensions between indigenous communities and governments are unlikely to be eased by cherry-picking indigenous-led climate initiatives.

Democracy watch

Libya’s 24 December election has been touted as the solution to the decade of instability plaguing the country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. However, Libya remains effectively divided in two by a deep-seated east–west animosity—itself a relic of the Second Libyan Civil War between the Tobruk government in the east and the Islamist Tripoli government in the west. While both factions transferred power to the government of national unity in March, divisions have continued to intensify.

The international community’s ‘myopic’ focus on elections as the ‘panacea’ to create a government out of the rubble—‘regardless of whether the political, social and legal conditions are in place to ensure a stable transition’—was a factor in triggering Libya’s second civil war. Despite Libyans’ desire to vote, the prospect of low voter turnout, the rushed election process and the candidacy of warlords and Gaddafi’s own son mean the election is unlikely to bring either peace or unity to the war-torn country.

Information operations

The Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli technology firm NSO Group has been used to hack the iPhones of 11 US embassy employees working in Uganda, marking the first time the controversial software has been used to target American officials. The hack comes after the US’s blacklisting of NSO Group last month, amid revelations that Pegasus had been used against human rights lawyers, activists, journalists and their families worldwide.

Although the hacked phones were unclassified, a US State Department official noted that the breach ‘poses a real and live counterintelligence and security risk for US personnel and US systems’. Apple informed iPhone users in multiple countries of a potential breach and urged them to update their device software. The company filed a lawsuit against NSO Group on 23 November.

While the attackers remain unknown, NSO Group said in a statement that it had terminated services with any potentially relevant customers.

The revelations highlight the growing threat of the largely unregulated global spyware industry to democracy and national security.

Follow the money

US President Joe Biden says he won’t deploy troops to defend Ukraine as Russia amasses an estimated 100,000 troops on its borders. Biden held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, telling him there would, however, be ‘severe consequences’ if Russia did attack Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier warned of additional sanctions against Russia in response to any increased aggression, including new ‘high-impact economic measures’.

The warnings have come after weeks of US engagement with EU and NATO allies, sharing intelligence on the Russian threat and garnering support for retaliatory measures, in addition to moving US troops to NATO’s eastern flank.

While the international community has already levied sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014, new measures could include blocking access to the Belgium-based global banking network SWIFT. When Iran’s SWIFT access was blocked in 2012, its oil exports halved. Such a move could be equally devastating for Russia, whose economy relies heavily on oil and natural gas exports.

Terror byte

A former counterterrorism official at the US Department of State, Jason M. Blazakis, recently argued that outdated policies, poor departmental funding and strict constitutional protections have made the US a safe haven for domestic terrorists.

He says that the First and Second Amendments in particular, which safeguard freedom of speech and assembly and the right to bear arms, enable anti-government and white supremacist groups to spread their ideology and carry out violent attacks with greater legal protections than those linked to foreign extremist groups.

Domestic extremism is not treated as a federal crime in the US, and the FBI is prohibited from monitoring Americans if their extremist ideologies are not linked to an international terrorist group. Some analysts contend that federal laws need to be updated so that domestic terror threats are prosecuted and investigated as such to deter far-right attacks.