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Hackers into Ruto aides' social media accounts flopped twice


'Team Jorge' claim they manipulated 27 elections around the world out of the 33 they tried to influence. [iStockphoto]

The Israeli hackers who hacked into the email and social media accounts of five of President William Ruto's aides have a long history of manipulating elections in Africa.

By their own confessions to investigative journalists, members of the group calling itself 'Team Jorge' claim they manipulated 27 elections around the world out of the 33 they tried to influence.

Their apparent mission against Ruto, the target of a disinformation campaign by the team led by 50-year-old Tal Hanan flopped, given the Kenya Kwanza Alliance won last August's presidential election.

The Standard has since established that besides Energy Cabinet Secretary Davis Chirchir and Dennis Itumbi, other victims of the Israeli hackers were Ruto's aide Farouk Kibet, former UDA treasurer Omingo Magara and former Starehe MP Simon Mbugua.

On Twitter, Itumbi, whose Telegram account was hacked, yesterday stated that he had known that he had been a victim of the hacking job after noticing increased activity on his account, which he said he barely uses.

"After noticing the increased activity... together with some other two people - to intentionally mislead those who were trying to obtain information illegally, we staged a communication on agents, saying how unnecessary they were and how costly the exercise was," Itumbi said of a counter-intelligence plan they developed. "We even concluded we will (would) not pick agents. Of course in reality we invested our entire time recruiting agents."

Itumbi, a series of investigative reports on Hanan and his team shows, is not the only one who discovered that his phone had been hacked. A report by British news agency the Guardian, reveals that Hanan's operations had previously foundered in Nigeria. Eight years ago, Hanan and his team, who also include his brother Zohar Hanan, was part of a campaign to help Goodluck Jonathan secure a new term as Nigeria's president.

Team Jorge's role majorly revolved around discrediting then opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari. Reports show that they worked alongside British consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, the firm that played a significant part in running former President Uhuru Kenyatta's media campaigns in 2013 and 2017.

The Guardian reports that Hanan was in frequent communication with Cambridge Analytica, planning meetings in Nigeria to work on the perfect plan to help Jonathan's re-election bid. And they would plan meetings, some of which in Nigeria, on the same.

In the dozens of emails leaked to the Guardian and Observer, there was no suggestion that Jonathan knew of either Cambridge Analytica or Team Jorge's covert operation. But The Guardian was able to establish that Jonathan was the intended beneficiary of the operation that roped in the two entities, whose communication occurred on encrypted Hushmail accounts or special devices used for secure phone calls.

The Guardian and Observer had previously reported that an Israeli contractor had supplied confidential material stolen from Buhari's campaign to Cambridge Analytica staff, with the matter ending up at the United Kingdom's Parliament.

While Cambridge Analytica's job involved securing Jonathan's international media coverage, Team Jorge was chiefly responsible for fishing information that would be used to discredit Buhari, perhaps what Hanan's job was in hacking Itumbi and other Ruto aides.

"As you are aware they are being paid to do opposition research, and as of yet we have received nothing of substance," a staffer at Cambridge Analytica is reported to have said in an email to a colleague.

Brittany Kaiser, a Cambridge Analytica employee, would tell UK Parliament that part of the information supplied by Israeli moles, now identified to be Team Jorge, included a video from inside campaign meetings.

Details of Hanan's operations in Nigeria have been exposed by eight-month investigation called Story Killers, coordinated by Forbidden Stories. Forbidden Stories is a consortium of international investigative journalists who pursue the work of journalists who have been killed or work under threat.

The investigation brought together more than 100 journalists from more than 30 countries. Three undercover journalists from TheMarker, Radio France and Haaretz posed as intermediaries from Chad, who claimed to seek his services in having Chad's presidential election postponed. The election that had been slated for last year was eventually postponed but it was not occasioned by the three journalists as they did not do any business with Team Jorge or any other election saboteur for that matter.

The three journalists captured Hanan as he presented his previous work of manipulating elections. The Guardian report states that Hanan presented a slide titled "Wrecking havoc during African election day". It would feature a screengrab from a newspaper article that showed how leaders in Buhari's All Progressives Party discovered that their phones had been blocked.

"We were at the party's situation room in the morning of the presidential election, only to discover that his phone line had been blocked. He could neither receive nor make calls, and that was very serious because he was the live wire of the opposition," the Guardian quotes Lai Mohammed, APC's then spokesperson, as saying.

Another slide featured a story of the presidential election had been postponed after Team Jorge influenced the publication of a story about women in Muslim attire being excluded from one of Nigeria's polling stations.

The investigative report established that Hanan had advance information about the postponement, citing a leaked email he had sent to Cambridge Analytica.

"I have received strong indication that the elections will not take place on the 14th, and that plans are made to postponed them in few weeks," Hanan wrote a day before the announcement. He claimed to have received the information from a top source.

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