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Russian trolls orchestrated 2016 clash at Houston Islamic center, new Senate intel report recalls

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

Senate intelligence committee report issued Tuesday recounts efforts by Russian trolls to orchestrate a clash in Houston between local Muslims and anti-Muslim demonstrators in May 2016 — one of many instances of Russia trying to stoke unrest in the United States.

The incident and its links to Russia’s ongoing disinformation efforts are well-known. But the new Senate report uses it to highlight the continuing threat of disruption via Facebook and other social media, and the sophistication of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, a secretive organization in St. Petersburg.

“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican who chairs the committee. “By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans. “

At least two other Russian incidents of mischief played out in Texas.

A November 2015 Confederate rally in Houston was the “earliest evidence” of Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, according to the report released in April by special counsel Robert Mueller.

But that was not the first Russian effort to stir discord through disinformation.

In April 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas State Guard — a branch of the Texas Military Forces separate from the Texas Army National Guard — to monitor an annual federal military exercise called Operation Jade Helm. Right-wing groups were in an uproar, warning of a dark plot by the Obama administration. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said later that Russian bots had stoked the fear and turmoil, and were probably emboldened by their success.

During the 2016 election campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz was “targeted and denigrated,” along with other politicians in both parties who had adversarial views towards the Kremlin, the report says.

The clash in Houston, according to the Senate report, “illustrates the IRA’s ideological flexibility, command of American politics, and willingness to exploit the country’s most divisive fault lines.”

Russian trolls used a Facebook page called “Heart of Texas,” a home for advocacy of Texas secession and a variety of conservative goals that drew 250,000 followers at its peak, to promote a protest against Islam at noon on May 21, 2016.

The protest would occur outside the Islamic Da’wah Center, a mosque established and funded by retired basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon, who played center for the Houston Rockets.

The Russians used targeted ads urging supporters to attend the “Stop Islamization of Texas” event.

But that wasn’t all the trolls had in mind.

They had another Facebook page, called “United Muslims for America,” with more than 325,000 followers. For that audience, they promoted an event at the same time and place, with ads that “beseeched its supporters to demonstrate in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center … to `Save Islamic Knowledge.’ “

Ads targeted to each side made no mention of a counterprotest.

“The competing events were covered live by local news agencies, and according to the Texas Tribune, interactions between the two protests escalated into confrontation and verbal attacks,” the Senate report says.

The ads cost only $200, a bargain, Burr said during a hearing on Nov. 1, 2017.

“And the entire operation was conducted from the confines of the IRA’s headquarters in Saint Petersburg,” the report says. “Social media researcher John Kelly characterized the IRA’s operational intent as `kind of like arming two sides in a civil war.’ “

Much of these details had already come to light in congressional testimony or through federal investigations after the 2016 election.

Mueller’s office obtained an indictment on Feb. 16, 2018, against the Internet Research Agency.

According to the special counsel’s office, the IRA created a “translator project” aimed at the U.S. election, posting more than 1,000 pieces of content a week and reaching up to 30 million people by September 2016.

“In addition, the IRA employees began contacting unwitting U.S. persons to better refine their tactics and targets. In one communication, an IRA operative posed as an American and spoke with a Texas-based grassroots organization, learning from the conversation that they should focus their activities on `purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida,’ ” the Senate report says.

The Russians created and administered pages with an assortment of themes.

One was anti-immigrant (“Stop A.I.” — short for “Stop All Invaders”). Another focused on gun rights (titled “Being Patriotic”). Another, called “Blacktivist,” focused on African American cultural issues and police brutality.

The Senate Intelligence Committee released the first volume of its Russia investigation in July: “Volume I: Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure,” Volume I is here.

“Volume II: Russia’s Use of Social Media” is here.


© 2019 The Dallas Morning News