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Afghan Forces Assess Key Air Base After U.S. Withdrawal; U.S. Withdrawal Stokes Fears Of Taliban Rise To Power; Russian COVID Cases Hit Record High; Heavy Rain And Strong Winds As Elsa Slams Cuba; How Criminal Hackers Target Businesses In Cyberattacks. Aired 12-12:45a ET

Aired July 6, 2021 - 00:00   ET




JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: As the couple has "just grown closer and closer together." Jimmy Carter is 96, his bride is 93 and we wish them a wonderful anniversary. The news on CNN continues. CNN NEWSROOM starts now.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, and a warm welcome to our viewers joining us from all around the world. I'm calling Paula Newton coming up right here on CNN NEWSROOM. The Afghan army pushing back now against the Taliban with a counteroffensive aimed at halting its march toward Kabul.

The British Prime Minister says England must learn to live with COVID- 19, but the World Health Organization urges caution. A top scientist there warns there may be a price to pay for the rush back to normalcy. And ransomware attacks become big business for cyber criminals and cyber security experts alike.

So it's becoming clearer every day. The end of America's longest war isn't the end of the war in Afghanistan. Of course, the central government is trying to mount a counteroffensive right now at this hour amid a fierce Taliban assault. Officials in the northern province of Dakar say Taliban forces failed to capture its capital city being held back by government forces and armed civilians and that's a key development in that country.

If true, it's a much needed victory for the government. Now the Taliban have taken a string of districts along the country's northern border. There are reports about 1,000 Afghan troops have in fact fled the battlefield seeking shelter in neighboring Tajikistan and officials are unsure of just how long they plan to stay there. Meantime, the Afghan government is trying to figure out what to do with the military site vacated by the United States. CNN's Anna Coren reports from Bagram Air Base.

ANNA COREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are here at Bagram Air Base. It's the first time we've been given access to this facility since U.S. and NATO forces departed on Friday, essentially ending America's involvement in the war. It was the hive of activity at the height of this war.

It has now been handed over to the Afghans and currently there are some 3,000 troops on the base assessing what the Americans have left. Behind me is a delegation from the National Security Council assigned by President Ghani to strategize and work out how they are going to use Bagram Air Base moving forward.

But it certainly is a strange place to be. It feels a bit like a disorganized junkyard. We know the air hangar's in the background, but that -- those hangars are still locked. We were out at the runways, which -- three kilometers long and it was absolutely deserted. Wasn't so long ago that there were fighter jets, cargo planes, and surveillance aircraft landing and departing constantly.

As I say, it is now quiet. And then here, you have like a car yard. There are hundreds of vehicles that the Americans have left, whether it be four-wheel drives, pickup trucks, but this is what the Afghans are now having to assess, what is in their arsenal to continue this war?

And we know that the security situation on the ground is deteriorating a lot faster than many realize. The Taliban have taken over a hundred and fifty provinces in just the last two months. One of the vice presidents of Afghanistan has said that tens of thousands of people in the countryside with a fighting is happening are fleeing to the cities and that has been backed up by the United Nations that says more than 56,000 people have had to flee four provinces in the North East.

It is alarming and very concerning for Afghans on the ground. We spoke to one military personnel who said it feels like an old friend has left without saying goodbye. There is a deep sense of abandonment here in Afghanistan. But as the Americans have spelt out, other than limited air support, this war is now up to Afghanistan to fight. Anna Corren CNN, Bagram Air Base.

NEWTON: CNN Military Analyst Colonel Cedric Leighton joins me now. It's really been head spinning what's been going on just in the last few days in Afghanistan. There does seem to be unfortunately an air of inevitability. about it, as if the Taliban knew better, just biding its time for two decades.


Is there any doubt that they will portray this as a win?

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: You know, Paula, there's very little doubt in my mind that they're eventually going to come out victorious in this scenario with Afghanistan that we're dealing with right now. Is there a small chance that they could be turned back at some point?

Yes, but it's a very, very small chance. You would need for the government forces to miraculously be able to pull them back to all of a sudden be able to fix and maintain the equipment The United States has given them. You would need them to have charismatic leadership. You would need them to do the things that we would expect a victorious military to do. And I see no evidence of them being able to do that at this time.

NEWTON: Yes. In fact, the situation is becoming more and more dire by the hour. Why, after so much time and effort, is the Afghan military and security forces led, we should say, by a fractured Afghan Government, so incapable of dealing with an opponent, the Taliban, that they've known this opponent, it really hasn't changed its tactics all that much. And yet, it's the Taliban winning not just territory, but hearts and minds still.

LEIGHTON: Well, that's the key right there, Paula, it's the hearts and minds that the Taliban are winning, and the government in Afghanistan, for whatever reason, has not been able to develop a strategy to counter the Taliban efforts in this regard, you know.

People, I guess, have a very short memory, in some cases, because the Taliban was a very brutal regime when they were in charge in Afghanistan before 2001. But the government in Afghanistan, the current government, is very much in -- a creature of habit, I guess, would be the best way to put it.

And because of that, they are unwilling to not only learn what the Taliban are doing, but they also have no capacity to emulate what the Taliban are doing and counter them at their own game, I -- and because of that, they are not only incapable of achieving victory, but they're also going to lose in the battle for the soul of the Afghan nation.

And that's what we're seeing here. We're seeing them use a very well- orchestrated campaign. We're seeing the government of Afghanistan lose the territory that we and they fought so hard to gain. And that's going to really create a very big, difficult strategic situation for us as this unfolds.

NEWTON: Yes. And you know it is going to affect the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan as well. You have to say now that this problem will come again to the doorstep of the White House. I've been refreshing that at least the military commanders themselves in the U.S. have been in the field in Afghanistan and the U.S. have been very blunt.

They think this could be the beginning of a civil war in Afghanistan. Is there anything the Biden administration can do at this late stage? And I'm talking about whether it is air support in any way, special operations, anything that they can do now, strategically, even though they have pulled out to try and turn this around?

LEIGHTON: Well, they certainly could do -- give the Afghan government a guarantee of air support, and what we call close air support. For example, you know, given a scenario where Kabul would be under attack, it would be something, you know, for the United States to offer that to the current Afghan Government. But my understanding is that the President of the United States has actually refused to do that.

And that also weakens the hand of the Afghan government. Other things that we could do is provide a concerted stream of intelligence to the Afghan forces, and allow them to use actionable intelligence that the United States and its allies have gathered in Afghanistan. But I don't think we've integrated them very well into our -- what we

call our tactics, techniques, and procedures. And because of that, we're not only abandoning them, but we're also allowing them to fail, because we're not giving them information that they could potentially use to defend themselves.

NEWTON: Yes. So unfortunately, so many more chapters of this conflict to be written. Appreciate your expertise there, Colonel. Thanks so much.

LEIGHTON: You bet, Paula. Absolutely.

NEWTON: A top World Health Organization official says countries should stop jumping the gun when it comes to lifting COVID restrictions. He says a new wave of the virus could arrive in the coming months, this time, driven by the more contagious Delta variant.


MICHAEL RYAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, W.H.O. HEALTH EMERGENCY PROGRAMME: I think overall, we've made a very premature run rush back to full normality.


And I think we're going to pay a price for that because we're not there with vaccination. The variants are really there and we haven't protected enough people.


NEWTON: Now you can see cases are still rising in so many parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, Russia and Australia, and even in countries with high vaccination rates like the U.K. and yet England is gearing up to eliminate Coronavirus safety measures in less than two weeks now.

The British Prime Minister has laid out a blueprint for how that's expected to go and he stressed the country must now learn to live with the virus. But scientists tell The Guardian newspaper that without restrictions, the U.K. risks becoming "a variant factory." CNN's Bianca Nobilo picks up the story from there.

BIANCA NOBILO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: If all goes to plan, life will start to resemble normality. In two weeks time here in England, the Prime Minister has announced his intention to end all legal requirements for face coverings, social distancing, and removing restrictions on numbers of indoor and outdoor gatherings on July the 19th. All businesses, including nightclubs, will be able to reopen the announcement came as the U.K. is experiencing another surge in cases fueled by the Delta variant. But Johnson said now is still the time to end the restrictions.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: We must be honest with ourselves, that if we can't reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we we'll be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays, then we must ask ourselves, when will we be able to return to normal?


NOBILO: Johnson has medical advisors struck a somber tone as they warned the nation that they'll still have to live with the virus and that the pandemic was far from over. From the 19th or so called Freedom Day onward, it will be up to individuals to make their own decisions about which COVID proportions, if any, they choose to take. Asked if he would continue to wear a mask, Boris Johnson said it would depend on the circumstances.


JOHNSON: I will obviously wear a mask in crowded places where you're meeting people that you that you know as Chris was saying, to protect others and as a matter as a matter of simple, simple courtesy.


NOBILO: The British Medical Association continues to urge the government to think again about removing all restrictions at a time when cases in the United Kingdom are rapidly increasing. Trade unions and opposition parties have joined the calls today with the opposition leader Keir Starmer calling the Prime Minister's decision to end these restrictions reckless. Bianca Nobilo CNN, London.

NEWTON: Now from the U.K. to Israel, where the government there warns Pfizer's COVID vaccine is now less effective than before, mainly due to the spread of the Delta variant. Now, it says the data is preliminary and it shows that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine dropped to 64 percent protection against all infections, and it's 93 percent effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization that's still a key number. But back in May, those efficacy numbers were well above the 95 percent rate.

Now in a separate statement, a team at Hebrew University said it is way too soon to tell how much the Delta variant is impacting the effectiveness of vaccines. Pfizer, interesting declined to comment on Israel's data when contacted by Reuters but cited other research showing its vaccine can still neutralize all tested variants. And that includes Delta, just at a reduced strength.

Dr. Joe Gigante joins me now. He's a pediatrician at Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University. And thanks for being here. You know, a lot of things that are troublesome and worrisome, quite frankly, not just for parents, but for everyone at this point in time. We've got this delta variant, we're sure to see more transmissible variants still to come.

These kids are not vaccinated. They are now making up a larger proportion of COVID cases. The good news, we're still pretty much staying out of hospitals. But how is it more important or how important is it, I should say, for them to really not become infected and for them to get the vaccines as soon as it's safe?

JOE GIGANTE, PEDIATRICIAN, VANDERBILT CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: Yes. That's a great point. I think it is incumbent upon us as adults and actually adolescents, aged 12 and older and adults to get vaccinated. The more people that we get vaccinated in the community, more likely we are to decrease the spread of the virus and protect our children. And I think there's been a lot of talk in the media since -- actually since the Coronavirus epidemic began about herd immunity. And in order to achieve herd immunity, we need to get more and more of the population vaccinated.

And what's scary is the Delta variant is a much more contagious form. Have the Coronavirus.


So, if we don't get to that point where we get enough adolescence and we have -- we don't get enough adults vaccinated, that just puts our children at risk. And while they don't get as sick as adults do, they still get sick with Coronavirus. You know, there's the EMI SC, which people may have heard about, it's the multi-inflammatory system syndrome disorder in children.

And there have been several thousand cases of children with MIS-C and over 300 deaths related to the MISC-C. So it's still really important to get as many people vaccinated as possible. I think it's very easy to let our guard down with, you know, I think, relaxation and a lot of the social distancing and the masking guidelines, which is good, but we, you know, alongside with that, we really do need to vaccinate as many people as possible to protect our children.

NEWTON: And does that mean shielding the children a little bit more though, too? And that can mean more mask-wearing for adults if they don't have that -- if the kids don't have the vaccines?

GIGANTE: Well, you know, so it's the, you know, people aren't, you know, friends and family ask me so, you know, I think the simple rule is if you've been vaccinated, it's OK to not wear a mask. I think if you've not been vaccinated, you still need to wear your mask, and you still need to social distance.

So I think it's important for parents who have young children, if they're going to some kind of outdoor public or community setting, be it at a party or going to camp, I think that -- I think it's a great question for parents to ask is, you know, what's the immunization status of the individuals, the adults who are at the camp? And if there are adolescent counselors, let's say, were the counselors vaccinated?

NEWTON: And do you think we have to reassess, you know, indoor activities for children? You know, there have been some studies now, not conclusive in -- of any -- in any way, but saying that, look, people weren't getting more infected around the times of their birthdays.

Why? Because they were having indoor birthday parties, and a lot of that included children. Also, there's been some evidence that children were actually safer in school than they were outside of school as far as COVID transmission.

GIGANTE: Yes, but I mean I think the reason why they were safer in school is they're around other children who are probably less likely to have the virus and then when they're out in public -- and when they're out in public at a party or a community center, being exposed to probably other adults who perhaps were not vaccinated and are infected with Coronavirus, that's the mechanism and that's how children got sick.

But, you know, it's interesting, we're in the summertime right now. So hopefully more of these parties will be taking place outdoors. So hopefully that will mitigate the risk to children who attend these parties. But once the weather starts to get more colder again, I should say, and more of these indoor events take place, that's when these viruses are spread.

NEWTON: And another thing that we've been tracking here, RSV, what is it? And how worried should we be about those kinds of respiratory tract infections that apparently are more and more prevalent now?

GIGANTE: So RSV, it's an acronym, respiratory syncytial virus. It's a virus that in -- you and I and in adults causes just symptoms of the common cold. But in infants can cause some severe respiratory problems to the point where they get hospitalized, get admitted to the intensive care unit, some of these children are intubated, and on ventilators and some die.

And it's been just fascinating to see how this past winter, we basically saw no RSV, just like we saw no flu. And it really does kind of speak to social distancing. And hand washing and wearing a mask really does prevent the spread of viruses.

So what we have seen is as these guidelines have been become more relaxed, and we're, you know, not wearing masks, and we're not social distancing, viruses, light RSV, have really just skyrocket. And then just, you know, I work in a pediatric outpatient clinic and in a pediatric hospital, you almost never see RSV in June and July.

We're seeing record numbers of cases in -- at Vanderbilt, are our Children's Hospital of children with RSV, and children getting RSV in the summer is just, as I said, just doesn't happen. But it's happening now. So it's almost like the world is turned upside down with the RSV being the prime respiratory virus in the wintertime but other respiratory viruses that typically we see in the winter, we're now seeing in June and July.

Yes, it's such a great piece of information for parents now just about how important it is to keep shielding those children really any way you can. Dr. Joe Gigante, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

GIGANTE: Thank you.

NEWTON: Now daily COVID cases have now hit a record in Russia. The government has rolled out a nationwide lockdown though as President Putin urges more citizens to just get vaccinated. Matthew Chance explains the factors fueling the latest search.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Russia is continuing its grim run of record-breaking daily COVID infections posting more than 25,000 new cases on Sunday.


Another 24,000 in the past 24 hours according to official figures, some of the highest tallies in Russia since the pandemic began. The death toll has been very high as well. Part of the problem, the Delta Varian, Russian scientists say the highly infectious strain of the virus is spreading across Russia.

Russia state media recently carried a rare admission that the country's homegrown vaccine, Sputnik V, is less effective against Delta than it is against other strains. But the major factor the infection is surging, so Russian officials is the extremely low overall rate of vaccination here. Russia has one of the highest levels of vaccine hesitancy in the world.

Conspiracy theories about the safety of the vaccine and about the reason for vaccination seemed to have taken hold. Many Russians simply don't trust the jab which was the first in the world to be registered for public use. Belatedly, the Kremlin has started to act.

Last week, President Vladimir Putin urged Russians to listen to experts rather than rumors about the virus and vaccines. In addition, tough new rules have been put in place, effectively compelling people who work in close contact with the public like in the transport sector or in bars and restaurants to get vaccinated by next week. Or face dismissal. Matthew chance, CNN, Moscow

NEWTON: Just ahead, the Florida building collapse reminds a lot of people of the Grenfell Tower fire four years ago in London. Search for accountability and that tragedy goes on to this day. Meantime in Surfside, a major threat to search crews is eliminated and already they're finding more victims in the rubble or watching CNN NEWSROOM.


NEWTON: Search Crews say they've now found safe access to the entire debris field and that Florida building collapse now the remaining part of the Champlain towers South building was demolished late Sunday. The Miami Dade mayor says the pile of rubble next to the building was all that was holding it up. Now since then, four more bodies have been recovered, bring the death toll to 28. Surfside's mayor says the search for the 117 people still missing will continue until everyone is found.


CHARLES BURKETT, MAYOR, SURFSIDE, FLORIDA: Now that the damage building is down, as the site is staffed with a tremendous amount of search and rescue workers, the heavy equipment is now able to move around the site as needed. We're operating at 100 percent capacity and I'm very excited about that. And I believe I sense that the families were, too.



NEWTON: Now a reminder that the demolition was moved up because of the impending threat from tropical storm Elsa. Now the building collapse in Florida harkens back to another tragedy four years ago in London when Grenfell Tower went up in flames killing dozens of people. Survivors and victims' families are still searching for answers. CNN's Salma Abdelaziz has more.


SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: The early hours of June 14th, 2017, a fire sparked by kitchen appliance engulfs Grenville Tower in a matter of minutes.




ABDELAZIZ: Families wake up to find themselves trapped inside an inferno. From her apartment on the 22nd floor, a terrified Nadia Choucar calls her brother. He quickly rushes to the scene.


NABIL CHOUCAR, BEREAVED FAMILY MEMBER: You could see and feel it from that distance so far away, you know, you literally feel the heat.


ABDELAZIZ: For hours, the blaze burned on. Nadia was spotted desperately waving a makeshift flag from her window.


CHOUCAR: We still had hope that they'd made it out, you know, but then when you get told one by one that, you know, they've been found and, you know, they're deceased, it kind of cuts you up and then it cuts you up again and --


ABDELAZIZ: Nadia Choucar, her mother, her husband, and their three daughters died in their home. They're among the 72 lost to the fire. Nabil's life is now consumed by the fight for justice.


CHOUCAR: Every day, I'm thinking about Grenfell. Every day I'm doing things about Grenfell. Every day -- it's all Grenfell, Grenfell.


ABDELAZIZ: A public inquiry into what happened that night drags on. There's hearing scheduled into next year and until it reaches its conclusion, the police say no criminal prosecutions can take place. That means it could take years before justice or accountability is reached.

A highly flammable cladding wrapped around the social housing block made the tower a tinderbox, expert said. Tiago Alves told us his childhood home was a deathtrap. He and his family fled from the 13th floor.


TIAGO ALVES, GRENFELL FIRE SURVIVOR: I was trying to understand how this could happen. So a country which is one of the richest countries in the world, allows for the building industry to place flammable material on the outside of a building, which is then allowed to go up in flames.


ABDELAZIZ: Numerous other problems with the building have come to light during the public inquiry. There was no centralized fire alarm, no sprinkler system, limited exits. Firefighters also ordered people to stay in their apartments for almost two hours before calling for an evacuation. Now Alves is one of many demanding wide-ranging reforms, from a ban on combustible cladding to tougher safety rules.


ALVES: There is probably some 20-year-old out there, just like I was when the fire happened, and until I can make sure that someone like that doesn't have to experience what I did that night, I don't think I could ever stop.


ABDELAZIZ: The shrouded remains of Grenfell still loom over London skyline, a reminder of a tragedy that could have been avoided and must never happen again. Salma Abdelaziz CNN, London.


NEWTON: Rescuers in Japan are digging through the muck and debris hoping to find survivors after Saturday's deadly mudslide. Officials say four people are now confirmed dead and twenty-four unaccounted for. Now the threat of rain and more mudslides has hampered rescue efforts, and many survivors no longer have a home. At least 130 houses were destroyed in the disaster.

Philippine officials have ordered a probe into Sunday's deadly military plane crash on Monday. President Rodrigo Duterte a visited the camp where the dead and dozens wounded were taken. The plane was carrying troops to an island in the Southern Philippines when it missed the runway and crashed. At least fifty people including three civilians were killed. It's the country's worst military air disaster in decades.

Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, Tropical Storm Elsa slams Cuba with heavy rain and strong winds. We're tracking the storm as it moves back over water and straight towards Florida.


NEWTON: Tropical Storm Elsa is headed for Florida's west coast after sweeping across Cuba on Monday. The storm made landfall along Cuba's southern coast, bringing strong winds and heavy rains.


Tyler Mauldin has been tracking the storm for us and joins us now. I mean, some good news, obviously, at it has kind of gone further west of Surfside. But I guess the rescue site there is still under threat from the storm, though. Right, Tyler?

TYLER MAULDIN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, so the center is going to be well west of Surfside. The thing is the entire peninsula of Florida is going to be on the east side of the system. The east side is typically the sloppy side of tropical systems. And this is no different with Tropical Storm Elsa.

Tropical Storm Elsa is now to the north of Havana, Cuba. And it's just about 80 miles to the south of Key West. It's got winds of 60 miles per hour again. So now that it's over waters, beginning to restrengthen. And despite the fact that it's 80 miles to the south of Key West it's been slinging squall lines on into key -- into the lower, middle and upper Keys, as well as portions of south Florida.

And we're beginning to see more low bands push in, as well. You see, one shower and thunderstorms just pushed through Homestead, went right offshore of Miami, which could actually clip Surfside here in just a little while, and Surfside, Florida, is getting into the mix, as well.

This trend of it pushing to the north and strengthening is going to continue. We're going to see it become a 65-, maybe 75-mile-per-hour tropical storm as it parallels the west coast of Florida, eventually making landfall come Wednesday morning in the Big Bend of Florida.

Here's the thing, though, and I've been harping on this for days, here's the thing about the cone of concern. The cone of concern is only telling you where the center of the storm is going to go.

So the center of the storm is going to be offshore of the peninsula, but the effects are going to be felt way to the east of the center of the storm, about 80 to 100 miles to the east.

So for that reason, across the west coast of Florida, we have a flash flood threat. We could see up to six inches, maybe seven inches of rain in some isolated spots. And we'll continue to see the really heavy rain across the east coast of Florida, too.

The strongest winds will be confined to the west coast, but with each band that pushes through, especially through Surfside, like we saw today, could really pack a punch. And as these bands come to shore, the friction of the ground causes them to start to rotate, and for that reason, we have a level two out of five risk across the peninsula of Florida for some -- for some tornadoes.

We could also see some pretty dangerous storm surges across the west coast of Florida and the days to come. And that's going to be Tuesday on into Wednesday as we go up from south to north across the peninsula -- Paula.

NEWTON: Yes, I'm really hoping this is short-lived, because the rescue workers there could really use a break with the weather.

MAULDIN: Absolutely.

NEWTON: Hasn't been good since this all started. Tyler, thanks for the update.


NEWTON: Appreciate it.

Ethiopia's prime minister wants the country's military strengthened, and he's urging young people to join in large numbers. Abiy Ahmed's comments to Parliament come as his government deals with an eight- month-long conflict in the northern Tigray region.


ABIY AHMED, ETHIOPIAN PRIME MINISTER (through translator): The national defense force does not have huge budget, but a huge heart and love for the country. There are works underway to strengthen it. Also, the people, including you, are supporting the army. Haven't you seen? Everywhere it arrived, it was being fed by the people. It was protected by the love and moral support of the people.

Still, it should be supported in terms of morale, manpower, armament and supplies. No question about it. It should be supported. Many young people should realize that we can only strengthen Ethiopia if we have built a strong army and joined the army en masse without waiting for proclamations.


NEWTON: The conflict has been going on since the government accused the Tigray People's Liberation Front of attacking military bases. The Tigrayan forces said Sunday they want a full withdrawal of troops from Eritrea and the neighboring Amhara region before they will discuss a ceasefire with the government.

Still to come here on NEWSROOM.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to notify you that we've downloaded 500 gigabytes of your data from your servers.


NEWTON: An alarming threat and a demand for millions of dollars. Criminal hackers are stepping up their sophisticated cyberattacks. We'll break down the anatomy of a ransomware attack. That's next.


NEWTON: The CEO of a widely-used software vendor says it's really hard to gauge the full impact of a major ransomware attack on his company. The U.S.-based firm Kaseya says fewer than 1,500 businesses around the world have been affected by the recent breach.

The criminal hacking group is demanding $70 million in ransom for a decryptor tool. The company says it met with the FBI and cybersecurity authorities Monday night. Experts say it's likely one of the largest supply chain attacks from a non-nation state ever.

Now, cybersecurity researchers tell CNN these types of attacks are a logistical nightmare for businesses, and they're only getting more sophisticated and dangerous.

CNN's Clare Sebastian looks at the growing threat posed by criminal hackers using ransomware.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'd like to notify you that we've downloaded 500 gigabytes of your data from your servers.

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The voice sounds like something out of a hostage movie. Except here, the hostage is data.

KAREN SPRENGER, COO AND CHIEF RANSOMWARE NEGOTIATOR, LMG SECURITY: Attackers are getting more aggressive in terms of they're doing their research and finding out who the key players are at the company that they've compromised, and then they are reaching out to them.

SEBASTIAN: Cybersecurity expert Karen Sprenger says the voice mail was left for the CEO of a client of hers, a large American company hit by a ransomware attack last October.

SPRENGER: They hadn't reached out to the attacker yet, and so that was just the attacker's push on them to try and get them to contact them.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you're planning to just restore your data, without paying for decryption, we'll sell your company's private data on the dark net.

SEBASTIAN (on camera): The threats worked. Sprenger says the company paid a ransom of several hundred thousand dollars, and the attackers provided a decryptor tool, which successfully restored their data without it being published on the dark web. (voice-over): In 2020, according to block chain analytics company

Chainalysis, ransomware victims are known to have paid the equivalent of at least $400 million in ransom payments, more than four times the known 2019 level. Those numbers continue to climb as more payments come to light.

SPRENGER: The criminals using it don't even need to have any technical experience. They can go on the dark web, and they can purchase or lease access to software that allows them to release ransomware on a company's network.

SEBASTIAN: Then, if the victim decides to pay, some attackers will negotiate.

In this email chain from late May, Sprenger says she's negotiating on behalf of another client, a small healthcare provider on the U.S. East Coast. The attackers' opening demand, one bitcoin, then worth around $36,000.

Sprenger, who uses a different email account and pseudonym for each negotiation, tells the attacker her client has insurance, but it will only cover a small portion of the ransom. A detail she says a hacker who had infiltrated a company's network might already know.

SPRENGER: We're starting to see, too, where the attackers go through the data and look for cyber insurance policies to see what the deductible is and to understand how much coverage they have.

SEBASTIAN: They eventually settled on a little less than half the original demand.

(on camera): The currency of choice for ransomware attackers is, experts say, overwhelmingly bitcoins because of its perceived anonymity and widespread usage.

And so to help victims navigate this process, cybersecurity experts say a common feature of the ransomware experience includes some kind of -- call it customer support.

JESSE SPIRO, CHIEF GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS OFFICER, CHAINALYSIS: They all set up some kind of communication and then step-by-step tell them, you know, how to access. In exchange, how to set up a wallet, the kind of cryptocurrency that they want the payment to be made within. And in fact, they even help troubleshoot.

SEBASTIAN (voice-over): And yet, because bitcoin transactions are stored on a public block chain, they are traceable.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The old adage "follow the money" still applies.

SEBASTIAN: The Colonial Pipeline case showed how law enforcement was able to track and seize cryptocurrency worth $2.3 million. In a similar success story in January, the Department of Justice seized almost half a million dollars of cryptocurrency from ransom payments associated with NetWalker, another prolific ransomware strain. They did that with the help of block chain forensics tools from Chainalysis.

SPIRO: It provides unprecedented insights into the supply chain for these groups. You know, what they're doing with the cryptocurrency; how they are moving it, identifying those affiliates and additional connectivity; how they are laundering the money.

SEBASTIAN: The FBI says private sector partnerships are one of its biggest tools against the cyber threat. For companies, it's about stepping up their cyber defenses to avoid being next.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we leak that data, your business will be as good as gone.

SEBASTIAN: Clare Sebastian, CNN, New York.


NEWTON: And I want to thank you for watching. I'm Paula Newton. WORLD SPORT is up after the break.