The China rare earths dragon awakens
Dragonbridge executes online attack on US rare earth interests Metal Tech News - June 30, 2022
Last updated 7/12/2022 at 3:21pm
Dragonbridge, a cybernetwork that pushes online narratives in support of the People's Republic of China's political interests, has launched a campaign targeting companies advancing rare earths mining and processing projects in the United States and Canada.
Mandiant, a globally recognized leader in cybersecurity, first began investigating Dragonbridge's incursion into the North American rare earths space when it identified a social media campaign criticizing Lynas Rare Earths Ltd. and calling for protests of the Australia-based mining company's plans to build a rare earths processing facility in Texas.
Over the past month, Mandiant noticed that Dragonbridge operatives have also begun targeting Appia Rare Earths & Uranium Corp., a company exploring a rare earths-gallium project in Saskatchewan, and USA Rare Earth LLC, which is advancing a rare earths mine in Texas and processing facility in Oklahoma, with similar campaigns of negative messaging and disinformation.
With a network that includes thousands of inauthentic social media accounts and websites, Dragonbridge operatives pose as local residents and others concerned about potential environmental and health risks by these rare earth projects being advanced by Lynas, Appia, and USA Rare Earth.
Mandiant alerted all three companies about the Dragonbridge campaign, along with social media platforms where the rare earths disinformation operations are being promoted.
Pini Althaus, founder and advisor at USA Rare Earth, says he is not surprised by a China-sponsored campaign to sabotage and spy upon companies at the forefront of developing the burgeoning rare earths sector in North America.
"Sadly, it is a given," he posted in a LinkedIn response to a The Washington Post article on the Dragonbridge attack.
According to Mandiant, the Dragonbridge campaign also promoted content criticizing the Biden administration's March decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to expedite the domestic production of critical minerals to end U.S. reliance on China for its supply of these needed materials.
Mandiant, which is being acquired by Google to complement Google Cloud's existing strengths in cybersecurity, has been following Dragonbridge campaigns for three years now. The cybersecurity firm, however, says the campaigns aimed at protecting China's rare earths interests are more targeted, sophisticated, and nuanced than previous attacks by the group.
"Dragonbridge's targeting of the rare earths industry broadly, and Lynas, Appia, and USA Rare Earth specifically, demonstrates an interest in industries of strategic importance to the PRC that we had not previously observed from the campaign," Mandiant inked in a June 28 blog.
"Additionally, the Dragonbridge campaign has in this activity set demonstrated the use of incrementally more sophisticated tactics, such as the microtargeting of audiences favorable to its messaging and the leveraging of criticism by real individuals to support its narratives and agenda."
Rise of the rare earth dragon
Given the economic and geopolitical clout rare earths provide the People's Republic of China, it is no surprise that the government would sponsor a social media attack on projects that threaten this leverage.
Recognizing the economic and strategic importance of rare earths as far back as the 1960s, China positioned itself to be a global powerhouse in the mining and processing of this group of 15 elements critical to a broad array of modern household, high-tech, and military devices.
"The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth," People's Republic of China leader Deng Xiaoping famously said in 1992. "China's rare earth deposits account for 80% of identified global reserves, you can compare the status of these reserves to that of oil in the Middle East ... we must be sure to handle the rare earth issue properly and make the fullest use of our country's advantage in rare earth resources."
In the years to follow, China did just that. By the turn of the 21st century, China had established a near-total monopoly on the mining and separation of rare earths.
"China has been the leading producer of REEs for decades and since the late 1990s it has accounted for more than 90% of global production, on average," the United States Geological Survey penned in a 2018 report on minerals critical to the United States.
While the rare earths market is minuscule in relation to the American and Chinese economies, the high-tech, electric vehicle, green energy, and other industrial and defense sectors that rely on rare earths are enormous.
The Chinese government has used this group of technology metals as geopolitical leverage twice – blocking exports of rare earths to Japan during a China Sea territorial dispute in 2010 and again during a trade dispute with the U.S. in 2019.
"Rare earth metals are a critical part of consumer and defense products such as missile guidance systems and aircraft engines, and China has used its supply chain dominance as geopolitical leverage, including by threatening a rare earths embargo to the U.S. during the height of the trade war between the two countries in 2019," Mandiant penned in its report.
Given the geopolitical implications, coupled with the growing demand for rare earths for the magnets that go into EV motors, western companies and governments have been working toward developing a rare earths supply chain completely outside of China.
Lynas, which has a rare earths mine in Australia and a processing facility in Malaysia, has been at the forefront of this push and was the first rare earths company targeted by Dragonbridge.
This campaign is being directed at the facility the company is developing in Texas under a large contract with the U.S. Department of Defense.
Further details on the Lynas' proposed Texas facility can be read at Lynas Rare Earths lands $120M DoD deal in the June 15, 2022 edition of Metal Tech News.
With thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, Dragonbridge operatives pose as concerned Texas residents protesting the construction of Lynas' proposed rare earths processing plant and criticizing the Biden administration's decision to support the facility.
Accounts leveraged commentary by real individuals, such as U.S. politicians and commentators, to support their arguments against the future Texas rare earths plant. Others responded to posts regarding Lynas with additional negative messaging targeting the company.
Using similar tactics, the Chinese campaign also began targeting other companies with North American rare earths projects.
When Canadian explorer Appia Rare Earths announced the discovery of a new rare earths zone on its Alces Lake project in Northern Saskatchewan, Dragonbridge responded with concerns about the environment and health of Appia workers.
The Chinese operatives responded similarly to USA Rare Earth's announcement that it plans to build a rare earths processing and magnets facility in Oklahoma.
Further details on USA Rare Earth and its future Oklahoma facility can be read at It's OK, USA Rare Earth plant coming soon in the June 10, 2022 edition of Metal Tech News.
Mandiant says the attack on Lynas and then similar campaigns against Appia and USA Rare Earth underscores Dragonbridge's "ability to monitor developments and respond accordingly, as well as its investment in attempting to ensure the PRC's market dominance in the industry."
Althaus cautions western governments "to be cognizant of this issue and not do China any favors by piggybacking on attempts to create so-called environmental issues for developers, when none are present."
"As I have iterated before, a project in the US, Australia or Canada would not be permitted, or even developed with the intent to be permitted, without adhering to the strictest environmental rigors (likely not found elsewhere)," the USA Rare Earth founder posted on LinkedIn.
Mandiant warns that Dragonbridge's rare earths campaigns could signal an expanding tactic to counter companies with projects that threaten the interests of the People's Republic of China.
"Given Chinese President Xi Jinping's continued emphasis on a broad, holistic understanding of PRC national security that encompasses areas including information and resource security, we may see other global competitors to PRC firms in other industries targeted by such information operations," the cybersecurity firm wrote.