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Cyberwarfare: Cheap yet destructive - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Once more, we see reports surface about the “Cyberwarfare” that is taking place behind the scenes in our region following the revelation last week about the new “Flame” virus that is targeting Iran’s oil industry, stealing important data and information from computers belonging to Iranian government institutions and state officials. This is taking place within the framework of a secret war that is being waged to incapacitate Iran’s nuclear ambitions. According to experts, the “Flame” virus is twenty times stronger than the Stuxnet worm which also sought to disable Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Stuxnet worm was revealed in 2010 when it was accidently “leaked” onto the internet from Iranian institutions, infecting computers in other parts of the world that were not the original targets of this electronic attack.

As for who is behind the electronic attacks targeting Iran, suspicion immediately fell on both the US and Israel, whilst it has been claimed that other parties were also involved in these operations, which took place in complete secrecy, in line with Washington and Tel Aviv’s tradition of silence regarding intelligence operations. However these suspicions remained unconfirmed until a few days ago when the New York Times published a dramatic report [Obama Orders Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran; 1/6/2012], by David E. Sanger. These revelations are the result of Sanger conducting a number of interviews with current and former American, European and Israeli officials, over a period of 18 months, as part of research into a book [Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power] on this secret war, which was published earlier this week. The detailed information revealed in this book and which is based on statements from officials in the Obama administration represents the first official acknowledgement that the US and Israel were behind the Stuxnet worm as part of a secret Cyberwarfare program codenamed “Olympic Games”, whose objective was to disable Iran’s nuclear program .

It has been revealed that this program began in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, as an alternative to risky air strikes against Iran. Sanger’s book reveals that Bush gave Obama two pieces of advice when he handed over the keys of the White House; he advised his successor to preserve the Cyberwarfare program against Iran, as well as the unmanned drone program targeting Al Qaeda leaders. This is advice that Obama enthusiastically followed, to the point that his presidency is seen an escalation in the “secret” war on both fronts. Whilst air strikes from unmanned drones is something that cannot be concealed from the general public, the electronic war remained under wraps for approximately two years before the Stuxnet worm brought this to the attention of the public after this worm was leaked onto the internet as a result of a programming mistake. What is particularly ironic is that Colonel Gaddafi contributed, without knowing it, to the development of Cyberwarfare and the US’s attack on Iran. This is because the US benefited from the Libyan nuclear program which Gaddafi surrendered to Washington after giving up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions on Libya. In fact, the US even used this to contrast a model of the Iranian nuclear reactor to test their electric attacks on.

What is even more ironic than this is that Iran itself contributed to this attack, due to its confused response, which led Tehran to close many state apparatus, and then even deny that it had been affected by the Stuxnet worm; thereby wasting a lot of time before hiring Russian and Ukrainian experts to identify the Stuxnet worm. Despite Iran later announcing that it was establishing an Cyberwarfare unit and claiming that it was capable of repelling any attacks, and even mounting counter-attacks, Tehran’s capabilities in the field of Cyberwarfare remains limited, as can be seen in Iran today falling victim to the “Flame” virus, which is even more dangerous than the Stuxnet worm. This virus is even more dangerous than the Stuxnet worm because it was created for espionage purposes, namely to steal important information, whilst this information can then be utilized in more conventional attacks, and it is likely that such information was utilized in assassination operations targeting agents and officials working in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Cyberwarfare has become a reality, and will no doubt become a key feature in future wars. This is something that will not only affect Iran, for nobody will be safe from electronic warfare, particularly as this is an inexpensive but destructive form of warfare that does not require large armies, whilst Cyber-attacks can be launched from remote locations, indeed those launching such attacks can remain protected, and perhaps even unidentified. Therefore if some hackers, for example, are able to infiltrate or incapacitate superpowers’ state institutes, waging wars across borders, then what about a state’s capability to carry out electronic attacks; this is something that could completely paralyze rival state’s by targeting the computer systems used for banking, electric powers plants or even air traffic control, infiltrating a state’s basic services.

There are many indications that countries across the world have begun to develop their Cyberwarfare capabilities, including their offensive and defensive capabilities, making great strides in this field, particularly America, China, Russia and Israel. Whilst the facts on the ground confirm that extremist organizations and terrorist groups are also interested in the electronic sphere, utilizing this for public relations purposes, as well as recruitment, in addition to publishing training manuals and explosives handbooks online. There can be no doubt that these same groups are seeking to develop their Cyberwarfare capabilities, particularly as they depend on the strategy of utilizing inexpensive attacks with the largest possible death toll in order to incite chaos and intimidate the public.

This leads one to ask whether Arab states are prepared for wars such as this, particularly as such wars are already taking place, and Arab states may already be involved in this? What is the benefit of having the most advanced arsenal if the state is unprepared to protect itself from electronic attacks? What use are convention weapons if the enemy is a spectre and the source of the [electronic] attacks remains unknown? Indeed, what if the state is not capable of confronting possible electronic attacks that may seek to paralyze daily life and incite chaos by targeting and incapacitating power plants, government institutions, banks and other sensitive economic institutions?

The Arab states, who are present in one of the most volatile regions of the world, cannot avoid the threat posed by electronic warfare; otherwise they will – sooner or later – pay a very high price. If we need to increase concerns over this issue, then we need only point to Israel’s recent announcement that it intends to be one of the five most powerful countries in Cyberwarfare.

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani

Osman Mirghani is Asharq Al-Awsat's former deputy editor and senior editor-at-large.

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