By OSMAN MIRGHANI
By OSMAN MIRGHANI
January 21, 2012 (Al Arabiya)
Imagine the scenario: an attack paralyzes sensitive government circles, defense systems and power grids; disrupting bank, internet and mobile services, and freezing all vital [state] infrastructure. Suddenly, the cycle of everyday life and the majority of services come to a halt. No ATMs or mobile phones work; the whole internet system breaks down, as does the electricity grid, whilst many other services either come to a complete standstill or experience a state of chaos.
Such an attack could paralyze any country and disrupt the cycle of everyday life there for hours or even days before the authorities are able to restore order, provided that they have contingency plans in place to deal with such a threat. The source of the attack might not be known for some time because the attacker may not have disclosed their identity, not to mention the fact that an attack such as this does not require a single bullet to be fired or a single missile to be launched.
If you think that this scenario could only happen in science fiction, then you should think again because a war such as this has already begun in our regions and in other places around the world. Moreover, a number of countries have begun to step up their preparations in order to confront this potential danger, by recruiting specialist units and allocating space in their defense and intelligence budgets for developing [cyber] counter-weaponry; for the purpose of protection and deterrence.
A few days ago, the [Israeli] “Jerusalem Post” newspaper revealed that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had recruited around 300 computer experts to join up with other recruits to work in a department responsible for cyber warfare, affiliated to the military intelligence sector. This department will be tasked with encrypting and protecting army and intelligence networks against any cyber-attack launched by countries, organizations or even individuals. The department will also be assigned the task of protecting power, water and telephone networks along with the other basic services.
Interestingly, Israel also recently declared that it has begun construction on a new command center to coordinate between different military and industrial institutions, for protection against cyber-attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the first step of its establishment last May, stressing that it would be allocated a large budget, because Israel “is seeking to counteract the danger of any future cyber-attacks.”
These steps reveal a new concern and they are not without foundation, because according to a number of experts, Israel itself has participated in the launch of several cyber-attacks, including the “Stuxnet” computer virus attack on an Iranian nuclear center in June 2010. The attack was considered the largest cyber-attack of its kind, as it led to considerable problems in the Iranian nuclear facility’s network, paralyzing its operations for some time. Tehran was later able to identify the virus and eliminate it from its corrupted equipment. As of yet, the true extent of the damage caused by this cyber-attack is difficult to assess. It is also important to note that nobody every claimed responsibility for this attack, although many experts believe that the US, Israel and perhaps Germany took part in the development of the Stuxnet virus, with the aim of disrupting or hampering Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel’s concern [about cyber-attacks] could also be attributed to recently published information suggesting that Iran has begun to strengthen its defensive and offensive efforts in the domain of cyber warfare, after being exposed to the Stuxnet virus. Iran believes that the aforementioned attack was not an isolated incident, particularly amidst perceived efforts to step up the secret war to paralyze Iran’s nuclear program, either by mounting cyber-attacks, or by assassinating scientists and destroying facilities.
Furthermore, when the Obama administration announced the new US defense strategy this month, it highlighted a reductions in troop numbers, and dismissed the idea that it was preparing itself to wage two simultaneous wars, focusing on Asia with special reference to China, Iran and North Korea. This was the main pillar in the new strategy, which proposes to trim around 500 billion dollars from the US defense budget. However, there is a side to this strategy that did not receive wide media coverage, namely that the US is now concentrating on future war techniques such as mounting aerial attacks utilizing drones, as well as maximizing and expanding its cyber-warfare capabilities. These techniques do not depend on a large number of troops but rather on the quality of America’s capabilities, especially in the field of technical and cyber warfare, which will form the mainstay of future wars. The US realizes that China has come a long way in its cyber warfare developments, and there are dozens of reports holding Beijing responsible for a series of cyber-attacks that recently targeted Western countries.
For example, in mid-2011, a report was published revealing that several Western intelligence agencies suspected that China was behind a cyber-attack where anonymous “hackers” had tried to gain confidential information in order to access the email inboxes of hundreds of senior US and South Korean government officials, who held “Gmail” accounts. Even though China’s government denied its involvement in any form of cyber-attack against another country, Google announced that the source of the Gmail hack had been traced back to the city of Jinan, the capital of Shandong province in Eastern China. Google confirmed that it had detected the attack and prevented it. The significance of this, the attack being traced back to Jinan, is that this city was mentioned in a report drawn up by a US congressional committee, as the city houses one of the technical reconnaissance centers supervising China’s cyber espionage operations.
Cyber warfare has been a reality for some time, through methods such as hacking, phone tapping and email interception. But today this war has acquired new dimensions and capabilities as people have grown more dependent on computers and the internet in all fields of life; including the economy, banking and the military. According to the views of a number of experts at the International Conference on Cyber Security held in London in 2011, a feverish race is on to advance the capabilities of cyber warfare now that several countries have gained the power to launch destructive attacks without the need to fire a single bullet.
I wonder where the Arab World stands in this turmoil. Are there any preparations and plans to confront this new intensifying danger?
(The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat on Jan. 20, 2012)