12 December 2016

The online battlefield heats up

Emboldened by a deal with western countries that has lifted sanctions in exchange for a curtailment of its nuclear weapons programme, Iran has ramped up its meddling throughout the Middle East.

In Yemen, for example, Tehran has fostered ­chaos and instability through its support for Houthi rebels who have recklessly held the country hostage for years. Seemingly unsatisfied with encouraging direct violent conflict on the ground, Iran has turned to cyberwar with an audacious attack on critical infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. At the end of November, Iranian state-sponsored hackers targeted computer systems responsible for Saudi Arabian airports, banks and other critical internet architecture.

This is not the first attack by Iran on the Saudi internet. Hackers were able to take down servers of Saudi Aramco in 2012, but the timing of this attack raises several important issues.

Not only will American president-elect Donald Trump have to contend with the cyberwar unfolding in this region when he steps into office, but Iranian hackers appear to be gaining a new level of sophistication with their malware. This is especially worrying considering that Iranian hackers appear to be learning from the Stuxnet attack that was launched by Israel and the United States on their country’s nuclear programme between 2007 and 2009.

Stuxnet was a computer worm that reportedly destroyed centrifuges inside Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment centre. In recent years, we have learnt that the computer virus was part of a much larger attack that affected Iran’s air defence systems, communications and parts of its power grid.

After years of studying the code that was deployed against them, hackers supported by Tehran appear to be using it themselves.

A new era of internet warfare is well underway in this region and the best defence against these hackers is greater security cooperation among GCC countries. Given the scale of our critical industries, including aviation and power, the systems we set in place to protect them must continue to be the most advanced in the world.

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