The mid-November flare-up in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist organization that runs the Gaza Strip, marked another step in the burgeoning trend of involvement by nonstate cyber actors in conflicts.
Hours after the Nov. 14 Israeli drone strike that opened Operation Pillar of Defense, Jerusalem’s latest effort to suppress rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel, the hacker collective Anonymous responded with its #OpIsrael, a code name for its anti-Israel operations. The group’s post on AnonPaste said, “When the government of Israel publicly threatened to sever all Internet and other telecommunications into and out of Gaza, they crossed a line in the sand.”
Anonymous provided an electronic “Care Package for Gaza” with instructions for re-establishing Internet connections and launched massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against Israel.
World-renowned hacker The Jester fired back on Twitter: “Qassam.ps and hamasinfo.net TANGOS DOWN.” The self-styled “hacker for good” claimed to have taken down three pro-Hamas websites and a television station. Meanwhile, he reportedly bounced Anonymous attacks on him back at the perpetrators, abruptly ending the barrage.
This exchange added an exclamation mark to the arrival of warfare’s newest actor — the freelance cyber warrior.
Online support for this or that side in a variety of conflicts has grown with the popularization of the Internet. An early instance arose from the Chechen Wars of the 1990s, in which Chechen separatists mastered timely delivery of key messages, posted gruesome images of Russian atrocities and solicited donations to their U.S. bank account.
In 1999, Vladimir Putin, then Russian prime minister, remarked, “We surrendered this terrain some time ago ... but now we are entering the game again.”
During Putin’s 12 years in power, a unique Russian nexus of government, business and crime was institutionalized. In this environment, feeding upon an educational system strong in computers and mathematics and with disproportionately low job prospects, cyber crime thrived. Unsurprisingly, some cyber-criminal syndicates such as the now evaporated Russian Business Network became available for service to the Russian state.
In essence, Russia created a cost-effective cyber militia. When it acts on behalf of the Kremlin — such as attacking Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008 — it should be considered a state entity.
However, so long as Russian cyber criminals do not run afoul of Moscow’s foreign policies, they can likely hire themselves out as cyber mercenaries around the globe. Some believe they are already engaged on behalf of several parties to Middle East conflicts. And do not expect such lucrative prospects to attract only Russian cyber gangs.
Meanwhile, the growth of computer technology and the Internet was accompanied by worldwide explosions of online crime, social media and hacktivism. With 2.5 billion people connected to the Internet, some civilians have been drawn into conflicts.
Just as people spray-paint slogans on buildings, attend demonstrations, stone the embassies of perceived enemies, donate money or shelter fighters in their cause, some have come to use their computers and smartphones to support their side in a fight.
Our visual image of last year’s Tahrir Square uprising is of demon-strators chanting slogans, political speeches and a camel charge against the crowd. Nonetheless, the Egyptian revolution was dubbed a Facebook revolution. Those with the equipment and know-how flashed images and information around the world, encouraged each other and organized protests.
Most civilian involvement in electronic conflicts is just this — Facebook, Twitter or locally popular social media platforms used to organize and promote a cause. By the time of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008 foray into the Gaza Strip to suppress rocket fire, sides were trying to organize and influence online campaigns for hearts and minds.
However, Operation Cast Lead also saw massive DDoS attacks on Israeli sites, and state and nonstate actors around the world took notice. Israel searched for people with computer savvy to join its Unit 8200 intelligence corps. Meanwhile, other countries launched specialized reserve and auxiliary units to take advantage of computer skills found mostly among civilian communities. And the lesson was not lost on Hamas.
“We called on Palestinian software technicians in Gaza and all over the world to use technology to undermine Israeli websites,” Hamas’ so-called Interior Minister Islam Shahwan told Bloomberg Businessweek.
This time, Israel was prepared for what Finance Minister Yuval Steinetz told a Nov. 18 news conference were 44 million computer network attacks. Most, he said, apparently originated in Europe or the U.S., another indication of broadening nonstate cyber actor participation in conflicts.
States recruiting computer experts is just modern, creative use of reserve forces. Recruitment by terrorist groups, cyber mercenaries and freelance cyber warriors — sought or unsought — is a relatively new and growing phenomenon. Just as we learned to deal with television cameras and civilians on the battlefield, we must now reckon with nonstate cyber actors in just about every conflict.
David Smith, a senior fellow and Cyber Center director at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Arlington, Va.