Cyber wars: the Middle East, where mankind's first battles were recorded more than 3,000 years ago, has become the laboratory of a new form of warfare, conflict by computer in which nation can cripple nation without firing a shot.

Author:Blanche, Ed
Position:Current Affairs/CYBERWARS - Cover story


ON 15 AUGUST, AT 11.08 A.M., THREE QUARTERS of the computer system operated by Saudi Arabia's state oil company, Aramco, the largest energy production corporation in the world, was blacked out in a cyber attack, part of the new Silent War in the Middle East's seemingly endless conflicts. Some 30,000 terminals were disabled in seconds, their memories burned up in an attack the Americans unofficially blame on Iran, Saudi Arabia's arch rival for domination of the Gulf. It says a lot about the region's capacity for conflict that this emerging war of the future, which could bring nations to their knees without firing a shot, is also part of a religious schism that has divided Islam since the death of the Prophet Mohammed 1,300 years ago, with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran the chief protagonists.

Fortunately, Aramco's oil operations are separated from the company's internal communications system, so the damage did not affect the kingdom's production rate of around 10bn barrels per day.

If it had been disrupted, it would have caused economic shockwaves around the globe and sent the price of oil soaring, past the doomsday level of $200 per barrel, some say maybe even as high as $300.

The attack on Aramco, and soon after on Qatar's RasGas, a joint venture between US oil giant Exxon Mobil and state-owned Qatar Petroleum which operate the world's largest natural gas field, apparently was Tehran's retaliation for a suspected US cyber strike against the Iranian National Oil Company in May.

These events provided a chilling warning about how vulnerable the Gulf's energy industry, which provides one-third of the world's oil supply, is to this new form of warfare.

So, of course, is the United States' computer-controlled infrastructure. That prompted US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta to warn American business leaders, in unusually strong terms, on 11 October that the nation faces a "cyber Pearl Harbour" following the attacks on Aramco and RasGas, and the growing aggressiveness and technological advances of America's adversaries, Iran, China and Russia.

Officials say Iran's hand was seen in a little-known wave of cyber denial-of-service attacks on US financial institutions, including Citibank and Bank of America, in September.

For decades, the Middle East was the laboratory for opposing military doctrines and weapons, largely during the Cold War, with the Israelis using US arms and tactical manoeuvre warfare while the Arabs embraced Soviet weaponry and the ponderous concept of massive formations of tanks and infantry.

Now, Israel and Iran, its current main adversary, are locked in a new kind of combat.

Pandora's Box

It's a war conducted in cyberspace, largely invisible, without bloodshed, but infinitely more destructive than the missiles, tanks and supersonic jets that have been used in the past.

At the push of a computer key, an enemy's military, industrial, financial, commercial and social infrastructure-factories, power plants, hospitals, water supply, transportation and communications networks-can be knocked out by computer viruses in a matter of seconds.

As the Americans and Israelis step up their clandestine digital war on Iran as a tool of national policy, with Tehran, possibly through cyber proxies, apparently retaliating in kind and gearing up for an escalation, fears are growing that this kind of tit-for-tat strategic sabotage could eventually trigger an open war.

Indeed, the pace of development of cyber weapons, and their use, by both sides is accelerating to the point analysts fear the world may be headed towards what Britain's Guardian newspaper calls "mutually assured cyber-destruction."

"The most critical long-term danger posed by cyber warfare ... is 'as ye sow, so shall ye reap'," observed US analyst/bloggers Richard Silverstein and Iranian-born Mohammad Sahimi, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California and an expert on Iranian politics, in a recent analysis.

In other words, now that we've done it to the Iranians-who...

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