Middle East: From Cold War to Cold Cyberwar

Since history is a mirror to the future, we will take a look at “Cold War” era and its effect on Middle East region in order to understand how “Cold Cyberwar” would affect us sooner or later.

Cold War era

There were two major players in “Cold War” the US and former USSR (Russia). The US led western world and the Soviet Union led the communist world. the US and Soviet Union were staring each other down and kept their allied States from causing major wars even when involved in localized military actions. Although the US and USSR didn’t want to introduce the nuclear weapons into conflict, they changed the geopolitical map across the world. Cold War might be considered “Cold” between US and USSR but it was “hot” in other States because these two superpowers fueled conflicts through proxies in Africa, Middle East, Asia, and Eastern Europe to apply their ideologies and agendas. Middle East region was important battleground to superpowers in “Cold War” and affected with conflicts between US and Soviet Union that shaped the new Middle East geopolitical map due to natural resources and oil in particular. For example, Egypt as the heart of the Middle East transformed loyalty from the USSR to the US in the middle of the Cold War “from Suez crisis to Camp David Accords” which could be considered the root of most Middle East political, economic, and religious conflicts. The fall of Soviet Union officially ended the “Cold War” and left world map with new bordersallied forcesnew superpowers, and new phenomena such as the so called “War on Terror” to fabricate a new US enemy. Even Policymakers in the US may consider “War on Terror” as comparable to “Cold War”, but it doesn’t seem to be true!

Tension and arming race between US and USSR during “Cold War” era resulted in advancements in science and technology which later shaped the 2nd half of the 20th century and introduced Space Race, Atomic Energy, Satellite technology, ICBMs, and finally “Information Age”.

Cyberspace Era

Cyberspace is widely considered new battlefield in addition to Land, Sea, Air, and Space. Cyberwarfare won’t be science fiction due to cyber conflicts, cyber intelligence, digital espionage, cyber terrorism, and other related cyber attacks. Although global powers struggle moved to the Internet, the advantage always lies with those who take the offense.
Many governments around the world started to realize the importance of cyberspace and tried to control it and utilize it in many ways from open source intelligence to surveillance. Let’s see how major players are dealing with cyberspace.

In 2010 UK Government considered threats from cyberspace a tier one priority as a genuine threat to national security. The published Strategic Defence and Security Review stated that “The Government will introduce a transformative national cyber security programme to close the gap between the requirements of a modern digital economy and the rapidly growing risks associated with cyber space. The National Cyber Security Programme will be supported by £650 million of new investment over the next four years, working to one national programme of activity with supporting strategies in other departments”.

Government of France stated that cyberspace is one of its areas of sovereignty as published in Frances’ Strategy document. There is also a leaked plan of Open Source Spying for French Military Strategy.

In January 2012 The United States announced in a US military document that US intended to treat cyberspace as a military battleground. US government may launch missiles and start military actions if attacked on cyberspace and the same thing declared by Israel..!

Richard A. Clarke, in his book “Cyberwar: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do about It”, he talks about the new weaponry of war. Wars used to be waged with steel, then firearms, and eventually nuclear weapons. Today’s stealth new weapons include hackers, bots, denial of service attacks and censorship policies.

As a sign of real Cyberwar, A former US intelligence official said that Stuxnet which infected Iran’s centrifuges in Natanz was implanted by an Israeli proxy- an Iranian, who used a memory stick. I stated before in one of my earlier reports that physical access is needed to infect the SCADA system in Iranian nuclear facility and that wouldn’t be possible without double agent.

Israel is also very active in cyberspace and has special Cyberwarfare capabilities, and they are preparing their own “Cyber Defenders” unit or (C4I-command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) which is part of IDF.

China is one of the big players in cyberspace weaponry as stated by many sources and documented by evidences. “In today’s information age, the People’s Republic of China has replaced and even improved upon KGB methods of industrial espionage to the point that the People’s Republic of China now presents one of the most capable threats to U.S. technology leadership and by extension its national security”, stated Dan Verton, Cyber Warfare Expert.

One of the latest congressional reports revealed that “Chinese capabilities in computer network operations have advanced sufficiently to pose genuine risk to U.S. military operations in the event of a conflict”. The complete report can be downloaded from this link.

An interesting story published by the guardian claims that the U.S. Departments of Defense and State, along with their Chinese counterparts, held two secret Cyberwar games last year that “were designed to help prevent a sudden military escalation between the sides if either felt they were being targeted.” The Guardian says that another is being planned for next May.

Finally, senior security figures have confirmed that Chinese spies hacked into computers belonging to BAE systems, Britain’s biggest defense company, to steal details about the design, performance, and electronic systems of the west’s latest fighter jet. Related video by NTDTV was published on the Internet.

The rising controversy over Chinese tech giant Huawei and their linkage to surveillance, espionage, and military ties allows politicians to politicize the issue and ban the company from getting government contracts in US, Australia, and the UK.

While both United States and China have all advanced technology in place to start Cyberwar, they will not use their destructive capabilities as it could have impact on both sides. This situation is the same as it was between US and Soviet Union in Cold War era. I believe that US and China will start to build their own allies and share cyber security expertise. One obvious example is the alliance of “Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran” vs. “US, NATO, and Israel”. Additional Nation States are moving forward to enter the Cyberwarfare era such as Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

In the Middle East there are no countries with Cyberwarfare capabilities except Iran which invests heavily in offensive and defensive capabilities in cyberspace. Surfaced news also reported that Iran used Cyber warfare capabilities to down US stealth drone.

Although there are many cyber attacks originated from within Middle East countries especially during Arab uprising, it shouldn’t be categorized under Cyberwar actions. These cyber attacks are considered “Hacktivism” rather than Cyberwarfare.

While the world is gearing up for Cyberwar and prepare for cyber conflicts in 21st century, Middle East countries still struggle with “Cybercrime legislation, cyber criminals, freedom of speech and information, mainstream media, and other globalization issues”.

History lessons tell us that not only Soviet Union was the loser of cold war, but also Middle East countries have been losers in post-cold war era and in the age of globalization. MENA Countries allied with the Soviet Union or US have lost their control over their resources through new re-colonization methods.

Instead of military actions, today’s superpowers will write malicious codes! 

Download edited version in VFAC Newsletter.