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If the Iranians Are Cyberterrorists, So Are Israelis

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University last week.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University last week.Credit: Tel Aviv University Cyber Week
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Defense Minister Benny Gantz owns the copyright to a new term: cyberterrorism. In a speech last Wednesday at Cyber Week, an annual international cybersecurity conference held at Tel Aviv University, he said “Iran is leading cyberterrorism.” He also added a threat, as though the frequent threats by Israel’s leaders, the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Mossad are insufficient: “Iran operates proxies in the cyber dimension as well. The new proxies are terrorists with a keyboard, who will be punished like other fighters in terrorist organizations.”

There is seemingly no limit to Israel’s desire to use the word “terror,” which took root in the Reign of Terror masterminded during the French Revolution by Maximilian Robespierre. With time the word took on the meaning of using violence, mainly against civilians, in order to create a climate of fear to achieve a political, military or personal goal. That's terms like “acts of terror” and “terror attacks” entered the lexicon.

Since Israelis in general and the political and military leadership in particular are in love with the word because it reinforces paranoia and victimhood, absurd derivatives have been added to ordinary terrorism: “diplomatic terrorism” and “legal terrorism.” They aim to deny the Palestinians the right to fight the occupation with diplomatic tools – to pressure or influence states to change their attitude toward Israel – or legal tools – to sue members of the Israeli military in the International Criminal Court. But these Palestinian efforts are not terrorism. They are its exact opposite. Someone who uses diplomatic or legal means, or even calls for a boycott against Israel, is not a terrorist. He is a diplomat or a legal scholar or a BDS activist, who actually refrains from terrorist activities.

Nor is the use of digital tools terrorism. It is a means, increasingly common in recent years, of achieving a large variety of goals. It helps criminals commit economic offenses such as monetary theft, fraud and sex crimes; it enables identity theft, impersonation and information theft. Cyber tools enable the dissemination of disinformation in an effort to distort reality and create “alternative truths.” They can influence public awareness in order to try to change election results, as Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to do in the 2016 elections in the United States, Britain, France and other Western democracies.

In the military and security context cyber must be discussed in terms of warfare rather than terrorism. Since World War I, war has been waged in three dimensions: on land, on sea and in the air. Less than 20 years ago the cybernetic dimension began to develop, and now another dimension has been added – artificial intelligence.

The potential damage to the enemy through cyberwarfare is tremendous. It can cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. If hospital computer systems are paralyzed, people will die. Instead of firing a missile at a power station, they hack its computers. If a nuclear power plant is shut down, it may emit radioactive fallout. If computers operating dams are interfered with, there will be flooding. If water companies’ computers are disabled, water sources can be poisoned, as the deputy commander of the IDF Military Intelligence Unit 8200 revealed last week during Cyber Week.

A uranium-enrichment facility in Natanz.Credit: HO - AFP

There is a reason why the U.S. president’s authority to order cyberwarfare against an enemy state is based on their authority to activate nuclear weapons. The damage from cyberwarfare can resemble that resulting from dropping a nuclear bomb, with one difference: Cyberwarfare leaves no traces. This is a war that is hidden from the eye, creating a gap for plausible deniability.

Israel and the United States (followed by China and Russia) were among the first countries in the world to understand that. Both were also the first to develop far-reaching technological capabilities. Israel’s Unit 8200 and the U.S.’s National Security Agency and the Cyber Command used cyberwarfare against Iran. This was in 2008-09, when the Stuxnet virus was introduced into the computers operating the centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz. The “poisoning” of the computers damaged one-third of Iran’s centrifuges. Since then Israel has improved its capabilities; computers in army bases, crucial civilian infrastructure and other facilities in Iran are being bombarded by cyberattacks attributed to the Mossad and Unit 8200. The movement of ships to the Bandar Abbas port was stopped, as was the operation of gas stations and train stations. Last week there was a report of serious damage to three steel manufacturing plants serving Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

When Iran realized that Israel and the United States were waging cyberwarfare against it, Tehran began to respond. U.S. banks were hit, as were computers of the Saudi oil company Aramco. Not a day goes by that Iran doesn’t attack Israel, although with very little success.

If what Iran is doing is terrorism, Israel’s activities are also terrorism. That's why it is hypocrisy on Gantz’s part to accuse Iran of cyberterrorism. Such statements are nonsense, and we would do well not to demonize our rival. After all, a clandestine war between Iran and Israel has been ongoing for about 20 years using all available tools, including cyberwarfare.

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