Both leaked and publicized security reports reveal that an electronic war is raging in the Middle East. It is true that the United States has the been the worldwide pioneer in electronic war and which it particularly waged against China and Russia, but we are now witnessing fierce regional web-based confrontations in which both Israel and Iran are involved and in which the United States is still party.
This kind of war has always seemed like a figment of Hollywood’s imagination and which does not in any way concern us, but not it is more real than we can ever imagine. Viruses like Stuxnet and Flame, dedicated to this type of conflict, attacked American banks, Iranian nuclear facilities, and Saudi oil companies.
But how does this war, which is getting fiercer and more enigmatic, take place?
Electronic war is an undeclared confrontation that happens quietly with no known fronts or no parties claiming responsibility for attacks. In this war, everyone pretends to be innocent. It is a war with no Geneva Conventions or rules of engagement.
The United States has lately provided Syrian and Iranian opposition with an alternative internet that can bypass national networks while Iran is persistent in providing its ally the Syrian president with al the technology required to impose an electronic blockade on his people like the Iranian regime has been doing in the past few years.
The year 2009 may have signaled the initiation of the Middle East electronic front. The Iranian regime became aware of the power of electronic space when youths from the opposition used the virtual world to organize rallies and garner popular support following the suppression of a then nascent Iranian “spring.” It then became necessary to make sure the opposition is deprived of this powerful tool and to devise new ways of countering activism.
Iran and other countries involved in this war find cyberspace a safe battlefield owing to the secrecy with which it is shrouded and the difficulty of determining the identity of the enemy.
Israelis and Americans are concerned about the progress Iran is making in electronic war, but it remains the most favorable form of confrontation for the time being. At least, it does not cost as much as traditional war whether financially or militarily.
Replacing traditional wars with electronic ones maybe a form of cowardice since involved parties remain in hiding and constantly fear the repercussions of real conflicts. Yet, electronic wars are devoid of any ethics, especially that it is impossible for any external parties to monitor them.
Virtual war crimes are not admitted by states and so are the damages they incur and the intentions behind them.
(The writer is a columnist for Al Sharq Al Awsat, where this article was first published Nov. 8, 2012)