New battles are raging on the computer networks of the Middle East and conflict zones around the world — a kind of warfare experts say is redrawing the lines of combat. Palestinians last month bombarded networks of the Israeli foreign ministry and parliament with a flood of information that led ministry computers to crash for several hours.
The same week, Israeli hackers penetrated the Web site of the anti-Zionist guerrilla group Hizbollah, altering it to greet visitors with an Israeli flag and strains of their country's national anthem. Defense experts say this is not the first time mortal enemies have turned to the Internet to wage war, but rather marks the advancement of a new kind of battle.
Three-star German general Walter Jertz, who was a NATO spokesman during the Kosovo war, said that the conflict in the Yugoslav province was the first to introduce cyberspace as a battlefield. "The exchange and manipulation of data and information has become a part of psychological warfare," Jertz told a symposium held by the German federal intelligence service (BND) this month.
August Hanning, head of the BND, said that governments around the world were training hacker-soldiers, capable of doing anything from harassing opponents to spying and launching attacks by remote control on vital infrastructure.
There have been a number of spectacular reported cyber assaults. Serbian propaganda services knocked out NATO computers for several hours during the Kosovo war last year by bombarding some 10,000 e-mail messages at its headquarters and jamming networks. Burma's military government last year targeted an e-mail virus at political opponents who use the Web.
US government departments were hit by an electronic blitzkrieg they thought was coming from the New York-based offices of Falun Gong, the Chinese spiritual movement that Beijing has tried to crush. Authorities eventually found traces that led back to China's Ministry of Public Security, which had apparently tried to incriminate the group.
Hackers early last year repeatedly tried to crack military computers at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to attain information pertinent to troops on patrol over Iraq and in Bosnia. That sophisticated attempt was reportedly coordinated with computer networks as far a field as Canada, Norway and Thailand. Although they were unable to penetrate the classified material, the incident set political alarm bells ringing in Washington.
Because there are no binding security standards among leading nations to deal with the threat of Internet attacks and cyberterrorism, the United States has taken the lead in developing early-warning systems.
Mike Wermuth, project director of domestic terrorism at a US think-tank, the Rand Corporation, said that American government agencies had been coordinating anti-cyberwar efforts for about three years and were now better protected.
"Three years ago we were probably just naked in our defense mechanisms," Wermuth told AFP. "In the last year and a half, other efforts were undertaken that have vastly improved defensive mechanisms against attacks. But is there still more that needs to be done? Absolutely."
Defense experts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt wrote a report for the Rand Corporation in which they envisioned war of the future as a scenario in which "small, highly mobile forces, armed with real-time information from satellites and battlefield sensors, will strike with lightning speed in unexpected places".
They compared the future armies to Mongols of the 13th century who, although outnumbered by opponents, were able to dominate with their supremacy in battlefield information. "Institutions can be defeated by networks, and it may take networks to counter networks," they concluded. "The future may belong to whoever masters the network form."
Some defense experts say that as dangerous as cyberattacks can be, they present an alternative to the bloody conflicts, which cost the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians each year. Former NATO commander Wesley Clark said after the Kosovo war that attacks on the Serbs' computer networks might have stopped their ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo Albanians sooner and caused fewer casualties.
In an age in which western countries are unwilling to accept loss of life among their soldiers, Clark said that campaigns led from the desktop would keep troops out of harm's way while bringing a powerful new weapon to bear against enemies. — (AFP, Berlin)
© Agence France Presse 2000
By Deborah Cole
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)