Gaza Conflict's Shadow 'Cyberwar'

Internet and social media are the latest battlegrounds in the clash.

January 2, 2009, 7:58 AM

Jan. 2, 2008— -- The latest battleground in the ongoing Gaza conflict exists beyond the reach of rocket fire and warplanes.

In the shadows of the escalating violence, both sides have turned to an arsenal of new media tools, such as YouTube, Twitter and the blogosphere, in an increasingly sophisticated 21st century propaganda war.

Since Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets began a week ago, an American cybercrimes expert said thousands of Israeli and American Web sites have been defaced by radical Muslim hackers. A broad spectrum of sites, including those belonging to small businesses, a media company and a cargo airline, have been hacked into and plastered with anti-Israeli and anti-American messages.

One site featured an illustration of a young man's bloody hand and the words: "Israel. … One day, all peoples of the world will wake up and when they wake up they will destroy your state and the USA…" Other sites broadcasted far more incendiary messages and graphic images.

The Israeli government ramped up a digital campaign of its own this week that features a YouTube channel to show footage of precision bombing and a Twitter feed to host discussion of the conflict.

"The blogosphere and new media are another war zone," Maj. Avital Leibovich, the head of the Israeli Defense Forces' foreign press branch, told the Jerusalem Post. "We have to be relevant there."

As social media and digital technologies shift battleground lines, experts say this week's cyberskirmishes underscore the need for the United States to quickly create a long overdue cybersecurity strategy.

Attacks like this week's -- that deface Web sites to spread propaganda -- may inflict relatively minimal damage, but experts warn that the coordination of the attacks suggests that greater threats are looming.

As soon as Israel began its bombing campaign last week, Gary Warner, the director of research in Computer Forensics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he noticed a drastic uptick in the number of defacements of Israeli sites.

In a 48-hour period, he said, anti-Israeli hackers based in Turkey, Iran and elsewhere violated the security of more than 300 Web sites and replaced the existing content with their own messages and images.

Muslim Hackers Growing

Although the sites featured images of injured children and inflammatory, expletive-laden language, Warner said the cyberattacks were strictly intended to spread propaganda.

"They are veiled and probably useless threats," he said.

Warner said that because he is working with law enforcement he is unable to share many specific details about the hackers' locations and profiles. But he and his colleagues have been monitoring several international groups for years, some of which coordinate about 10,000 hackers.

Although some of the hackers Warner monitors are world class, he said, many are low-skill recruits who are enlisted and then trained to perform "script kiddie" attacks. These hackers don't need real technical expertise, just enough know-how to run someone else's program, he said.

"It really doesn't take a lot of skill to become involved in this kind of attack, it just takes motivation," Warner told For those who want to support the cause but don't necessarily want to be a martyr, this is "a low-risk way to become involved in the conflict."

Hackers aren't necessarily interested in commandeering high-profile government or corporate sites. They just use a program that automatically searches for any site that's in Israel (and to a lesser degree right now, the United States). Any Israeli site successfully hacked, regardless of whom it belongs to, is considered a "win," he said.

The world has seen cyberpropaganda wars before, Warner said. After the collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a U.S. Navy plane in 2001, tens of thousands of U.S. sites were defaced by Chinese hackers blaming the United States for the incident. And, after the Danish publication of cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad in February 2006, Muslim hackers targeted Danish and American Web sites.

But, he said, training academies that teach recruits how to infiltrate Web sites are causing the numbers of Muslim propaganda hackers to significantly increase.

"More and more people are receiving training," he said. In these recent cyberattacks, he estimated that roughly one-third of the groups performing the hacks were previously unknown to him.

Israeli Military Takes to the Web

As Palestinian sympathizers have advanced their use of digital technologies to promote their cause, so too have the Israelis, though in very different ways.

On Monday, the Israeli Defense Forces launched its YouTube channel to post footage that highlights the precision of airstrikes on Gaza. The Israeli Defense Forces' Leibovich told the Jerusalem Post that the YouTube channel is intended to help Israel explain its actions.

Since the channel's launch, it has received 563,019 channel views and 8,544 subscribers.

Soon after the Israeli Defense Forces posted its first videos -- black-and-white aerial footage showing an Israeli Air Force strike on a rocket launcher and color ground footage of trucks bringing World Food Program supplies into Gaza -- YouTube took down some of the videos when they were flagged by other users as inappropriate. YouTube, however, later restored the videos.

On Tuesday, the Israeli Consulate in New York took an even deeper dive into the social media pool when it held a news conference via the micro-blogging service Twitter.

In an effort to engage younger people on the issue, for two hours, the consulate received and answered questions through Twitter, which allows people to broadcast 140 character messages, called "tweets."

For example, in response to a question about why the consulate had launched a Twitter feed, it responded: "Saw debate on Twitter and saw diff ppl w/unreliable info, Felt a good way to put official voice out there."

When another virtual conference attendee asked whether the steps being taken to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza were sufficient, the consulate replied: "no, the sole purpose of this opt. is 2 protect Isr's s.border & 2 allow ISR 2 live safely. this opt is indiferrent 2 politics."

The feed has attracted more than 3,000 followers since it launched Monday.

David Saranga, the consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York, conceded that a 140-character message does not provide much room to discuss an extremely complicated situation. But he emphasized that the Twitter feed is meant to be an entry point for interested individuals. His office maintains several political and general blogs about Israel that it can refer people to through the Twitter feed.

Saranga said his office has long supported new media, recognizing that as technology has changed the definition of war, media coverage of war must change with it.

"War today is not an army versus an army," he said, clarifying that the current situation involves an Israeli army and a terrorist organization that operates under the cover of darkness and infiltrates civilian populations to carry out its attacks.

Because current wars are diverging so significantly from traditional notions of war, "the definition of public diplomacy during times of war has changed as well," Saranga told

Outlets like Twitter give the Israeli government the opportunity, in real time, to answer specific questions, correct misperceptions and share successes and developments that may not be covered by the mainstream media, he said.

Rewriting the 'Info Ops' Textbook

Zachary Tumin, executive director of the Leadership for a Networked World Program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, affirmed that social media and digital technology are turning traditional thinking about military information operations on its head.

"The textbook is going to have to be rewritten," he said. "YouTube … Twitter, these are the kinds of new channels that everyone's going to have to step up and use."

Especially as the boundaries between nation states, rogue states and criminal organizations blur, he said, it's important to craft an approach to information technology that recognizes the newest opportunities and risks.

Referencing the cyberattacks against Georgia's Internet infrastructure during the recent Russia-Georgia conflict, he said that the Internet is wide open to potent risks from nonstate actors who have the power to interrupt the flow of information in and out of countries.

"In the Russia-Georgia cyberwar, we essentially saw nonstate actors essentially darken the Internet for Georgia as a nation," he said.

Key global and domestic infrastructures, such as electronic payment systems, have gone for too long unattended and remain vulnerable to similar attacks. The current conflict in Gaza is additional evidence that security in the cyberdomain is a requirement, he said.

"We don't have a cybersecurity strategy, and we desperately need one," Tumin said. "It can't come too soon."