Syria’s cyber retaliation signals new era of warfare

The latest disruption to U.S. media outlets dealt out by the Syrian Electronic Army may be a precursor for warfare in the digital age.

One aspect of the frontal assault that ought not be overlooked is the timing: The SEA, which supports strongman President Bashar al-Assad, knocked down websites of the New York Times, Huffington Post and Twitter, a few hours after US officials indicated the US may launch missile strikes against the Syrian government.

And now a person claiming to speak for the group has stepped forward to tie those attacks directly to the rising likelihood of U.S. military action in response to al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people.

A self-described operative of the SEA told ABC News in an e-mail exchange: “When we hacked media we do not destroy the site but only publish on it if possible, or publish an article [that] contains the truth of what is happening in Syria. . . . So if the USA launch attack on Syria we may use methods of causing harm, both for the U.S. economy or other.”

So you have the world’s largest superpower rattling a saber at a fractious third-world nation — and supporters of the entrenched regime retaliating by tossing a noisy grenade, threatening to use heavier cyber ordinance, observes Tim Sample, vice president of special programs at think tank Battelle Memorial Institute.

“The issue with the New York Times attack is whether it was just a nuisance or a capabilities test,” Sample says.

Sample and other geo-political experts are watching close to see how this latest iteration of escalating military conflict unfolds.

Take a scenario in which the U.S. were to launch a precision strike on Syrian chemical facilities. This might cause the SEA, perhaps in conjunction with some allies, to join forces and launch a wide scale cyber attack on U.S. media, e-commerce sites and financial institutions.

The websites of major U.S. commercial concerns are anything but robust, as recent outages over the past 10 days at the Nasdaq stock exchange, Amazon and Goldman Sachs attest. The official word is that these disruptions were unrelated to any cyber attacks.

Context: How the Nasdaq outage resembled a denial of service attack

But what if the SEA is capable of conducting attacks that go deeper and are more than a mere nuisance? If that were to occur some interesting questions would be raised.

“Do we take down Syria with our own cyberattack, especially when we are so vulnerable to one based on our reliance on the Internet?” Sample wonders.

And then there is the not insignificant matter of the global geo-political fallout. Should the US engage in open cyber warfare and, say, knock Syria off the Internet? If American were to take that course, what reaction would that trigger in Russia and China, or even the EU, for that matter?

And what about the fact that the SEA claims to support al-Assad, but is not an officially recognized part of the Syrian government? What international legal ramifications come into play due to this wrinkle?

Sample opines that the rising use of cyber weaponry in nation-state conflicts underscores the need for the US to set a national policy for engaging in cyber warfare.

“It is important to have a national doctrine – to let others know where we are going, what we stand for in the era, and the consequences of actions taken against us, be they military, economic, or influences to our free press,” Sample says. “Today, unfortunately, I believe we are in the ‘we can reason with everyone’ stage. That has rarely worked for us as a country on a grand scale in the face of growing antagonism or threat.”

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