Current Affairs Blog

This blog aims to inform the reader about current affairs of interest to the Middle East in general and Israel in particular. Most articles are in multiple parts and will be published every 2 to 4 weeks. We invite authors to submit ideas for articles or draft articles to the editor by email at

Yom Kippur in Israel

We recently welcomed the Jewish New Year 5774 and fasted during Yom Kippur like many of our brothers and sisters around the world. But have you ever wondered what proportion of the Jewish population of Israel actually fasts during Yom Kippur?

About 10 years ago, when we lived in Israel, to our surprise and disappointment we had found out that for many Israelis Yom Kippur had become a day for family cycling. Many Israeli families had decided to take advantage of the near empty streets to go for a day of family cycling without the risks posed by the mayhem of every day Israeli traffic.

With this in mind, I was not expecting Yom Kippur observance to be particularly high amongst the Israeli Jews. I was pleasantly surprised when I found a recent survey conducted by BINA, a Tel-Aviv based organisation for promoting Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, which shows that most Israelis abstain from eating on Yom Kippur.

The survey shows that 73% of the Israeli Jews fast on Yom Kippur, which is significantly higher than I had expected. Of those who fast,  51% said they do so for ‘religious’ reasons, 22% ‘out of respect for tradition’, 14% ‘out of solidarity with the Jewish people’, and the rest for health reasons or as a challenge.

Further analysis of the results shows that:

  • Among the religious Jews over 95% fast, whereas amongst the secular Jews the percentage is around 47%,
  • Younger Israelis are more likely to fast than older Israelis,
  • People with academic degrees are less likely to fast than those with high school or lesser qualifications and
  • People in the lower income groups are more likely to fast than those with an average or high income.

I then came across another news article which stated that on Yom Kippur, which this year happened to be on Saturday, Magen David Adom paramedics tended to well over 300 people – 130 who fainted due to fasting and 207 who sustained injuries from cycling related accidents. It goes to show that on Yom Kippur it is 37% safer to fast than to cycle.

Ayalon on Yom Kippur

I wish you all a happy and peaceful New Year.

M. Ozdamar

Opinion – Why Iran Needs A Nuclear Capability

For the past decade the Western world has been expressing concern over Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear capability. Iran has maintained that it wants to acquire nuclear capability only for civilian purposes, so that they can generate electricity from nuclear energy, as many countries have been doing for the past 50 years.  Few believe in this assertion and, in the last three years, concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme have intensified, with frequent talk of military options as Iran inches its way towards acquiring the building blocks of a nuclear bomb and the missile technology to deliver such a nuclear device.

Israel in particular is very worried about Iran becoming a nuclear power in the region and sees a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. This is not surprising when we listen to Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, a well-known Holocaust denier, who believes that Israel has no right to exist. Prime Minister Natanyahu and President Obama have been stating that they will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power during their watch but, despite all the sanctions and the external pressures, Iran’s march towards acquiring a nuclear bomb seems to continue. In my articles entitled ’Cyberwar – Warfare for the 21st Century’ I told the story of how Iran’s nuclear facilities were attacked by computer viruses which destroyed more than one thousand centrifuges and slowed down their programme. The Iranians seem to be taking these knocks and carrying on regardless. The question is why? What is the motivation for carrying on?

One thing is for certain; they are not developing a nuclear capability so that they can wipe Israel off the map. This does not, however, mean that they would not try to do so if they were cornered. The real reason Iran feels it needs to have a nuclear capability is so that they can prepare themselves for the Islamic wars. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, the vast majority of which are Sunnis. Iran is the leader of the Shia minority, which represents around 7% of the world’s Muslims, most of whom live in Iran, Iraq and the surrounding areas. Throughout  history there has been no love lost between Sunnis and the Shia. The Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia and other regional powers, see the Shia as heretics and are deeply suspicious of the Iranian regime exporting their brand of religious fanaticism throughout the Muslim world. That is why we do not see Pakistan, a Sunni Muslim state, helping Iran to acquire the bomb; instead, the Iranians have to cooperate with the rogue regime in North Korea in order to achieve their aims.

The regime in Iran feels threatened by the Sunni world, from where their long term threat comes. Their bluster towards America and Israel is in reality a smoke screen created in order to have the Muslim public opinion on their side. As is well known, whenever a Middle Eastern regime is in trouble they attack Israel in order to unite Muslim public opinion behind themselves. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried it by firing 42 Scud missiles into Israel during the invasion of Iraq; luckily, Israel stayed out of the conflicts and he failed.

The Muslims often like to portray that they do not fight each other, but this is a myth. Throughout history Muslims have had wars with each other. Even in our lifetime we have witnessed the Persian Gulf war between Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led Iraq attacking the Shia Iran and nearly succeeding in defeating it. Up to half a million soldiers and civilians are believed to have died in that war. Indeed, some believe that this war was the catalyst for the Iranian regime to wake up and realise that they needed a nuclear shield against a hostile Sunni world.

The situation described here is reminiscent of the ‘Yes Minister’ episode, where Hacker and Sir Humphrey are discussing the need for Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Sir Humphrey says something along the lines of “Minister, we don’t need a nuclear deterrent because of the Russians, we need it because the French have got it”. Similarly, Iran, the leader of 100 million Shia Muslims, feels that it needs the nuclear deterrent to defend itself against the 1.4 billion hostile Sunnis. The Shia clerics of Iran believe that their efforts to export their brand of fundamentalism will sooner or later result in a major conflict with the Sunni world surrounding them, and that they must have the nuclear capability to deter their enemies and secure for Iran the leadership position it deserves. This, however, does not let the Israeli decision makers off the hook. If a major regional conflict involving Iran or its proxies arose, Iran would try to use its conventional and nuclear arsenal against Israel in an attempt to unite Middle Eastern public opinion in its favour, just like Saddam tried.

For the reasons described above, no amount of external pressure will deter the Iranian regime from acquiring the nuclear bomb capability. They feel that they need the nuclear capability in order to defend and even expand the Shia doctrine in the region and that, without it, they are open to overwhelming attack from the Sunni world. We in the West may think that a democratic, progressive Iran would be secure as a fully accepted member of the world’s nations without resorting to the supposed protection of a nuclear capability, but this view is not shared by the Iranian leadership. Thus Iran’s march towards the nuclear bomb continues, forcing regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey also to seek similar capabilities or at least protection from Iran’s nuclear threat, thus dragging the whole region ever closer to a nuclear conflict which no sane person would want.

© M. Ozdamar

Defending Israel – Antimissile Systems Come of Age (Part 2)

Part 1 presented an overview of Israel’s antimissile defence systems, including the Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow 2 and 3. Part 2 tells the story of Iron Dome, starting with how it works.


Figure 4: Iron Dome missile intercepting enemy missile

During the November 2012 attacks on Israel, Hamas used home-made Qassam rockets to target southern Israel and Iranian Fajr-5 rockets to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Figure 4 shows an Iron Dome battery firing a missile to intercept an incoming enemy missile. It is easy to see how close to the main population centres the battery is deployed, with the missile warfare being fought over the skies of the Israeli cities.

The Iron Dome antimissile defence system is made up of three main subsystems:

–          Detection and Tracking Radar (DTR) made by ELTA based in Ashdod. This is the eyes and ears of Iron Dome. It detects incoming rockets and missiles and passes key information about their trajectory to the next subsystem.

–          Battle Management and Control (BMC), developed by mPrest Systems, is the brain of Iron Dome. It is a software subsystem running on military-grade computers which calculates the impact point of the incoming missile and decides whether it constitutes a threat to a designated area, such as a population centre. If it is likely to constitute a danger then it takes action to intercept the incoming missile.

–          Missile Firing Unit (MFU) developed by Rafael is the iron fist of the Iron Dome. Under the control of the BMC it fires its intercept missile, called Tamir, to destroy the incoming missile.

A Wireless Communications System connects the three main subsystems to each other.

The main contractor for the whole project is Rafael which can be found on your left as you leave Haifa towards Akko on the main road.

During the November 2012 conflict, Hamas fired 2000 rockets at Israel, some of which penetrated and caused damage, including a few fatalities. Of these 2000 incoming missiles, around 420 were deemed to be dangerous and 84% were intercepted successfully. Why doesn’t the system intercept all incoming missiles? Why does it select which ones to intercept and which ones not? In order to answer this question we need to understand the economics of this warfare.

Iron Dome has been described as hitting a bullet with a golden bullet. Each Qassam rocket is estimated to cost around $500 (certainly less than $1000) to make and launch; the Fajr-5s from Iran are considerably more expensive and accurate than the Qassam. On the other hand, each Iron Dome missile costs something in the region of $40,000 to $50,000. It is not difficult to see that if Israel were to attempt to intercept every incoming missile it would soon become extremely costly. That is why the system has to be intelligent in deciding which incoming missiles to engage, thus keeping the operational costs down.

Figure 5: Tamir missile leaving its launcher

There is no doubt that, to date, Iron Dome has been an unqualified success and wonderfully showcases Israel’s superior technology, even more so because only six years ago the American experts were claiming that it could not be done.

The first Israeli studies into antimissile defence systems started in 2004 under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Dr Daniel Gold, Head of Research and Development, Israel Ministry of Defense and Israel Defense Forces. After analysing two competing technologies from the US and rejecting them, Dr Gold’s team drew up the first blueprint for Iron Dome in collaboration with the Israeli Defence industry participants. In 2005 Dr Gold asked Rafael to become the prime contractor and decided to commit $5M from his research budget if Rafael matched it, which they did. At this point no government money had been committed to this project and plenty of people in the military were convinced that it would not work.

Dr Gold was later criticised by auditors for starting an unauthorised project, but he and his team pressed on regardless. In 2006, having been subjected to nearly 5000 Hezbollah rockets fired from Lebanon towards its northern cities, the  Israeli government started to take antimissile systems seriously but still no new funds were forthcoming.  Dr Gold believed that an operational system would be needed within the next five years, and accelerated the programme despite the lack of financial support from Ehud Olmert’s government.

Finally, in 2007, the formal ‘go ahead’ was given for the development of the Iron Dome system, thanks to the support of the then Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, and $10M of government funds were given to the project. It was soon evident that to complete the project and deploy a sensible number of batteries would cost between $500M and $1B and the government approached the Americans for financial support.  The Americans sent an expert team to Israel to review the project; their report was damning, saying that Israel was wasting its money and should buy into an existing American system that Dr Gold’s team had already investigated and rejected.

By the end of 2007 the Israeli government was becoming more supportive and committed $200M to the project. The Iron Dome project was making rapid progress, and some veteran engineers were even called out of retirement to help with design and development. A significant turning point came with the election of President Obama in 2009. He believed in bolstering Israel’s defences in order to pave the way for a political settlement. To this end he favoured supporting projects such as Iron Dome. The Americans carried out another review of the project, and the progress made in the past two years convinced them that the Israelis could pull it off, as a result of which the US government contributed $200M to the project.

The first Iron Dome Battery went live in March 2011 near Beersheba and started shooting down missiles from Gaza almost straight away. As of April 2013, five batteries are operational, near Beersheba, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Netivot (between Beersheba and Gaza) and Tel Aviv. The government is looking to commit another $200M in order to deploy three more batteries and the military think that they need 13 batteries in all to defend the whole country from short-range missiles.

Dr Daniel Gold, who can be called the father of Iron Dome, is now retired from IDF and works in the private sector. He and Amir Peretz are like celebrities in Israel, being recognised and acclaimed for their contributions to this incredible achievement.

So, has Israel found the perfect answer to deal with future threats to its security? Regrettably, the answer has got to be ‘No!’. Hezbollah and Hamas are believed to have an arsenal of 60,000 missiles.  The instability in Syria is making the widespread use of chemical weapons far more likely. A solution like Iron Dome buys Israel time and gives additional options but cannot provide a fail-safe security umbrella. An Israeli source commented “Our enemies will continue to improve their missile technology. We cannot stand still, we have to keep innovating to stay one step ahead. We will continue to seek peace from a position of strength”.

It is poignant that I have completed this article on the day we are celebrating the 65th Anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel. Israel will continue to exist and thrive, despite all the odds, thanks to the ingenuity and determination of our Israeli brothers and sisters.

© Mahir Ozdamar (2013)

Defending Israel – Antimissile Systems Come of Age (Part 1)

In November 2012, we all watched with dismay as Hamas indiscriminately fired thousands of rockets at Israel over a six-day period. A few Israelis lost their lives and daily life was disrupted with frequent visits to the shelters, especially in the south of the country in towns like Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon.  A few rockets reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem but failed to cause any damage.

The events of November 2012 will above all be remembered for the extraordinary success of yet another technological miracle from Israel, the Iron Dome antimissile defence system. Iron Dome, according to reports released by the IDF, shot down about 84% of the incoming missiles it targeted.  The residents of Tel Aviv soon became so convinced of the outstanding capabilities of the Iron Dome that they stopped going to shelters, preferring to stand outdoors and watch the Iron Dome missiles streaking into the sky to bring down the incoming enemy missiles.

The success of the Iron Dome has made the whole world stand up and take note, especially these days, when we are subjected to daily threats of ballistic missile attacks from North Korea and their ally Iran. Up until now the accepted wisdom has been that the attacker has the advantage and that the defender cannot possibly deal with the incoming fire power. Iron Dome has shown that the tide is turning and that it is possible to defend effectively against enemy missiles. The success of Iron Dome has been such that a number of nations from conflicts zones, including the US, India, Singapore and South Korea, have shown interest in acquiring the Iron Dome system. It is believed that Singapore is the first country outside Israel to have already deployed Iron Dome.

In this article we take an in-depth look at Israel’s antimissile defences and we will tell the story of how Israel developed the Iron Dome system against all odds.

The Big Picture

Israel faces many threats from its neighbours and further afield. There is the immediate threat from terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas firing rockets into Israel. There is also the threat from Iran and Syria of long range ballistic missiles carrying conventional, chemical or even nuclear warheads.

Figure 1: Israel’s Antimissile Defence Systems

Figure 1 depicts Israel’s antimissile defence systems. As can be seen, Israel has been deploying four different systems in order to deal effectively with the threats it faces.

Iron Dome, which is the main subject of this article, has been developed to counter the threat posed by the short range (4km-70km) Qassam rockets built in Gaza, the more sophisticated Fajr-5 missiles provided to Hamas by Iran and the Katyusha rockets used by Hezbollah. Each Iron Dome battery provides a defensive umbrella of about 70km in radius. Iron Dome became operational in March 2011.

David’s Sling is a medium to long range (40km-300km) missile defence system being developed jointly with the US to address the threat posed by Zalzal-2 rockets located in Lebanon and the various missiles in Iran’s arsenal. This system uses a two-stage surface-to-air interceptor missile to destroy the incoming missile. The system was successfully tested in November 2012 and is expected to go into service later in 2013 or early 2014. It will replace the Patriot batteries provided by the United States.

Figure 2: Test firing of David’s Sling Missile

 Arrow  is a family of anti-ballistic missile defence systems. Arrow 2 has a range of (200 km-1000 km) whereas Arrow 3 has a range of up to 2000 km. They are designed to deal with any possible threat presented by surface-to-surface missiles acquired by the Arab countries or Iran (e.g. Shahab-2). Arrow 1 was first developed in the early 1990s and was replaced with the smaller Arrow 2  from 1996 onwards. New versions of Arrow 2 are being developed all the time; the current version under development is called Block-5. Arrow 3 is a new system being developed together with the US for intercepting ballistic missiles in outer space.


Figure 3: Arrow 2 missile

In part 2 we will concentrate on the story of the Iron Dome antimissile system.

© Mahir Ozdamar (2013)

Opinion – 8 April 2013, A Memorable Day

8 April 2013 will be remembered for two pieces of sad news; that of the passing of Lady Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the passing of Sam Marks z”l, the life President of the Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation.

The news of the death of Lady Thatcher at the age of 87 has generated a wide range of reactions across the world. Whilst widely admired at home and across the world, nevertheless, Lady Thatcher had polarised public opinion at home and had made many enemies on the left of the political spectrum. She is widely credited with turning the United Kingdom from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ into a thriving and world leading economy, in the process changing the social and political structure of the country for ever. She targeted the trade unions, the inefficient industries that believed that it was their right to be protected from real world economics by government handouts, she encouraged individuals taking responsibility for themselves and their families. Whether you loved her or loathed her, you could not ignore her.

So what was her posture towards the Jews and Israel? For many years she was the MP for the Finchley constituency in north London which is known to have a large middle class Jewish presence. It is easy to overestimate the influence of this on her politics. The economic and social course she set for her country is exactly the one within which Jews have thrived by demonstrating personal endeavour, hard work and enterprise on a level playing field. Her legacy is influencing the present day Israeli society where high tech industry has thrived and has become world class when the restricting shackles of government intervention was removed.  She was a staunch supporter of Israel and did not hesitate to voice her admiration for the achievements of this young democracy. However, she was also forthright when she did not agree with the policies of the then Begin government but throughout her time in office she remained a true friend of Israel as reflected by the warm tributes paid to her by PM Benjamin Netanyahu and by President Shimon Peres.

Sam Marks z”l, on the other hand, did not divide opinion amongst the Jewish Community. He was a universally loved and much admired leader of our community whose passing leaves a void that cannot be filled. Sam, together with his dear wife Hilda, dedicated himself to the well being of the Jewish community in the UK and in Israel, supporting good causes with generosity, compassion and humility. His legacy will continue to benefit the lives of many, both here and in Israel, for many years to come. We send our condolences to Hilda, their son David and daughter Rochelle, grandchildren, great grandchildren and the whole family circle.

© Mahir Ozdamar

Opinion – Why Good Relations with Turkey Matters

It took many people by surprise when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Turkish PM Erdogan on 22 March to apologise for the killing of nine Turkish nationals on board the Mavi Marmara in 2010. It appears that a deal was brokered by President Obama during his visit to Israel and the call was made from Ben Gurion Airport just before Obama left for Jordan.

The Israeli apology has been hailed as a major foreign policy success by the Turkish press and politician alike, whereas in Israel it has divided opinion. The Israeli defence forces and security services have come out in support of the move but the extreme right-wing Israeli politicians have taken the view that Israel should not have apologised. Those who do not support the apology point to the Parker report commissioned by the UN after the incident which stated that Israel had the legal right to take action. However, the same report also criticised Israeli soldiers for using excessive force. As is often the case, each side talked up those parts of the report that suited their purposes.

So, what is the deal? Turkey had made three major demands before they would agree to normalise relations: a full apology, reparations to be paid to the families of the deceased persons and the lifting of the Gaza blockade. Netanyahu’s apology for ‘operational mistakes’ has been accepted; discussions are underway to agree the amount to be paid to the families (between $100,000 and $1,000,000 per person – a joint committee will be set up to agree the amount) and Israel has agreed to review the extent of the blockade based on the circumstances on the ground. For their part, the Turkish Government has agreed not to continue with the court action against the Israel Defence Forces personnel.

Why was it important to reach a deal? What is in it for the parties involved? A lot has changed in the Middle East since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The so called ‘Arab Spring’ has destabilised the region; the power of the Islamists is on the increase; the uprising in Syria has been going on for more than two years; the threat from Iran and its proxies is ever present. It is easy to see why the United States wanted the relations between Israel and Turkey to be normalised. It could not allow its two closest allies in the region to be at each other’s throats. Full cooperation between Israel and Turkey benefits the West and NATO. Israel needed the relations to be normalised so that Israel, Jordan and Turkey can cooperate on a daily basis to manage their respective borders with Syria and prevent dangerous materials such as chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. Furthermore, Israeli Air force and Army had been keen to resume training in the Turkish air space and joint exercises with their Turkish counterparts in order to better prepare for any future hostilities with Iran. For its part, Turkey had grown warmer to the idea of normalising relations with Israel, having realised that hostility towards Israel had won them no new friends in the Arab world but had damaged their standing with the West. An Israeli source commented “We cannot operate in isolation in the region; we need strong regional as well as global allies”.

Since the start of the reconciliation process, Israeli defence contractors have signed new contracts, and security and defence cooperation is underway. On 24 March the Turkish media interviewed President Shimon Peres, who said “I can think of one thousand reasons why Turkey and Israel should be friends and I cannot find one reason why they shouldn’t be”. Right now, what is driving the reconciliation is practical good sense rather than love between the two sides. Netanyahu can justifiably feel that he has made the right call by putting the interests of the country ahead of political pride and posturing. Let’s hope that common sense continues to prevail on both sides so that they can work together to chart a safe course through these troubled and dangerous times for the region.

© M. Ozdamar (2013)

CYBERWAR – Warfare for the 21st Century (Part 3)

Part 3

Since the discovery of Stuxnet in 2010, further investigation has revealed that earlier versions of this malware have been in existence. Therefore it is concluded that Stuxnet, Duqu and Flame have been in operation possibly since 2005, collecting information and preparing to strike at the chosen moment. It is entirely possible that their developers used Duqu and Flame to collect information about their target systems before unleashing Stuxnet. It is also believed that an earlier version of Stuxnet failed to cause much damage but the latest version (called Stuxnet 1.0) caused considerable damage to Iran’s centrifuges. In January 2010, the IAEA reported that Iran had removed and disposed of between 1000 and 2000 centrifuges without giving any reason. It is now believed that this was the result of the damage caused by Stuxnet.

In the past three years the world has become aware of a new kind of warfare we call cyberwar. This war is not fought by armies, navies and air forces using guns, tanks, ships and aircraft, but by computer engineers sitting behind desks using their brainpower and expertise day after day. The effects, however, can be as devastating as the damage caused by conventional armed forces.

The discovery of Stuxnet, Flame and others like them marks a turning point in the way future geopolitical conflicts will be fought. They bring science fiction, once the domain of Hollywood movies, to everyday life with all its potential consequences.

People have been arguing whether the tens of millions that must have been spent in developing these malware were well spent, whether they have managed to delay Iran’s nuclear programme in any significant way. We probably will not know the answers to these questions for many years to come, just as we will not know how many more of these worms are out there doing their clandestine work until they are discovered.

What is clear, however, is that Stuxnet, Flame and others like them have opened a new frontier in geopolitical conflict and every nation-state will have to ready their defences against this threat. Nation-states are not the only ones showing a keen interest in these technologies. Sophisticated criminal organisations are also seeing what is possible and exploring how to benefit from them – a truly worrying prospect. Indeed, In October 2012, the US defence secretary Leon Panetta warned of the ‘cyber threat’ faced by the US and the damage it could cause not only to the US companies but also to infrastructure by poisoning water supplies, derailing trains, disabling power supply, etc., and asked US industry and educational institutions to prepare themselves to face this new threat.

As we have seen, cyberwar is an important 21st century battleground, the soldiers of which are the brightest computer scientists from the best universities. Let’s make sure that we all support the Israeli universities that are working day and night to ensure that Israel is protected from cyber-attacks from her enemies and remains the most advanced force in fighting this new war.

© M. Ozdamar (2013)

CYBERWAR – Warfare for the 21st Century (Part 2)

Part 2

When, in June 2010, a small group of engineers from a Belarusian antivirus company discovered the existence of the computer worm called Stuxnet, they were astounded by the sophistication of this software. To begin to understand the sophistication of this worm, let us start with its size. It is only 500 kilobytes (500kb) in size, yet it performs astonishingly complex functions as we will see later. To put it into context, the average size of a single digital photograph is 2000kb; Stuxnet which is a quarter of the size of a digital photo has managed to bring chaos to 14 industrial sites!

Stuxnet works in three phases. First it targets Microsoft Windows computers and networks, repeatedly replicating itself. Then it searches for an industrial software developed by Siemens called Step 7, which is used to program industrial control systems that operate equipment such as the centrifuges used in uranium enrichment. Third, it interferes with the equipment controllers and takes over the control function without the human operators of the machines realising what is going on. It is believed that, through this process, Stuxnet has succeeded in destroying some centrifuges by causing the fast spinning centrifuges to tear themselves apart. Iran has not confirmed or denied that some centrifuges have been damaged due to Stuxnet.

In each stage of the operation summarised above, Stuxnet shows remarkable capabilities, starting from the first stage of finding its way into the first Windows computer, probably through a USB stick drive. How does it evade detection by the antivirus software on the computer? Stuxnet achieves this by providing a Windows digital certificate which claims that it comes from a reliable company, thus evading detection by antivirus systems.

Once safely active on the first computer, the worm checks whether the computer is part of the industrial control system made by Siemens. Iran uses such systems to run high-speed centrifuges to enrich uranium. If the system is not a target, the worm does nothing. If it is, it accesses the Internet and downloads the latest version of itself. The worm is now ready to proceed to take control of the target system, exploiting security vulnerabilities as yet not identified by the developers of these systems. Initially the worm monitors the operations of the target system and sends information to its handlers. Then it uses the information gathered and the commands received from its handlers to take control of the centrifuges, making them spin faster and faster until they destroy themselves.  The beauty of it is that, whilst all this is going on, the worm provides false information to the human operator of the centrifuges in order to make them think that everything is all right until it is too late.

How was it that a Belarusian company came to discover the existence of Stuxnet?  The company was approached by an unidentified client to determine why its industrial machines were restarting over and over again. The investigation led to a piece of ‘malware’ (malicious software) that had a digital certificate. This fact caused alarm in the antivirus detection community, which hitherto had not checked software with a legitimate certificate. Further investigation revealed that this particular malware was designed to attack Siemens control software.

As the antivirus community investigated Stuxnet further and cast a wider net, it became clear that Stuxnet was not a one-off but was likely to be one of a family of malware including Duqu, Flame and Gauss. Duqu is a worm discovered by Budapest University in September 2011, following the notoriety of Stuxnet. Like Stuxnet, it targets Iran’s nuclear programme, aiming to steal information held on computers and communicate it to its handlers. Flame can be described as an electronic spy which records everything going on at a computer (including Skype calls, screenshots, keystrokes, network traffic, etc.) and communicates the information to its handlers. It was discovered in May 2012 by Kaspersky, a Russian antivirus company, Budapest University and Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team. It has been described as one of the most sophisticated malware ever discovered. It had infected computers in the Middle East, mostly in Iran and some in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt and even Israel. Once it was identified, its authors sent out a ‘kill’ command deactivating and erasing the Flame worm. Finally Gauss, found in July 2012, also appears to have had surveillance and information gathering as its main purpose, this time targeting bank accounts in Lebanon, which would provide extremely useful information to a nation-state for obvious reasons.

In Part 3 of this article we will examine the consequences and the future of the 21st Century cyberwar.

© M. Ozdamar (2013)

CYBERWAR – Warfare for the 21st Century (Part 1)

Part 1

We have all heard of computer viruses. We often get emails from friends and family warning us not to open this or that message or to ignore a message with such and such in the title. Viruses can, if opened inadvertently, infect your computer and can cause the computer to malfunction or worse still send confidential information held in your computer to some criminal organisation, often overseas.

Until June 2010 the world worried about computer viruses and the damage they can cause to our increasingly computer-controlled world. Since the advent of mass computing in the 1980’s the banking sector has been a prime target for hackers, closely followed by the defence establishments. Indeed, there are many well-known stories, including the recent one of a lone hacker from Essex hacking into Pentagon’s computers, thousands of miles away, in order to find out what they hold in their files about alien encounters.

The results of maliciously accessing computers would be even more devastating to the wider population if the computers of utility companies were targeted. For example, imagine a criminal organisation targeting the computers of a water utility, which controls the sanitisation of water for a large part of the country. By changing the computer programs they could disrupt the sanitisation process, thus disrupting water supply or worse still, leaving untreated water to be delivered to the users.

Thankfully, there are a number of well-developed computer programs, called anti-virus software, which are designed to protect our computers against viruses. Problems arise when computer users do not keep their anti-virus software up-to-date and use it regularly. Furthermore, we are all lazy about managing our passwords, changing them regularly, etc. This extends even to those people at the Pentagon, responsible for protecting the secrets of America’s defence department.

However, none of what we have seen for the past 30 years can be considered as cyberwar. In June 2010, the engineers from a Belarusian antivirus company discovered the existence of a new threat, a computer worm called Stuxnet. A computer worm is different from a computer virus in that whereas a computer virus relies on an unsuspecting user installing a piece of software containing the virus and then inadvertently sending it to someone else, the computer worm can find its way from computer to computer using local computer networks or over the Internet, infecting and controlling an ever growing number of computers in the process.

The Stuxnet worm astounded the computer world and brought a new threat hitherto confined to science fiction to our everyday world. It transpired that the Stuxnet worm had infected 14 industrial sites in Iran, including their uranium enrichment plant, causing serious damage. It soon became clear that the Stuxnet worm was so advanced in its design and implementation that it could only have been developed through state-sponsorship; in other words, it was too sophisticated to have been developed by private individuals or organisations. Here what we have is a nation-state targeting the facilities of another nation-state with the intention of causing harm. This is why we call it cyberwar rather than another computer virus or hacking attack.

There are few countries in the world which possess the technology and skills to execute such a task. This, coupled with the nature of the target, has pointed the finger at Israel and the United States as the state sponsors of Stuxnet. Here we have two countries in the Premier League of computer technology, closely followed by Russia, Belarus and a few others. As we have come to expect, Israel has neither acknowledged nor denied involvement in the development and the unleashing of Stuxnet, but among experts there is little doubt that Israel has had the motivation and the skills to have carried out this audacious attack.

In Part 2 of this article we will explore the background to Stuxnet, how it works, how it infected Iran’s industrial facilities; in Part 3 we will consider the future of cyberwar , what it means for the Middle East and the wider world.

© M. Ozdamar (2013)