Israel Retaliates To A Cyber-Attack With Immediate Physical Action In A World First
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has launched a physical attack on Hamas in immediate response to an alleged cyber-assault. The IDF hit a building in the Gaza Strip with an airstrike after claiming the site had been used by Hamas cyber operatives to attack Israel’s cyber space.
The IDF claimed it stopped the attack online before launching its airstrike on Hamas. It claims it has now wiped out Hamas’ cyber operational capabilities.
Israel Defense Forces said via Twitter: “We thwarted an attempted Hamas cyber offensive against Israeli targets. Following our successful cyber defensive operation, we targeted a building where the Hamas cyber operatives work. HamasCyberHQ.exe has been removed.”
It could mark a change in modern cyber warfare tactics, given that it is the first time a cyber-attack has been met with immediate physical retaliation. However, as ZDNet points out, the US is still the first country to respond to cyber-attacks with military force. In 2015, the nation launched a drone strike to kill the British national in charge of ISIL’s hacker groups Junaid Hussain. Hussain had also dumped personal details of US military forces online.
This latest attack is different to the 2015 US retaliation: The IDF apparently reacted immediately, rather than planning its response over weeks or months.
But Ian Thornton-Trump, security head at AmTrust Europe says: “Israel would not have targeted the building and presumably those in it without a lot more due diligence and intelligence than ‘a cyber-attack was coming from the building’.”
He points out that in the ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) process, the target would be developed and verified with “additional and quite likely non-cyber information”.
He adds: “Part of military strategy involves making the enemy believe you have overwhelming capabilities: it’s part psyops and a good strategy.”
The action by the IDF shows how concerned nation states are about real-world effects of cyber activities, says Philip Ingram MBE, a former colonel in British Military Intelligence. He agrees with Thornton-Trump and says the incident has a number of layers.
“It demonstrates how Hamas saw the potential use of cyber in its fight with Israel,” he says. “But the speed and lethality of the Israeli response shows how Israeli intelligence capabilities had already recognized the potential threat and most likely had already gathered detailed targeting intelligence.”
“Aside from this particular incident, it also sends a clear message to any state or non-state actor that threats promulgated through cyberspace can and will be met with a physical response if appropriate. This is an inevitable escalation against a very real threat.”
Ingram points out that operations in cyber space “are not governed by the rules of warfare”. However, the Geneva protocols and international law do cover a response occurring in the physical domain. “There have been attempts to bring in rules for cyber warfare with the Tallinn Manual on the International Law applicable to Cyber Warfare, but this has not been ratified or adopted by any nation or multinational organization.”