Authors: Asaad H. Almohammad, Ph.D. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]here is a recurring scene of cheerful crowds in Iraqi towns and city that have been liberated from ISIS; older women, men, and young adults exhaling cigarette smoke and grinning as they relish in this recent regained symbol of liberty and freedom. There was a moment circulated on social media of an older woman cursing ISIS on camera after her town was liberated by Kurdish-led forces. She didn’t hold back! One grievance that she ranted about more than any was ISIS’ ban of cigarettes and smoking.
On the evening of March 30, 2017 we communicated with some of our contacts in Raqqa. A number of trusted sources reported something extraordinary was taking place in the city: more and more people were smoking in public. If it were an act of defiance, it would have come at a steep price—at least 16 lashes, a prison sentence, and a fine. Smoking was not only about defiance; it was also about sating their long-repressed cravings for nicotine in the absence of an enemy that forbids it. Our sources confirmed that ISIS cadres are rarely seen in the city. It was also reported that ISIS had shut down all of its directorates there. It seemed that civilians were beginning to experience some sense of normalcy with the absence of ISIS operatives at every corner.
Since the battel to retake Tabqa dam started in March 2017, ISIS has reacted in unexpected ways. One of these reactions could be sensed by their minimal presence in the city of Raqqa, Syria. However, this limited presence resembles a similar trend that occurred in 2014. Then, ISIS was on the retreat, or at least it appeared to be, when al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-sham, and affiliates of the Syrian army were battling it to retake Raqqa. Notwithstanding their efforts, the aforementioned groups lost that battle against ISIS. ISIS fighters carried out significant attacks from the outskirts of Raqqa city, weakening their rivals, and ultimately defeating them. After that battle, ISIS grew stronger with a greater presence in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor, Syria. Currently ISIS does appear to be on the retreat in Raqqa governorate. Multiple sources have confirmed that they rarely see any ISIS operatives in Raqqa, including both foreign and local ISIS members. One source reported hearing ISIS members who were fleeing the city asking civilians to “Forgive us.” Other sources confirmed that injured ISIS members who were involving in the fighting in Rif Dimashq governorate were only in the city to receive medical treatment.
However, one might argue that ISIS is using the same strategy that previously gave its adversaries the illusion of winning, while actually out manuevering them. It would be shocking for one of the most ruthless non-state actors to flee its declared capital without a fight. In two separate investigations, one on the significance of the Tabqa Dam and the other on ISIS security forces (forthcoming), evidence points to some degree of readiness and preparation to relocate its stronghold in Syria from Raqqa to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor.
Trusted sources from the city of Raqqa reported that between the second half of February and first half of March 2017, ISIS security forces pressured the directorates of public services, electricity, communication (landline and satellite internet), agriculture, water, and finance to expedite the collection of all outstanding bills, fines, and taxes, according to one source within one month’s time. It was reported that other directorates that functioned within this same controlled territory experienced the same pressure. However, unlike the directorates mentioned earlier, we were not able to directly confirm that this same pressure was applied to the other Raqqa directorates. For the specified directorates, other trusted sources confirmed the reports and added that ISIS security forces assigned a financial inspector to oversee the implementation of this order. Additionally, the inspector was reported to lead a team of members from ISIS security forces. This team was tasked with listing the details of those involved in the collection of outstanding taxes and fines with each directorate. Members of the team made sure that all collected money was reported and that each directorate didn’t exceed a month to fully implement the order.
The inspector and his team were reported to meet at the Wali’s (ISIS governor’s) office every day after 5 p.m. to report to the leadership of ISIS security forces and the Wali of Raqqa. In addition, the team and inspector assisted another group formed by ISIS security forces to transport the collected money. On an almost weekly basis, the group provided security to move money collected by the directorates within Raqqa city to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor. On one occasion ISIS security forces managed to move just over USD $20 million. One source described the operation, that ISIS security forces carried out an operation to move such large amounts of money. The source added that ISIS used three taxies, two medium agricultural trucks, and three pick-up trucks to move the money. The pick-up trucks provided security and were full of ISIS fighters. The agricultural trucks had civilians and their belongings along with two armed ISIS fighters in each truck. The taxis transported the cash and had women and children in them.
The timing, pressure, and detailed workforce involved in implementing the financial collections order within Raqqa city indicate some degree of urgency. It is unclear why ISIS made such a move. Raqqa city is not only an ISIS stronghold in militant terms but also functions as the center of its financial operations. Its grip on the financial aspects of the provision of public services, oil and gas, real estate, and dealing in stolen goods (e.g., vehicles) has allowed the group to finance its operations within Syria, Iraq, and abroad.
To that effect, ISIS might be moving its cash reserves to reduce the losses it might endure if the American forces and their Syrian allies manage to succeed in their operations within Raqqa city. Another justification could be the increasing pressure of forces around Raqqa governorate. In this sense, ISIS might be planning to relocate its financial center to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor. In either case, ISIS loses much of it’s maneuvering power if its financial reserves and operations are eliminated. To execute this, American forces and their Syrian allies may need to consider simultaneous attacks, not only in Raqqa but also in ISIS controlled territories in Deir ez-Zor.
Key Figures and Their Families
Details from trusted sources showed that during the second half of August 2016, key ISIS players and their families were moved from the city of Jarabulus in Aleppo to the city of Tabqa in Raqqa governorate. In Tabqa, units from ISIS security forces hosted the members and their families for a day and then suggested moving them to Raqqa city. ISIS’ decision to get the families out of Tabqa was due to a number of mysterious assassinations of the major ISIS players in the city. On the first day of the families’ arrival in Raqqa city, ISIS security forces provided them protection and escorted them to the city of Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor. Moreover within the same month, ISIS security forces removed additional major players and their families from Raqqa city. It seemed that the additional ISIS members who were relocated from Raqqa had prior knowledge of such an order. Those members were reported to have sold their belongings (personal cars and real estate) for extremely low prices. In addition, ISIS restricted the movement of unauthorized operatives from the southern outskirts of Raqqa city. Civilians who did not reside in that area were totally banned from any entry into the southern outskirts of Raqqa city. Furthermore, it was reported that ISIS kept only trusted residents and moved the ones who were not deemed to be as such to Raqqa city.
Sources reported that during late September 2016 ISIS moved leading foreign members (not Syrians or Iraqis) to the eastern outskirts of Raqqa city. Many of those members were staying at Al-Thakanah, Raqqa city. During October 2016 over 500 fighters and their family members were resettled in Al-Thakanah. The order for that resettlement came from the leadership of ISIS security forces. All of the resettled fighters came from Mosul, Iraq. As of mid-November 2016, leading Iraqi ISIS members who had fled Mosul were settled in the southern outskirts of Raqqa city.
Recently obtained information indicates that a large number of leading foreign and local (Syrians and Iraqis) members of ISIS and their families were moved to the city of Mayadin and towns in close vicinity of it. Moreover, the movement of key ISIS members and their families were restricted to Mayadin. Those members needed to obtain permission and protection prior to any movement outside the city and towns within close vicinity.
To that effect, the city of Mayadin is clearly viewed by ISIS as safe haven. Information obtained from trusted sources has shown a trend of ISIS moving highly valued members to the city of Mayadin. The data indicates that the trend started during the second half of 2016. This makes the city of Mayadin of great significance in the fight against ISIS. If high numbers of key ISIS members are indeed operating from this place, it might be worthwhile to consider taking the fight to that city. However, the American forces and their Syrian allies are at a disadvantage there. Deir ez-Zor presents a mixed cocktail of extreme violent jihadists and Syrian regime forces, backed by the Russians and Hezbollah. It is important to note that controlling the city of Mayadin and towns in its immediate vicinity gives ISIS a financial advantage. That is to say, through the oil and gas fields in that area, ISIS may be able to generate more revenue—including selling commodities to the Syrians—to fund its ongoing operations.
Information obtained from trusted sources presents concrete evidence of the value of Mayadin city in the fight against ISIS. Recent accounts indicate ISIS financial reserves have been moved to that city. In addition, leading foreign and local ISIS members have made the city their safe haven. As mentioned earlier, such operations might be in place to reduce the potential losses in the event that American forces and their Syrians allies take the fight to ISIS’ stronghold and self-declared capital. It might also be a ploy to draw the American forces and their Syrians allies to the city of Raqqa only to carry out a major assault against them. The American forces and their Syrian allies might try to reduce civilian causalities, slowing down their reaction time in hitting potential civilian targets. ISIS has proved that the loss of human lives is inevitable in their fight and civilian lives are expendable for them. In fact, statements from their social media operatives suggest that they might be preparing the local population in the city of Raqqa for such a loss. ISIS social media operatives presented on Telegram a hadith, a saying from Mohammad, the Islamic Prophet that suggests that out of a hundred, only one righteous believer will survive to carry out Jihad.  Below are some comments on it.
Moreover, the Russians, through their forces and influence on the Syrian regime, have an advantage in taking the fight to the city of Mayadin. The current American administration has been preaching about the invaluable significance of American-Russian cooperation in the fight against ISIS. The Whitehouse, insofar, has given the Russians the benefit of the doubt on many domestic and foreign issues on the premise that this unusual trust will prevail in such a moment.
In this report we argue taking the fight to ISIS’ safe haven in the city of Mayadin could result in massive financial and insurgent losses on the part of ISIS. It might very well be a key operation that leads to the decline of ISIS in Syria. More fundamentally, if the United States cannot and or will not get the Russians’ support in taking the fight to ISIS’ safe haven then why is such cooperation needed? If not to eliminate ISIS operations in the city of Mayadin, then where and when will this cooperation come into play?
The sign of ISIS’ defeat in Syria might be people triumphantly cheering—and defiantly and jubilantly smoking cigarettes in the city of Mayadin. ISIS’ defeat might first be sensed in Mayadin barbershops where men are getting their previously imposed beards shaved. It might be also seen as the city dumps become littered with burqas. However, foremost it will be sealed by an older woman recounting the horrors of ISIS as she inhales the smoke from her long-awaited cigarette.
(*) Asaad H. Almohammad, Ph.D. is a Syrian research fellow and novelist. He completed his doctorate in Political Psychology and Marketing. His academic work addressed how psycho-political factors alter implicit and explicit emotional responses and to what levels these responses are predictive of political behavior. He has also spent several years coordinating and working on projects across ISIS-held territories. To date, drawing upon a strong network of sources on the ground in Syria, he has addressed a number of financial, operational, and militant activities of the terrorist organization. He is also interested in political branding, campaigns and propaganda, post-conflict reconciliation, and deradicalization. In his spare time Asaad closely follows political affairs, especially humanitarian crises and electoral campaigns. He is especially interested in immigration issues.
Reference for this article: Asaad H. Almohammad & Speckhard, Anne (April 3, 2017) Is ISIS Moving it’s Capital from Raqqa to Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor?ICSVE Brief Reports
 Asaad Almohammad and Anne Speckhard, “Why Taking the Tabqa Dam is Important in the Fight against ISIS and Retaking of Raqqa,” International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, Washington, DC, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/why-taking-the-tabqa-dam-is-important-in-the-fight-against-isis-and-retaking-of-raqqa/
 Speckhard, A. (April 27, 2016). ISIS revenues include sales of oil to the al-Assad regime. ICSVE Brief Reports. Retrieved from http://www.icsve.org/brief-reports/isiss-revenues-include-sales-of-oil-to-the-al-assad-regime/
 “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The Last Hour would not come before the Euphrates uncovers a mountain of gold, for which people would fight. Ninety-nine out of each one hundred would die but every man amongst them would say that perhaps he would be the one who would be saved (and thus possess this gold). (Book #041, Hadith #6918)”
The drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil wells
In the early morning of Saturday, September 14 last, at 3.31 and 3.42 a.m., the Yemeni Houthi Shiite rebels supported by the Iranian “Revolutionary Guards” – the right eye of Imam Qomeini, as they are called in Iran – launched about ten drones against the largest Saudi oil extraction area owned by ARAMCO.
Allegedly the operation was launched from Iraq. Both Abqaiq, the largest stabilization facility in the world, as well as the Buqaiq facility in the extraction field, and finally Kurais, about 60 kilometres from Abqaiq, were hit with drones.
It is the largest oil disruption ever, considering all those caused by wars or other reasons.
The Shiite attacks have immediately reduced Saudi production by about five million barrels per day, i.e. about half of the Saudi Kingdom’s daily output.
With the drone attacks, the world has lost 6% of its oil output.
The Saudi authorities have said that, as early as September 17, everything has been under control.
The first geopolitical deduction that can be made is that the current attacks, much more virulent than those already occurred last May, open a second front of Arabia’s war against Iraq, which, in any case, would severely strain the Saudi armed forces, already absorbed by the war in Yemen- albeit with meagre results.
Moreover this could open a new strategic area, in which the USA could be forced to help Saudi Arabia and Israel could be forced to later project its power not only onto its northern and southern borders, but also onto eastern Syria and Iraq – and permanently so, unlike what currently happens.
Certainly, all this regards above all Iran that, however, could not afford a hybrid and conventional war with Saudi Arabia and its traditional regional allies.
Moreover, the Shiite Houthi’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities was conceived and probably planned by the Head of the Pasdaran, Qassem Soleimani.
Hence the Houthi operation has run parallel with the action directly organized by the Pasdaran on September 15 last, i.e. the seizure of a ship – the name of which is still unknown -carrying a fuel cargo of over 250,000 litres.
All this happened in the Strait of Hormuz, near the island of Tunb, in Iranian waters.
A full option strategy to show Iran’s new regional strategic status.
According to Iranian sources, the rationale underlying the naval operation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards concerns the substantial oil smuggling to and fro the United Arab Emirates.
Tout se tient.
Iran, on the one hand, while assessing the war burden for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, wants to open other fronts of the conflict, thus also extending Israel’s defence chain. Hence Iran pursues the overstretch of its traditional opponents.
Another possible assessment of the drone operation carried out by the Houthis and Iran is that it could be an Iranian response to the actions undertaken by French President Macron who has recently tried to organize a side meeting, at the UN General Assembly, between US President Trump and Iranian President Rouhani.
Ali Khamenei, the Rahbar and, hence, Iran’s Supreme Leader, was, however, clearly opposed to a new Iran-US diplomatic relationship, and his Revolutionary Guards have immediately understood the issue.
Moreover, the very recent drone attacks on the two Saudi facilities are not even the first and only ones. As mentioned above, on May 15 last, two Saudi pumping stations – placed on the East-West pipeline that reaches up to the Yanbu oil terminal were attacked with two drones probably launched from Iraq.
Hence Iran has an efficient and stable network in Iraq to launch attacks on the Saudi territory and its surrounding areas, not necessarily with drones only.
With its satellite photos, Israel has shown that the Al Quds Force, the elite of the Pasdaran, is building an Iranian military station in Albukamal, on the Syrian-Iraqi border-and probably these operations indicate that the base is already finished.
It is supposedly a base for at least 3,500 soldiers, with means that should be used above all for the “hybrid war”, but not only for it.
Once again Israel has become a target for Iran, from the new bases in Northern Iraq. The United States, however, does not want to be entangled and bogged down into a new “long war” in the Middle East, even though it will help Saudi Arabia (and, obviously, Israel) from afar, while Saudi Arabia has explicitly stated that the Iranian drones are very hard to track.
At economic level, however, the Saudi oil crisis has the same magnitude as the oil crisis following the Yom Kippur war.
This crisis, however, is really such only because Saudi Arabia has proved to be fragile, not only in terms of mere oil quantity, which has been immediately reintroduced into the daily balance, using the Saudi huge reserves.
Nevertheless they will run short and nobody really knows what the reserves of the Saudi wells are, which are reportedly still very large. However, there are those who have doubts in this regard, since it is the best kept Saudi State secret.
This has been the worst attack ever on the “oil bank”, as analysts call the Saudi Kingdom.
Hence the attack is a real game change rand it is currently hard to predict all its effects, even for technical experts and strategic analysts.
It much depends on Mohammed bin Salman’s moves, as well as on the US real engagement in the region, and finally on Israel’s future military policy.
According to some organizations that study oil markets, the Iranian and Houthi operation is at least as severe as the invasion of Kuwait – which also “sucked” Iraqi oil- or as the 1979 Iranian Shiite revolution itself.
President Trump has already authorized the release of US strategic reserves (SPR), where necessary, “to keep the markets well supplied”.
As early as September 16, however, Saudi ARAMCO has been expected to recover at least a third of its production, with a maximum of two or three million barrels of Saudi oil that will go back to the markets within two-five days, while additional 2.7 million barrels will arrive on the market later, considering the nature and specificity of the Abqaiq facility.
It is a huge facility located in a Saudi area where the presence of Shiite Islam is far from negligible, i.e. about 15-20%, mainly in the eastern zones and among the workers operating in the wells and facilities.
This is another political sign-halfway between religion and class struggle – not to be neglected.
When the markets opened, on the Monday following the attacks, the oil barrel price increased by 20%, with a peak of 71.6 USD per barrel.
However, what are the Iranian assets in the current war launched against the great Wahhabi and Sunni power, namely Saudi Arabia – a war which is a proxy one only from a formal viewpoint?
They are manifold and remarkable.
There are over 45 Iranian military airports. The maritime positions currently held by the Revolutionary Guards are over 16, all located on the coasts and islands of the Persian Gulf.
The missile stations in Iran and Iraq have several carriers capable of reaching a range of 2,500 kilometres.
Iran’s area denial and access denial capabilities are much greater than those of any country in the region.
Iran has a significant submarine fleet, both in the Persian Gulf and in the Indian Ocean, as well as a large fleet of very fast motorboats and patrol boats.
At military level, Iran is not afraid of its obvious tactical superiority nor of the first or second-level reactions of its opponents.
Cyberattacks are another Iranian “excellence” while, only recently, Saudi ARAMCO has been updated in terms of protection from cyberattacks- albeit we are still at less relevant levels than Iran’s.
It is no by mere coincidence that the Saudi oil company has already suffered cyberattacks, with the Shamoon virus in 2018. Moreover, due to their geographical location, also the Saudi ports and infrastructure are scarcely protected from missile or air attacks.
But also from sea bombings, especially on the ports of Ras Tanura and Ras Juaymah, located in the Persian Gulf, and of Yanbu, in the Red Sea, which are hard to protect.
So far, however, the Saudi critical infrastructure has been defended only from Qaedist attacks, not from a real military operation, possibly with the Houthi conventional or hybrid war protection.
Not to mention the desalination plants, which process 70% of all the drinking water distributed in Saudi homes, in addition to electricity grids, which are based on the production of energy using over two thirds of the abundant oil supplies. They are surely targets of the drone attacks, as well as cyberattacks or conventional operations.
Another factor not to be neglected regards one of the mainstays of Mohammed bin Salman’ strategy, namely the sale of Saudi ARAMCO.
Clearly the attacks significantly reduce the stock market value of the company, and it just so happened that, in the last days before the attack of last Saturday, the sale procedure had recorded a strong acceleration.
Mohammed bin Salman has set the cost of the ARAMCO operation at 2 trillion dollars.
Hence, considering the infrastructure weakness shown by Saudi Arabia, it will be very unlikely for investors to run to buy the company and carry out transactions on the Stock Exchange.
It is also easy to understand that Iran’s and its proxies’ operation against Saudi Arabia is such as to place Iran in a vantage position in a future new negotiation on the nuclear issue.
It should be recalled that the war in Yemen started in 2015 when Saudi Arabia entered that country to free some areas, including the capital Sana’a, from the insurgents.
Later Saudi Arabia established a friendly government, led by Abu Mansur Hadi.
Saudi Arabia, however, was not able to hold its positions and reach its strategic objectives.
In fact, holding Yemen means to completely control the Persian Gulf and the areas pertaining to it.
Saudi Arabia has kept only Aden and Al Mokha, as well as few other areas, while the border between Arabia and Yemen is still a land of conflict and clashes, in a tribal zone, on the Saudi side of the border line, which has always been scarcely favourable to the Al Saud family and to the Wahabi tradition of Islam.
Nevertheless, not the whole Ansar Allah, the Houthi Shiite movement, is strictly dependent on Iran.
Hence the war in Yemen is a huge cost for Saudi Arabia, while it is negligible for Iran.
We should also consider the support provided to the rebels in the South by Abu Dhabi, the other Emirates and Oman, a country that has always had its own specific policy vis-à-vis Iran.
It should also be recalled that Saudi Arabia was directly hit by drones on December 4, 2017.
However, only a part of the Yemeni tribes are currently loyal to Hadi’s central government and they have often had to enter the Saudi territory, while the other tribes, including the Sunni ones, have supported the tribal-national autonomy proposed by the Houthis.
As already mentioned above, however, ultimately not even Iran will be able to control Ansar Allah completely.
Other effects of the oil crisis will be seen in India, whose economic take-off relies solely on Middle East oil, with 18% of its annual consumption resulting from Saudi oil alone.
Other Asian countries shall change their main supplier, but also the United States – despite its shale oil production -has so far imported 400,000 barrels per day in 2019 alone.
The situation is not bad at all for Russia which, for years, has been setting oil prices similar to OPEC’s. The same holds true for Kuwait and the Emirates, but the possible expansion of production could currently reach a million barrels per day, which are not enough to cover the Saudi shortfall.
Reverting to Yemen, it should also be recalled that the local war is the result of the US-sponsored “Arab spring”.
Hence, it is however unlikely that the attacks on oil wells and facilities (and we should consider that they are not far from the Yemeni border) provide the opportunity for a combined Saudi, US and Israeli attack on Iranian military positions in Iraq or in the Persian Gulf.
From a disadvantaged position, Iran has managed to create its own strategic level playing field with regional and international players, which is the real new fact of the drone attack on the Saudi oil facilities that took place last Saturday.
Iran: New details of shooting Global Hawk disclosed
Deputy of Operations of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization Amir Khoshghalb, in an interview with Mehr news agency, released the details of downing US Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone by IRGC.
“We were precisely observing the US drone’s activity even from the beginning moments of its flight,” he said, “We knew its route and it was under full supervision of Iran Defense Organization.”
“The drone was moving towards Iran, breaching international regulations i.e. taking that route it was making a threat to Iran,” the Iranian official said.
“It had even turned off its identification system,” he added.
“We needed to take a tactical measure, accordingly,” he said.
“Our tactical measure has various aspects; first we issued a radio warning,” Khshghalb described, “In some cases, the warning is stronger and will lead into a strong tactical measure such as shooting.”
“On its route, which was longer than three hours, the drone, which was under our full surveillance, was seeking something,” he reiterated.
“May be we could take initial measures much earlier but we let the drone do its job and end its route,” he said, “We repeatedly issued warnings when the drone was on its way moving towards us asking it to act upon international regulations but it ignored all of them.”
On June 20, In June, Iran’s IRGC downed a US Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone after it had violated Iranian airspace. Despite the US claims that the drone had been flying over international waters, Iran said it had retrieved sections of the drone in its own territorial waters where it was shot down.
The intruding drone was shot by Iran’s homegrown air defense missile system “Khordad-3rd”.
US President Donald Trump said afterward that he aborted a military strike to retaliate against Iran’s downing of the US drone because it could have killed 150 people, and signaled he was open to talks with Tehran.
Chief of General Staff of Iranian Armed Force, Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, said on Wednesday that the US was on the verge of attacking Iran but called off the plans after Iran downed the intruding drone.
“The US was to take a practical measure [military strike] against us but in the name of a high number of probable victims, it overturned the decision,” he said, adding, “The main reason, however, was Iran’s deterrence power.”
These are the result of the Iranian thought and the commands of the Revolution Leader, he said, noting that despite all problems, Iran enjoys great capabilities in the defense sector and the Iranian nation will not let eruption of another war.
From our partner MNA
Rethinking Cyber warfare: Strategic Implications for United States and China
“Every age had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.”Carl von Clausewitz
Internet has transformed the front lines of war. Modern conflicts are now waged online in cyberspace. World Wide Web (WWW) has eradicated all physical borders and defences, without which weak and powerful states are all prone to attacks. Concurring to this pretext, a number of countries have formally recognized cyber as the new domain of warfare in their strategy papers and documents. United States and China are the master players in this realm having military units active, with sophisticated state of art capabilities dedicated to cyber strikes. The consequences are dire, for the sole superpower, and for the rising economic giant which is projected to take over the former by 2025.
The dynamic nature of cyber warfare has caused frustration in the inner circles of Washington and Beijing. Both the public and the private sector have been targeted. The former to get hands on state secrets and latter for intellectual property rights. According to an estimate by US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), it has cost the American economy $338 billion, an amount closer to the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Pakistan. China on the other hand leads the Asia-Pacific region in cyber losses which incurs the country an annual estimated loss of $60 billion.
Next Generation Warfare
There is a surge seen in cyber attacks against the US. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Security Agency (NSA) at multiple times have came under attack. This is followed by Silicon Valley tech giants, such as Netflix, Twitter and Spotify who on numerous occasions have been taken down by cyber attackers. It is very difficult to trace the identity and origin of the attack, as various techniques like changing Internet Protocol (IP) cannot only hide identity of attacker but misattribute it to other nations. Cyber security analysts working in their private capacity have collected evidence that seems indicate China as the alleged perpetrator of recent waves of cyber-attacks.
However, cyber pundits have openly stated that they cannot guarantee with a hundred percent accuracy that the evidence collected in wake of cyber-attacks is authentic and not planted by perpetrators to seem to look genuine. In cyberspace. An attack could be from anywhere around the globe. It could be from friends and foes alike, anyone can attack and make it look like an attack came from China or other adversary. In the past, cyberattackers from France bypassed into secured servers stealing classified information relating to American products and designs. Added to that, it is an expensive and difficult task to analyze these attacks. To know that you have been attacked or infiltrated is itself a big achievement. Considering that, it take days or even months to find that your security has been compromised. It took seven months for security analyst to find the Stuxnet virus that was hiding itself into a legitimate Siemens software responsible for controlling centrifuges at nuclear power plants around the world. According to an estimate starting rates for analyzing and identifying cyber attacks start from $650 dollars per hour, which often end up towards an uncertain conclusions.
Philippe Goldstein author of Babel Zero argues that attacking against a wrong adversary would be catastrophic. A troublesome scenario, where attacks in cyberspace can be met with conventional and even nuclear culminating a “Cyber Armageddon”. It is this reason that states have taken cyber warfare seriously and synonymous to national security. China has incorporated cyber command structure within its armed forces, under the“Three Warfare strategy.”
Cybersecurity analysts have called minuet “cyber bullets” as ‘Cyber weapons of Mass Destruction.’ All one needs is ‘bad timings, bad decision making and some bad luck!’ and you can end up having a World War III which was 24/7 nightmare of Cold War veterans. The world is not immune from such attacks. Anyone having an access to any computing device, from iPods to digital smart watches, having right technical skills can cause a national security crisis. This is well depicted in John Badham’s film, WarGames where a young hacker unknowingly sets a US military supercomputer to launch nuclear weapons on the former Soviet Union. Few years back, an attack on FBI’s website resulted in leaking of classified data caused alarm bells in Washington. Later it was found out the perpetrator was a 15 year old school boy from Glasgow, Scotland.
The way forward for states remains cumbersome in the absence of legal framework from the United Nations (UN). Further complications arise when the attack is orchestrated by a non-state actor or private individual from a particular state. Recent debates among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members have arisen in the wake of alleged Russian sponsored cyber activities against Europe and America whether the collective defence measures under Article 5 would apply to a cyber-attack.
Cyber security is a relatively new introduction in war studies. The US Department of Defence (DOD) recognized cyber warfare, as the fifth domain of warfare following land, sea, air and outer space. There are around 30 countries that have dedicated cyber military units, whereas more than 140 countries have or are in developing stages to acquire cyber weapons. Cyber is the means by which countries irrespective of their financial standing can acquire to further states objectives. US and China are considered advanced states in cyber realm, having cyber military technology and capabilities that are rarely matched by other contenders. Therefore, studying their way of cyber dealings, strategies and policy making would allow other countries such as Pakistan to better able to understand the dynamics and nature of this new type of warfare. India has tasked the Defence Cyber Agency (DCA), presently headed by a two-star Admiral which reports directly to Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCSC). DCA is presently undertaking to prepare a Cyber warfare doctrine for India. The repercussions of the developments are critical for Pakistan, which require a comprehensive safety and information guideline to be prepared for the masses.
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