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“Defence is the New Offence”: A Taiwanese Perspective for Cyberspace & Takeaways for India

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The recent Taiwan visit by US Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi brought the increasing cyber threats to national security to light again. According to Taipei Times, systems like electronic bulletin boards at railway stations and convenience stores were hacked, and government websites were attacked and brought down, even before Pelosi arrived on the island nation.

It was reported that television screens behind cashiers in some of the 7-Eleven convenience stores—a US-based multinational retail company—were compromised to display statements like “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!”. In another instance, an electronic board at the Sinzuoying railway station showed a message in simplified Chinese which translated into “The visit of the old witch to Taiwan is a serious challenge to the core of the country. Those who actively welcome it will eventually be judged by people, the blood ties of the same race will continue to be separated, great China will eventually be unified”.

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, highlighted that before and after the visit, Taiwan observed 23 times higher cyberattacks than the previous daily record. However, without directly blaming any state or non-state actor for the attacks, Taipei underlined that the attacks originated from addresses in China and Russia.   

At the recently concluded DEFCON—a US-based annual hacker convention—the White House National Cyber Director, Chris Inglis, remarked that “the way forward for cybersecurity is defence, defined roles and responsibilities, and investing in resilience and robustness”. He stressed the ‘three-wave of attacks’ observed in recent years. The three waves focus on –

  1. Holding data and systems at risk
  2. Keeping the data and systems at risk but abstracting it into holding critical functions at risk
  3. Attack on confidence

He asserted that while there is a lack of imagination and anticipation of future attacks, there is also a need for clarity on roles and responsibilities, strengthening supply chains, and focus on collective defence. According to him, “the attackers seek to defeat one, and in the process, they are able to defeat all.”

From this perspective, it is essential to understand the Taiwanese scenario where high risks and high stakes co-exist in cyberspace. The asymmetry makes developing cyber defence capabilities an imperative without the necessary means to back cyber offensive capabilities with ground capabilities, especially against adversaries like China. Further, Taiwan’s experience can be utilised by countries like India facing similar threats to increasing cyber espionage activities, disinformation campaigns, and cyber threats to critical infrastructure.

Taiwan’s cyber threat profile

Today, Taiwan is arguably the most critical node in the global high-tech manufacturing and supply chains. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) is the single largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world, with over 90 per cent market share and exclusive capabilities in developing the most sophisticated and valuable computer chips. Its importance can be gauged from the fact that China spends more on importing semiconductors than any other commodity or product. Thus, the Taiwanese semiconductor industry is of enormous significance to developing technical capabilities in increasingly crucial national security domains like quantum computing and Artificial intelligence.

Beyond its significance for global supply chains, Taiwan is of utmost strategic importance from geopolitical, economic, military, and humanitarian perspectives. For China, Taiwan is the entrance into the South China sea. For the US, Taiwan is “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”.

According to Chien Hung-Wei, head of Taiwan’s Department of Cybersecurity, in the increasingly digitised Taiwanese ecosystem where critical infrastructure like water, electricity, and gas are digitally controlled, cyberattacks can be catastrophic for the island nation. In his remarks in the parliament last year, he highlighted that Taiwan’s government networks face “five million attacks and scans a day”. While Taipei has restrained from attributing specific cyberattacks to the Chinese government or agencies, it accuses China of using disinformation campaigns, military intimidation, and cyberattacks to erode Taiwanese society’s trust in their government.

It has been regularly stressed that Taiwanese government agencies face an acute cybersecurity personnel shortage at both local and central levels. While the Executive Yuan (the executive branch of the government) aims to cultivate 350 cybersecurity experts by 2024, considering Taiwan’s rapidly evolving threat profile in cyberspace, this is expected to remain highly inadequate. As many cybersecurity vulnerabilities like unpatched systems and unmonitored networks result from the shortage of personnel, cultivating skilled personnel remains a critical factor in countering adversarial threats in cyberspace.

To develop a robust cybersecurity environment, Taiwan established the Cyber Security Management Act in 2019, which mandates firms to define their cybersecurity defences, incident response strategies, and recovery plans in detail while training cybersecurity professionals. Through cybersecurity exercises and discussions, Taipei is also working with other countries to develop a skilled cyber workforce.

Quad and Taiwan

Several voices have been calling to reduce dependence on Chinese products in Taiwan. The attacks during Pelosi’s visit compromised electronic equipment made in China, so the issue of possible backdoors and trojan malware in Chinese software and hardware has resurfaced. As Taiwan looks to reduce this dependence, a similar aim is now being pursued by the Quad partners – India, the US, Australia, and Japan. While focusing on developing collective resilience in cyberspace, the four partners are now looking to create robust global supply chains, reducing dependence on China.

An example of Quad’s efforts can be seen in the rare earth minerals domain, where the Chinese monopoly is now being challenged through cooperation and coordination among the Quad partners. In an unfolding development, India is looking to establish itself as a semiconductor hub, a move that will bring the South Asian nation closer to Taiwan, irking Beijing in the process.

Similar to Taiwan, India faces increasing cyber threats from China. This has been visible in several reports highlighting persistent cyber espionage campaigns on India’s critical infrastructure like power grids and disinformation campaigns in synchronised attempts with Pakistan. These campaigns have been aimed to sow doubts in the Indian society over Indian governance and military capabilities. As Chris Inglis defines it, this marks the third wave of cyberattacks.

Similar to an exponential increase in cyberattacks faced by Taiwan during the Pelosi visit, India has faced such a phenomenon during the Doklam standoff in 2017 and the Galwan valley clashes in 2020. Similar to Taiwan, New Delhi has also not attributed these attacks directly to Beijing or its agencies.  This remains in stark contrast to Quad partners like the US or Australia, who have sought to utilise public attribution, collective public attribution, and intelligence-sharing frameworks like the Five Eyes Alliance to respond to Chinese cyber campaigns by explicitly bringing them to light.

All the Quad partners extensively cooperate with Taiwan on economic and people-to-people fronts.  It has been pointed out in recent years that both India and Taiwan lack cyber defence capabilities. Given the significance of the countries for the Indo-Pacific construct, which is at the core of the Quad partnership, there remains both the scope and necessity for greater cooperation between Taiwan, India, and the Quad partners in the cyber domain. To build collective cyber resilience and defence, robust cyber partnerships are now vital.

(Views are personal)

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Intelligence

Who Masterminded the Suicide Attack on Hazara Students’ Educational Center Kaj in Kabul?

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Image source: thestar.com

According to explicit intelligence information, last Friday, September 30, 2022, a suicide attack on Hazara students in an educational center called (Kaj) in the western part of Kabul was carried out by the Ministry of Education and the so-called ministry of Evil Forbidden of the Taliban in coordination with the leadership of Kandahar. Apparently, Afghans’ feelings were torn apart by the news of the Taliban’s former Minister of Education Maulvi Noorullah Munir that he had signposted in Uruzgan Province, followed by the Minister of the Evil Forbidden of the Taliban, Sheikh Muhammad Khalid Hanafi, claimed that letting women educated is opposed to Sharia law.

After his comments, he was rigorously criticized by the internal and external media, women activists, youth, the UN and the international community. Which is why the masterminds contacted the GDI of the Taliban’s intelligence agency followed by the meeting between the Akhundzada Taliban and Sheikhs of the South West Zone, while giving them permission and sharia fatwa/decree to suicide attacks on women’s schools and all institutions that encourage women to come out of their homes across Afghanistan.  In such manner they wanted to be free of international denunciation, since, the responsibility of such attacks is always claimed by the ISIS group in order to gain influence in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban are in contact with the ISIS group in the east of Afghanistan, so that the two groups are coordinating in such assaults to happen.

Hence, the Taliban by applying this method want to upsurge the risk and threat towards the female strata of the Afghan community getting them scared, in order to prevent them to go to schools.    Learning that, the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban government are forced to take such measures, since in the absence of such attacks, women will not stop studying, especially non-Pashtun Geno.      If girls go to school and the Taliban leaders do not stop them, then the low-ranking members and fighters of the Taliban will start rebelling against their own leaders.

As a result, there will be more internal strife and the group will become weak and eventually disappear, which is not in the interest west, who wants to employ the Taliban government and other non-state international armed groups in Afghanistan as an unofficial private militia against China and Russia. Furthermore, the Taliban’s foreign supporters are also forcing the ISIS group to take responsibility for some of the current and potential crimes committed by the Taliban, while paving the way for the Taliban to achieve their goal, subsequently, the external pressures will be  reduced and internal differences and resentment of low-ranking fighters will be avoided.

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Intelligence

Ethnic War a Newfangled Pakistani Forward-policy for Afghanistan

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistan’s ISI is trying to start ethnic and maneuvering war again in Afghanistan, of which distinct objective is to refurbish the age-old enmity between the Achakzai and Noorzai tribes in the southwest zone. Besides, they want to start an ethnic war among Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns across Afghanistan, and between the northern and southern directions, thus, the prominent leaders of the Taliban, who are led by the ISI, have been entrusted with the task. As in the east and north of Afghanistan, Pashtun Taliban militants are oppressing other Non-Pashtuns, raiding their homes; however, no high-ranking Pashtun Taliban officials are preventing them because the ISI network leads this strategy. In order to revamp a civil war in Afghanistan, score of influential figures have been summoned by the Pakistani military establishment. 

The latest examples are as follows: Two days ago, the Pashtun Taliban killed the former police chief and an influential tribal leader in Mandol district of Nuristan province, which caused many emotions against Pashtuns especially about southwest zone of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in order to afresh the years of hostility between the Noorzai and Achakzi tribes in the southwestern region of Afghanistan, the ISI network raised the issue of a mass grave by several leading Taliban militants, especially by the current governor of Kandahar province and Noorzai tribe leading leader, Haji Mohammad Yousef Wafa.

Qari Aslam Noorzai call for by Pak security forces

At a time when the former leader of the Noorzai tribe, the leading smuggler of drugs and heavy weapons in Central and South Asia, and the financial supporter of the first Taliban regime, Haji Bashar Noorzai was released from the US prison in Guantánamo. The Noorzai tribe once again became twice as strong and dominant in Afghanistan, especially in the southwest zone.  Resulting threats towards the Achakzai people, on the other hand, ISI has started rapid efforts to recommence the years of enmity between these two tribes.

Hajee Feyzullah Khan Noorzai meets Pak military Intelligence

Recently, Pakistan’s intelligence network ISI, with the help of some leading social media and high-ranking Taliban officials, has kept the issue of finding a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan broiling, namely by inducing  the blame-game. Meanwhile, local tribal leaders and residents of Spin Boldak district claim that such a grave is the grave of those who were taken out of their homes by the Taliban after August 15.  Since, they were connected to Achakzai tribe and on the other hand, they served in the security departments of the overthrown Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that is why the Taliban night raided their houses, and massively killed them.

Moreover, mass murdering Hazaras at their educational institutions via suicide bombing and meantime blowing up the worship places of Sufi-Muslims, who preach the non-violent form of Islam, while calling for De-weaponization and De-politicization of Islam.

Consequently, by applying such a forward-policy, Pakistan will achieve its fancied strategic-depth in Afghanistan, while subjugating the Afghan Nation.

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Pakistani Intelligence Agencies ignite Tribal Conflicts in Pak-Afghan Region

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According to the intelligence information, Pakistani intelligence community supported by some international rings want to once again spread dispute and disharmony among the tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan; subsequently the centuries-old evils and wars between the tribes will once more take a new color and become fresh. Recently, rumors of the discovery of a mass grave in Kandahar province in the southwestern zone of Afghanistan are spreading; the blame for this mass murder falls on the former police chief of Kandahar province and the former leader of the Achagzai tribe, General Abdul Razaq Achagzai.  In order to afresh raising the reaction of the Norzi tribe against the Ackzai and anew the evil and war between these two tribes. Even though the current governing body of Afghanistan is completely under the control of the Noorzi tribe, because most of the high-ranking leaders of the Taliban, including the leader of the Taliban, Sheikh Haibatullah, are related to the Noorzi tribe, so there is a greater threat posed to the Achakzi tribe.

Even now, in spite of such menaces, more than 6000 Achakzi families live in Kandahar province, whose members served in the security departments under the command of General Abdul Razaq Achakzi, a staunch opponent of the Taliban.  Currently, in such a tense situation that the Taliban administration has control over Afghanistan and the head of this administration is connected to the Nurzi tribe, the harsh criticism of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai’s mass killings is logical, which can cause international and internal outcries.  As a result, the major victims will be the youths and leading tribal leaders of the Achakzai tribe.

By the advent of Taliban on August 15, 2021, in the first four months, more than 600 youths and tribal leaders from the Achakzi tribe were killed in the southwest zone of Afghanistan, while applying night operations or raids by the Taliban. The most famous case happened to the family of Haji Fida Mohammad Achakzai in Spin Boldak district. Haji Fida Muhammad Achakzai, known as Haji Fida Aka, is a leading leader of the Achakza tribe of Spin Boldak district and had close relations with the family of General Abdul Razaq Achakzai.

 When Kandahar province fell to the Taliban before August 15, the two young sons of him were killed by the Taliban on the first night, unfortunately none of the Taliban officials took any action to prevent the tragedy. Nevertheless, this time, there is a plan going on at the international level to renew the age-old differences between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes, which the international media warmly supports.  If this time the internal differences and conflicts between the Achakzai and Norzai tribes in Afghanistan get sturdier, then it will have damaging effects not only in Afghanistan, but also, serious negative measures will be taken against the Norzai under the leadership of Mahmoud Khan Achakzai, the head of the Achakzai tribe, in the Pakhtunkhwa provinces of Pakistan.

In the meantime, the decision of the Pakistani government to hand over the Pashtun areas in Pakhtunkhwa provinces to the Taliban was approved and supported by the Nurzi tribe, conversely, this action of the Pakistani government was strongly condemned by Mahmoud Khan Achakzai and PTM leader Manzoor Pashtun.

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