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From a dam in New York to the cyberattacks on Aramco

Threatening action against regimes involved in cyberattacks builds deterrence against similar attacks in the future

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

If engineers at a dam in New York hadn’t disconnected water gates from its electronic control center for maintenance work, a major disaster would have happened. On that day, hackers said to be belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard managed to hack the dam’s electronic control center in order to unlock its gates and drown the area. A court – which heard this case and other cyberattacks targeting financial institutions – revealed dangerous plots to attack vital installations in the country.

Unfortunately, only the direct perpetrators were made accused in these cases and no charges were framed against the Iranian regime, which should have been held responsible for the attacks. Threatening action against regimes involved in cyberattacks, whether it is the Iranian or any other regime, builds deterrence against similar attacks in the future.

However this wasn’t the only case of its kind. Other parts of the world have also come under similar attacks. The most dangerous was a similar group hacking the system of Saudi Aramco, which produces and exports the biggest quantity of oil in the world. Hackers tried to gain control of around 35,000 computers which run the system. However the company quickly suspended most of its operations and regained control over the systems.

Cyberattacks are regarded as aggression by one country against another although it has not been categorized as such by international organizations such as the United Nations - though many agree that it is tantamount to dangerous crimes. American authorities have considered major cyberattacks as terrorist operations and the US federal grand jury accused the seven Iranian hackers of terrorism, the maximum charge which can be made against them.

However, only the perpetrators stand charged and not those standing behind them. The hackers’ cells usually work within a system linked to the Iranian security institution and it has several activities aimed at targeting vital institutions, like those related to oil, power, water and aviation, and even nuclear facilities, in countries, such as the US, which Iran consider hostile.

Act of sabotage

Targeting civil facilities to sabotage them and harm civilians are acts of terrorism, prohibited internationally even in times of war. One of the cell members, Hamid Firoozi, attained information about water levels and managed to open the gates. If they were not manually deactivated the area overlooking the dam could have been drowned. If the US prosecution had considered those inside Iran responsible for these cyberattacks, and not just the seven individuals, a mechanism would have evolved to fight cyber terrorism.

If the US prosecution had considered those inside Iran responsible for these cyber attacks, and not just the seven individuals, a mechanism would have evolved to fight cyber terrorism

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

No information has been revealed about the Aramco incident, which took place in 2012. The damage was limited because the hackers targeted the company’s administrative system and not the computers tied to oil production. Their aim was to hit Saudi Arabia’s oil production and sabotage the company’s facilities. The bigger aim was to hamper the Saudi economy.

Two years ago, a report was released on organized cyberattacks being carried out by groups linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. These attacks targeted facilities in 16 countries, including American military zones. All these are terrorist activities planned by countries and not by independent terror cells or gangs. They should be categorized as per international law and their activities should be declared prohibited.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Mar. 27, 2016.
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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.